Best Chase Runs (Statistically Speaking), Nos. 5-1
5. CARL EDWARDS, 2008
The best: 2008 was Edwards’s most complete season. He won nine races, three in the Chase — Atlanta, Texas and Homestead — and split his production with a 4.077 PEER in the first 26 and 5.900 PEER in the final 10. In the last four races, he gained a total of 129 points on eventual champion Johnson, losing out on the championship by 69 points for his first of two career runner-up finishes.
The worst: He suffered back-to-back hits at Talladega (finished 29th) and Charlotte (finished 33rd) which dug him in that aforementioned 129-point hole. Prior to Talladega, he stood 10 points behind Johnson. Had one of those races gone swimmingly, he might already be sporting a championship ring.
The rest: 2008, and later 2011, proved that Edwards can compete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at a high, high level. The main issue in Edwards’s quest for a championship has been equipment reliability from season to season. In 2009 Edwards followed up the dynamite ’08 campaign with a winless year that resulted in an 11th-place Chase finish.
4. JIMMIE JOHNSON, 2008
The best: This particular Chase provided Johnson’s third straight championship. He fended off an upstart Carl Edwards with a 5.7 average (compared to the 8.0 of Edwards), thanks in part to three of his seven wins that year coming in the Chase (Kansas, Martinsville and Phoenix). In addition to the wins, he also had two second-place runs (New Hampshire and Atlanta).
The worst: Johnson almost left the window open for Edwards, who won three of the last four races. A 15th-place finish never looked more suspect than when the No. 48 team did it twice in three races, ending the Chase in a whimper, but still by a 69-point margin.
The rest: The 6.000 PEER served as the second best production rating by Johnson in his five years as champion. From a competitive standpoint, this may have been the most difficult Chase to win as five drivers/teams earned average finishes of 9.9 or lower, the most with a sub-10 average in Chase history.
3. JIMMIE JOHNSON, 2007
The best: Jeff Gordon famously helped Rick Hendrick spearhead a fourth race team in the Hendrick Motorsports stable in 2002. The handpicked driver was Jimmie Johnson, who was a championship contender out of the gate and eventually won the title for the first time in 2006. Gordon and Johnson eventually faced off against each other in a heated title battle during the 2007 Chase. The result? The student became the teacher. Johnson registered a tidy 6.500 PEER after winning four times — the wins came in four consecutive starts, starting at Martinsville and ending at Phoenix — in the 10-race playoff, double the amount Gordon amassed.
The worst: Johnson almost slipped too much when he led 95 laps at Charlotte but only scored a 14th-place finish. Gordon won there and went into the final five races with a 68-point lead. But that was just the foreplay; Johnson began his four-win tear the very next week.
The rest: Gordon and the No. 24 team have not been the same since Johnson and the No. 48 team conquered them during this Chase. Yes, Johnson’s first championship came in 2006, but this might actually have been the moment that No. 48 team became the big dog in its own yard within Hendrick.
2. JIMMIE JOHNSON, 2009
The best: Johnson won four races at four differently shaped tracks — Dover, Fontana, Charlotte and Phoenix — and earned five top-10 finishes in the remaining six races, winning in a 141-point rout in a rather weak Chase year. His biggest competition was Mark Martin, whose 3.800 PEER he nearly doubled. Little competition or not, Johnson’s production rating would have sufficed in just about every other Chase season.
The worst: He settled for a 38th-place finish at Texas after getting Hornished on the race’s third lap. The lack of strength in this Chase aided him though; the No. 48 team left Texas with a 73-point lead, a robust margin with two races to go and one he almost doubled by the time the checkered flag dropped at Homestead.
The rest: This was Johnson’s fourth championship, but, in comparison to his others, it was his most impressive showing. It lacked the drama that 2007 provided, but the effort earned by the business-like approach from both driver and team stands out on the spreadsheet.
1. TONY STEWART, 2011
The best: Unequivocally the greatest performance in the first eight years of the Chase belongs to Stewart who was utter garbage during the first 26 races (he earned a replacement-level 0.981 PEER), so bad that he made crew chief Darian Grubb the scapegoat, albeit secretly, before the Chase began. Then he won the first two races of the Chase at Chicago and New Hampshire and closed with finishes of first, first, third and first in the final four races. The finale at Homestead was sensational; Stewart and Carl Edwards appeared to be the only two cars on the track in the closing laps, in which Stewart sealed with a win. A victory was the only way Stewart would tie Edwards, who finished second in that race, to earn the win via draw-breaker (total wins, in this case: Stewart’s five to Edwards’s one). The narrative: it was a sporting performance for the ages by one of auto racing’s greats. The analytical: Stewart increased his production by six — SIX! — whole points from the regular season.
The worst: Stewart and his No. 14 Stewart-Haas team whiffed on the setup for Dover, finishing 25th. This could have been the beginning of the end for his title hopes (he then finished 15th at Kansas), but credit getting through Talladega unscathed and the Martinsville win for revitalizing their hopes.
The rest: Perhaps Stewart wins another title before he retires and walks directly into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, but the odds of him duplicating this all-time great performance are slim. There is room for this Chase run to be topped in terms of wins and production rating, but the way he did it — poor regular season, fast start, slow middle, firework finale of a finish — might never be emulated.
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