Nobody saw Jimmie Johnson's engine failure coming with six laps to go in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Instead of extending his points lead over Greg Biffle, Johnson fell to fourth in the standings at a time when many thought him invincible. Biffle inherited the victory and the points lead.
In other words, what you think you know about the rest of this Sprint Cup season might be all wrong.
There's plenty of unpredictability left in the final 13 races on the schedule, from the three events before the Chase to the 10 events that make it up. Today, we'll be checking off the five tracks that offer the greatest chances for surprise finishes, along with an example of an exciting race from the Chase era (2004-present).
Bristol may not be the force that it once was thanks to numerous repaving jobs, but its night race remains one of the marquee events on the Sprint Cup schedule. Matt Kenseth won in 2005 and 2006, Carl Edwards came home on top in 2007 and 2008 and Kyle Busch took the checkers in 2009 and 2010, meaning defending race winner Brad Keselowski should like his chances come Saturday night.
Points leader Kyle Busch led a dominant 415 of 500 laps, but polesitter Carl Edwards muscled his way back into the lead after the race's final restart to steal the victory. Busch and Edwards got into a post-race dust-up with their cars, which ended with Edwards spinning Busch and the crowd on its feet cheering.
Richmond hosts the final race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup cutoff, and that usually means a lot of exciting racing between the drivers on the edge of a playoff berth. This year, that means that Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch could be four drivers whose entire season could hinge on their Richmond outcome.
Jeremy Mayfield was 14th in points coming into the final race before the inaugural Chase, 55 points out of 10th place and a playoff berth. Starting seventh, he fought his way to the lead for 151 laps, making the winning pass on Kurt Busch with eight laps to go. That was good enough to rocket him to ninth in points and a Chase berth.
As an early Chase race, "The Monster Mile" is often a pivotal event that separates the championship contenders from the pretenders. Greg Biffle used a Dover victory to help charge to a third place finish in points in 2008 while Jimmie Johnson took wins at the track in both 2009 and 2010, on the way to his fourth and fifth championships. Meanwhile, not once since 2004 has either Dover winner, over the course of a season, missed that season's Chase.
Jeff Burton made the 2006 Chase mostly on consistency, scoring only one victory all season. But that win came when it counted—the second race of the Chase at Dover—and it enabled him to take the points lead for the first time all season. Burton wouldn't relinquish the lead until a 42nd place finish at Martinsville due to a blown engine.
Talladega is often called the wild card of the Chase because so many top drivers are usually caught up in the massive wrecks that come from restrictor plate racing. Winning at Talladega isn't necessarily a boon, though, as the winning driver in October has never gone on to win the championship in the Chase era.
Jimmie Johnson was on track for his first top five of the 2006 Chase at Talladega, drafting Dale Earnhardt Jr. and attempting to set up a slingshot pass. Then, Johnson's teammate Brian Vickers took both drivers out, relegating them to 23rd and 24th place finishes and effectively ending both of their title hopes.
Of course, we all know what happened next—Johnson scored five consecutive finishes of second or better and took home his first of five consecutive titles—but Talladega marked the end of Johnson's bad luck for 2006.
A win at Martinsville has proven valuable to multiple championship runs as Jimmie Johnson took victories in his title years of 2006-08 and Tony Stewart won the race last year. Denny Hamlin is another driver to watch on the paper clip-shaped oval as he has taken four Martinsville wins since the start of the 2008 season.
With his first win of the Chase and seventh win of the season, Denny Hamlin pulled within six points of championship leader Jimmie Johnson with only four races to go. It was his seventh consecutive finish of 12th or better, good enough to establish him as the most serious challenger of Johnson's five-year reign atop the Sprint Cup heap.