Ranking the 10 Greatest Chase Performances in NASCAR History

Michael Guadalupe@The_GuadaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 19, 2013

Ranking the 10 Greatest Chase Performances in NASCAR History

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    When it was created in 2004, the Chase changed the sport of NASCAR. Drivers could no longer win the championship by dominating early in the year or by consistency alone.

    And while fans of stock car racing remain split on if the Chase helped or hurt NASCAR, there have been a handful of incredible performances that have resulted from the relatively young postseason setup.

    Drivers compete all through the regular season to earn a spot in the Chase, and when the race for the championship does start, drivers bring their best.

    It's led to plenty of exciting finishes and even surprises, as drivers seem to come alive when the championship is on the line.

    Whether the Chase has hurt or helped NASCAR will always be up for debate, but regardless, these 10 performances were the best NASCAR has seen during the Chase era.

10. Rusty Wallace, 2005

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    2005 was Rusty's last stand.

    It was the year he would retire from the Sprint Cup Series, and he went out on top.

    Wallace entered the Chase and was up against the major challenge of competing against some of NASCAR's best drivers at the time.

    He didn't slow down, though, and he moved from fifth in points when the Chase started to as high as second.

    He had solid finishes during the first two races of the Chase, but at the UAW-Ford 500, Wallace would finish in 25th and take a major drop in points, all the way down to seventh.

    Wallace finished the season in eighth place. He may have missed the championship, but Wallace went out on top as one of the best drivers in NASCAR after putting on one of the top Chase performances.

9. Mark Martin, 2009

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    2009 was the year Mark Martin signed up with Hendrick Motorsports to drive the No. 5 car, and it was one of the best years of his career.

    When the Chase started, Martin was the man to beat. He entered the postseason that year in first and started off by winning the first race of the Chase at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

    He would continue to run well and would have two top-five finishes and one top-10 in in the next three races.

    The fifth and seventh races of the Chase were the only two where Mark Martin didn't finish in the top 10, but he still wouldn't be able to win the championship even with his impressive Chase run.

    Jimmie Johnson was just slightly better that season and beat Martin by 184 points. Mark would finish second, but he undoubtedly had the best Chase run of his career.

    Mark Martin proved he could still drive with the up-and-coming stars in NASCAR and started off the Chase the right way. Though he didn't win the championship in 2009, he showed solid racing for a majority of the postseason and put on one of the best performances during the Chase.

8. Denny Hamlin, 2010

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    In 2010, Denny Hamlin looked like he would be the first Toyota driver to win the Chase.

    He entered the 2010 postseason with a dominating six wins and started the Chase by coming in second place at New Hampshire.

    He went on to win two races in the Chase, along with three more top-10 finishes. His worst finish would be 14th, but it was enough to keep him away from the championship.

    When the Chase started in 2010, it was a clear race between Jimmie Johnson and Hamlin.

    And even though Hamlin won two Chase races to Johnson’s one, four times would end up becoming five times because of all of Johnson's top-five finishes.

    Still, Denny’s run in 2010 was one of the best, and even though he was beat by Johnson, Hamlin had a fantastic Chase performance in 2010.

7. Clint Bowyer, 2012

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    Clint Bowyer finished the 2012 Chase in second, and it was a huge accomplishment for the No. 15 team.

    Bowyer joined Michael Waltrip Racing for the 2012 season, and the No. 15 team around him was new. They would enter the Chase with two wins, and while NASCAR at first seemed focused on Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, Bowyer and the 15 team would come into the contender talk when Bowyer won at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    Bowyer would go on to have seven top-five finishes through the Chase outside of his one win.

    Bowyer’s biggest struggle was in part due to Jeff Gordon, who decided he had enough of Bowyer racing him rough and took the 15 car out of commission and ended Bowyer’s hopes of winning the championship

    For a new team to enter the Chase and finish the season in second is impressive, and it was one of the better Chase runs seen in NASCAR.

6. Jeff Gordon, 2007

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    Jeff Gordon didn't win the Sprint Cup in 2007, but his Chase performance was one that would normally win a championship.

    He entered the Chase second, and when the postseason started, Gordon would start off strong with three top-five finishes and then two wins in a row. He finished out the rest of the Chase with two top-five finishes and three top-10s.

