One for the Ages?

2010 Sprint Cup battle to be settled at Homestead

2010 Sprint Cup battle to be settled at Homestead

by Mike Neff

Auto racing is a marathon, not a sprint, and for the majority of the tracks, the series and their seasons throughout the world, the champion is crowned before the final checkered flag falls. However, there are occasional points battles that, like the competition on the track, come down to the last lap.

This year’s Formula One championship was up in the air until Sebastian Vettel crossed the finish line in Abu Dhabi last weekend. And looking ahead to this weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship is setting up for a similar suspenseful finish. While they all can’t end this way, NASCAR fans should enjoy the nail-biting delicacy that is being served in 2010.

Whether utilizing the older point systems or the latest Chase format, hair-breadth finishes in the Cup Series have been few and far between. Since NASCAR’s modern era began, there have only been nine instances where the title came down to two drivers separated by 50 points or less going into the final race. Considering there have been seven races that saw a 300-plus point gap following the penultimate race, the odds are nearly 50-50 that the points battle will be a snoozer rather than a barn burner.

Now for the sobering part of the points analysis: The chance that Denny Hamlin will actually lose the title at Homestead is almost nil. Since 1972, the driver leading the points heading into the final race of the season has won the title in all but two years. In 1979, Darrell Waltrip was two points ahead of Richard Petty heading to Ontario Speedway but finished eighth while Petty came home fifth. The separation resulted in a 13-point swing and Petty winning the title by 11 points.

The other battle, a fight between five drivers, resulted in the greatest points battle in the history of the sport.

In 1992, Davey Allison led the circuit to Atlanta with a 30-point lead over Alan Kulwicki, with Bill Elliott another 10 back. Further back, Harry Gant and Kyle Petty, trailing by 97 and 98 points, respectively, still had a fighting, if not slim, chance.

On lap 254 of 328, Allison was caught up in an accident that ended his championship hopes while Petty and Gant were mostly non-factors throughout the afternoon. And although Elliott won the race, Kulwicki managed to lead the most laps — 103 to Elliott’s 102 — earning a five-point bonus and wrapping up the title by 10 markers.

We can hope for that type of drama at Homestead — Johnson and Hamlin running side-by-side for the lead, tied for the most laps led with five to go, spinning one another out on the final lap as Harvick roars by, taking the checkers and the championship.

Unfortunately for those seeking the drama, the odds are that Hamlin is going to have his car working like it did last year at Homestead and will put the nail in the coffin by dominating the race. The scenarios concerning he and Johnson finishing first and second, leading one lap or leading the most laps favor the current points leader. But as the old saying goes, "That’s why they play the game."

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Waltrip/Petty, 1979. Kulwicki/Elliott/Allison, 1992. Classic championship battles that came down to the final race. Can we expect Hamlin/Johnson/Harvick, 2010 to live up to the hype?

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