NASCAR's Greatest Chase Did Not Happen In 2010. It Happened In 2004.

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NASCAR's Greatest Chase Did Not Happen In 2010. It Happened In 2004.
Robert Laberge/Getty Images
Kurt Busch, 2004 NEXTEL Cup Champion.

During the 2010 season's Chase for the Sprint Cup, it was mentioned many times that fans were witnessing the greatest Chase since its inception. Heading into the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, three drivers had a chance at the championship.

Was there great racing throughout The Chase? Yes. Was Homestead set up to be a fantastic race? Yes. Was it possible to witness Jimmie Johnson's reign as champion end? Yes.

That final race at Homestead to be honest was a let down. Johnson won yet again, and the race itself had very little action.

So the finale was a bust. So what? It was still the greatest Chase for the Cup of all-time, right?

Wrong.

Let me take you back to November 24, 2004.

It is race day at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Five drivers have a shot at the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Championship. Points leader Kurt Busch has a slim lead over Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The inaugural year for NASCAR's "Chase" is a huge success. At this point last season, Matt Kenseth had already locked up the championship after a truly dominant season. But this season, the points battle was as wide open as ever.

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The Chase started with Kurt Busch winning at Loudon, while Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield were taken out thanks to Robby Gordon's retaliation against Greg Biffle.

After Dover, Jeff Gordon had one point lead on Kurt Busch.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. took over the points lead after his win the next week at Talladega. However that was short lived after a penalty for profanity in his victory lane interview.

Jimmie Johnson had dismal luck to start the Chase, and was 247 points behind heading into Charlotte.

What happened at Charlotte? Jimmie Johnson, sporting a paint scheme commemorating 20 years of Hendrick Motorsports, cruised to victory. Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch were involved in incidents throughout the night, but were able to finish 2nd, and 4th respectively.

On October 24, 2004 in Martinsville, Johnson climbed to within 207 points after his victory.

That day however, 10 people perished in a plane crash involving a Hendrick Motorsports plane. Among them were Ricky Hendrick, John Hendrick and his daughters, and Randy Dorton.

Devastated by the tragedy, Hendrick Motorsports turned to the racetrack to ease their pain.

Atlanta turned into one of the most dramatic races of all time, as Jimmie Johnson, sporting a decal in memory of those who perished, won his third race in a row.

Kurt Busch loses a wheel.

The top 7 drivers were separated by just 186 points after trouble found Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon in Atlanta.

After Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win at Phoenix a week later, 150 points were between points leader Kurt Busch and 7th place Ryan Newman.

Jeff Gordon looked to be the winner at Darlington, but problems on pit road cost him the victory after leading the most laps. Jimmie Johnson won at Darlington and moved to second in points, just 18 points behind Kurt Busch. Jeff Gordon fell to third, 21 points behind.

Roush Racing was looking for back-to-back championships. Hendrick Motorsports wanted to win the championship for those lost in the plane crash. Not to mention, NASCAR's rock-star icon, Dale Earnhardt. Jr. had a chance for his first championship.

The stage was set for a dramatic finish to a fantastic season.

When the race started at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kurt Busch was on pole, and able to grab five bonus points for leading a lap. The day was not smooth sailing however, as on lap 92 Kurt Busch's right front wheel broke off the hub. Busch came within inches of hitting the pit road barrels, but was able to stay on the lead lap.

It looked like Jeff Gordon was going to run up front all day, but he too was forced to pit with a cut tire in the race.

Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images
Jeff Gordon's Memorial Hood.

Gordon's teammate Jimmie Johnson started the day in the rear. In the opening laps, Johnson had to avoid incidents occurring in front of him. He escaped with only minor damage to his rear bumper.

Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin, long-shots for the title, were doing anything they could just to stay in contention. On any given lap, the championship leader could change.

With 60 laps to go, Martin, Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Gordon, and Busch were all running behind the 17th position. The points now depended on who could get their way to the front.

By the final ten lap segment, Gordon had made it to 4th, Johnson to 5th, and Busch to 7th. It was not over yet though, as then race leader Ryan Newman hit the wall causing a green-white-checkered finish to decide the race, and the championship.

On the final restart, Jeff Gordon tried to get to the lead, but Biffle prevailed over Tony Stewart. Johnson and Gordon fought all they could to win, finishing second and third. Busch was challenged by Brendan Gaughan, Jamie McMurray, and Rusty Wallace for his position.

In the end, Gordon and Johnson did not have enough, as Kurt Busch's 5th place finish was enough to clinch the championship by just 8 points over Johnson. Jeff Gordon finished third in points, 16 points behind.

The Chase in 2004 saw the top five in points finish within 138 points of one another. The final race of 2004 is one of the greatest in NASCAR history, and no other Chase finale has offered so much excitement.

If you still don't agree that 2004 was the greatest Chase for the Cup here are some other things to consider:

In its first years, only the top ten made the Chase, making race 26 very exciting

Seeding was based on regular season points, making consistency more important. (Jeff Gordon, points leader after race 26, was a top seed)

The driver in tenth was only 45 points behind first place, no matter how many races the top seed won.

It was the first season of the Chase, and no fan knew what to expect.

Matt Kenseth's runaway title was followed up by a title that was decided by only 8 points.

The analysts and experts can say that 2010 was the greatest Chase NASCAR has ever seen all they want. Just like there is nothing better than a first kiss, there is nothing better than the first Chase for the NEXTEL Cup

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