    His worst finish of the 2007 postseason was eighth.

    Still, even with a stellar Chase performance, Gordon didn't win the championship. The problem Gordon had was the same problem every driver for five years had: Jimmie Johnson.

    After Gordon won his two Chase races, Johnson would go on to win four straight.

    Jeff didn't win in 2007—he finished second to Johnson—but his Chase performance that year was one of the best.

5. Carl Edwards, 2011

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    Carl Edwards came very close to winning the championship in 2011. He of course didn't win the title, but Edwards did tie the 2011 champion, Tony Stewart, in points that season.

    His downfall was not winning a race.

    Still, looking at Carl's performances through the Chase, it's hard not to be impressed.

    Edwards started off the Chase with four top-fives and one top-10 and then had his worst finish of the postseason, which was eleventh.

    He would come back and finish second in the final three races.

    Edwards stayed in first place through the entire Chase and only lost the championship at the final race of the season because he couldn't beat Tony Stewart.

    His consistency in the 2011 Chase was impressive, and something that is rarely seen in the postseason.

4. Brad Keselowski, 2012

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    Even though Brad Keselowski went into the 2012 Chase strong with three wins, many doubted the young driver would be a major factor in the Chase.

    Oh, how wrong they were.

    Keselowski started the 2012 season with a win at the Geico 400 and would go on to win again in the Chase during the AAA 400 at Dover.

    Outside of his two wins, Keselowski finished in the top 10 six times and only had two finishes outside of the top 10.

    Winning the championship wasn’t easy for Brad, but he did have a bit of help. While he did manage to hold back Jimmie Johnson, Johnson ran into issues during a couple of the final Chase races and helped Brad pull ahead in points.

    Keselowski winning the championship, though, should not get overlooked by Jimmie Johnson’s bad luck.

    Brad put on a fantastic Chase performance and helped the No. 2 team go from underdogs to juggernauts by the time the postseason was over.

3. Kurt Busch, 2004

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    Kurt Busch started out the 2004 Chase in a fantastic position.

    He won the first race at New Hampshire and then logged six straight top-10 finishes. His luck would change at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where a engine failure took him out of the race. He finished 42nd.

    When Busch stumbled at Atlanta, Jimmie Johnson was able to make up ground and caught up to Busch in the Chase standings.

    It all came down to Homestead, and NASCAR fans saw Kurt Busch overcome the impossible. He thought he had a flat tire during the race, but instead, the entire tire would come off, bringing out the caution flag.

    Busch was able to rally back at Homestead (staying on the lead lap thanks to the caution he brought out) and would finish in fifth place, beating Johnson by eight points.

    Kurt Busch overcame a horrible finish at Atlanta, one that should have knocked him out of the championship scene. Instead, he rallied back, and even when he ran into bad luck at Homestead, he never slowed down.

    Bush put on one of the top performances in the Chase during the first year of its creation.

2. Tony Stewart, 2011

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    Tony Stewart's 2011 performance in the Chase was nothing short of amazing.

    Stewart entered the Chase with no wins and questioned even being allowed to participate in NASCAR's postseason. Luckily for Smoke, though, he did make it into the Chase and dominated in the postseason.

    Smoke went on to win five races in the Chase and proved that NASCAR's postseason was very much about wins.

    It came down to the line at Homestead, with Stewart and Edwards battling for the win.

    Ultimately it would be Stewart who crossed the finish line first, ending his spectacular 2011 Chase by bringing a Sprint Cup title to the Stewart-Haas Racing organization.

1. Jimmie Johnson, 2006-2010

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    To put it bluntly, no other driver in NASCAR is better in the Chase than Jimmie Johnson.

    Not only was Johnson able to win the championship from 2006-2010, but he's also been in every Chase since it was started in 2004.

    Every season it seems like Johnson and the 48 team are the ones to beat for the championship.

    This season has been no different, as Johnson entered the Chase with four wins. And while he didn't win this past weekend, he did win well and is a big contender for the title.

    Outside of his five straight championship wins, Johnson finished second in 2004, sixth in 2011 and third last year in 2012.

    Johnson's best Chase performance can't be narrowed down to a single year but instead encompasses the 2006-2010 seasons where he won his five titles.

    Jimmie Johnson has had the best Chase performances and is arguably the best driver in the postseason.