NASCAR Sprint Cup: The Top 10 Moments of the Chase

David DeNennoContributor IIIDecember 5, 2011

NASCAR Sprint Cup: The Top 10 Moments of the Chase

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    The thrilling conclusion of the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup was the capstone of an almost equally exciting Chase season as a whole.

    Tony Stewart was able to deliver a clutch performance in the finale to clinch the title, but there was a series of events that unfolded to put him in that position.

    Some of those were a direct result of his stellar performance; others he could not control.

    This is not so much a Top 10 list in the traditional sense, but rather a chronological sequence of the most important events.

    It seems too subjective to try to rank them because, essentially, all of the following events were important and contributed to the final product that concluded in Miami.

    Admittedly, the last two items are probably the most important.

Tony Stewart Wins the First Race at Chicagoland

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    After a winless regular season, Tony Stewart was not considered an ultra-strong contender to usurp the throne of Jimmie Johnson. However, few counted him completely out due to his status as a two-time former champion.

    At the commencement of the Chase, Stewart was in ninth place and 12 points back.

    His victory in Chicago moved him up seven places to second and almost cut his deficit in half.

    Aside from only being seven points back after one Chase race, this victory had to be a huge boost to Stewart and the team's confidence.

Carl Edwards Gets a Pit Row Speeding Penalty in Dover

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    The second race of the Chase in New Hampshire showed that Tony Stewart's first win was not a fluke.

    The next race in Dover was Stewart's worst performance of the entire Chase, where he finished in 25th place.

    Enter Carl Edwards.

    "Concrete" Carl had a great car on this day and was poised to take a victory. Unfortunately for him, he was caught speeding on pit row and had to serve a penalty.

    This relegated him to 27th place. Miraculously, he was able to salvage third place when the checkered flag waved.

    This moment did not seem completely disastrous at the time. In hindsight, it may be the moment that cost him the championship. All he needed was one extra point.

    Without the penalty, he could have taken second or even won. This would have yielded a title.

Jimmy Johnson Takes Kansas by Storm

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    Jimmie Johnson had a relatively quiet Chase until the fourth round of the tournament ended.

    He started the day fifth in the points, and by the end of the day, he was in third and back only four points.

    Johnson was truly dominant in this race and it may have been the single most impressive individual performance.

    He looked like the five-time champion that he was. This victory also ignited a slew of discussion and debate about Johnson taking home a sixth straight championship trophy.

Jimmie Johnson Undone in Charlotte

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    For all of the optimism that grew in Kansas, a bigger pessimism sprouted when Jimmie Johnson hit the wall, hard, at the very next race in Charlotte.

    This was pretty much the end of his championship hopes in 2011.

    He fell to eighth place in the standings. Although he would recover a bit and finish the season sixth overall, this moment derailed his quest for an unprecedented sixth straight crown.

Kevin Harvick Gets Caught in Talladega

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    Kevin Harvick appeared, until this big wreck, to be making a serious run at the title. He had been in first place at one point and never lower than third in the standings.

    After Talladega, Harvick recovered a bit and ended up third overall for 2011.

    However, it was a distant third, with 58 points. This collision relegated him to fifth place and 26 points behind the leader with only four races remaining.

Tony Stewart Steals One in Martinsville

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    This was an extremely important moment for Tony Stewart.

    He was able to take away the lead from Jimmie Johnson with only two laps to go. The three points he gained from doing so were crucial at the end of the season.

    This was also the moment when Carl Edwards and Stewart truly made it a head-to-head battle for the title.

    With Stewart's victory, he was comfortably in second place and down eight points. The next two races only further solidified the fact that it would be a two-man showdown in Miami.

Kyle Busch Gets Parked and Loses a Sponsor

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    This moment had nothing to do with the championship, although it did eliminate Busch from Chase contention and relegated him to 12th place.

    The importance of the event is that it set a precedent of what exactly was the limit of the "boys have at it" philosophy implemented by NASCAR.

    Busch's intentional wrecking of Ron Hornaday under caution was a huge miscalculation. Had he known the result of his actions beforehand, it is doubtful whether or not he would have acted the same.

    He had to be replaced by Michael McDowell for the Texas race.

    He is fortunate that he only lost a primary sponsor—Mars/M&Ms—for two races rather than permanently.

Kasey Kahne Wins One for Red Bull Racing

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     Kasey Kahne knew that he was driving for a team that would be defunct in 2012. Although he would still be guaranteed a ride with Hendrick Motorsports, winning at Phoenix was a solid way of saying "thank you" to the organization.

    Though it was an important win for him, personally, it was a crucial victory for Tony Stewart.

    Stewart had a solid day an ended up third. Carl Edwards bettered him by placing second.

    Had not Kahne and Red Bull Racing been able to step up and hold off Carl Edwards, Edwards would have scored an extra three points and thus have a bigger point cushion going into the final race of the season.

Tony Stewart Takes One in the Grill at Miami Homestead

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    Thankfully for Tony Stewart, this bit of bad luck occurred very early in the race. Speculative analysis concluded that the damage occurred when Kurt Busch's No. 22 Dodge blew its transmission.

    Whatever the cause, Stewart was left with a gaping hole in his grill.

    He was forced to take a long pit stop to fix the damage. His pit crew did the job, but when he raced back out on track he was in 40th place.

    This could have caused a break down had Stewart not remained calm and worked his way back.

    It almost felt like a moment from a Rocky movie where Rocky Balboa is losing badly at first, but somehow finds it within himself to overcome incredible odds.

The Last 37 Laps at Miami Homestead

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    Skip ahead to 6:30 in the video. On the restart, Tony Stewart made a great move to the inside of Kyle Busch that, in hindsight, won him the championship.

    He never surrendered the lead after this point, though Carl Edwards was driving hard on his tail the whole time.

    It was a fabulous finish to a great season.

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