There will be four drivers competing for the Sprint Cup Series championship on Sunday. Among them, neither have won a title before. To get into the spirit for this weekend's race, here's a countdown of what I think are the five best Cup championship finales of all-time.
The championship came down between Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip heading into the season’s final race at Ontario Motor Speedway in California. Waltrip entered with a scant two-point lead over Petty.
The DiGard Racing No. 88 team didn’t hoist a championship trophy yet in Waltrip’s fourth full season with the team. The Owensboro, Ky. driver’s chances temporarily went up in smoke, as he spun to avoid a lapped car early in the race.
The comeback wouldn’t be enough to overtake Richard Petty, who finished fifth and claimed his seventh and final career Cup championship. Benny Parsons won the race in the second-to-last event held at Ontario.
Rusty Wallace was on the verge of winning his first Cup championship with his Raymond Beadle-owned team. Wallace needed to finish 18th or better at the Atlanta Motor Speedway to become the 1989 champion. The No. 27 car visited victory lane six times that season, including one that came on Easter Sunday at Richmond International Raceway and the last Cup race to run to date on the holiday.
Wallace came into Atlanta with a 73-point lead over Mark Martin and 79 markers back to Dale Earnhardt. The No, 27 car finished 15th, three laps off the pace, as Earnhardt dominated on the day to pick the win. He may have won the battle, but not the war, as Wallace picked up his first and only career Cup championship. The image that pops in many people’s heads is when he jumped up and down on his car afterwards.
NASCAR’s top-tier series was undergoing a major change. The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company was no longer sponsoring the series, ending a 33-year partnership with the Cup Series. Nextel became the new sponsor and, with the ongoing changes, came a new championship format. The Chase for the Nextel Cup was introduced, as the top 10 drivers in points after the first 26 races would go on a 10-race playoff to determine the champion.
There wasn’t a lack of drama in the inaugural Chase. Kurt Busch started to pull away from the rest of the field, until a blown engine at Atlanta relegated the No. 97 Roush Racing team to a 42nd-place finish. And with Jimmie Johnson winning three straight races, the points tightened up.
Going into Homestead-Miami Speedway, five drivers had a mathematical shot at winning the championship. Busch lost a wheel on lap 83 and narrowly missed hitting the water barriers to keep his title hopes alive. It was a mad scramble towards the end of the race, with Busch keeping his closest title contenders in sight. With Johnson and Jeff Gordon coming home in second and third in the race, respectively, it wasn’t enough. Busch finished sixth and took home the 2004 Cup championship.
The title battle between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart ranks high on the list, and could be argued for either number one or two. Stewart squeaked into the Chase as the last driver in on points and didn’t show speed up to the Chase in 2011. The owner-driver started the Chase with two straight victories and added another at Martinsville in October.
A season of consistency for Edwards wasn’t going to be enough for the finale for Homestead, as the Roush-Fenway Racing driver entered with a three-point (or three positions) lead on Stewart. His weekend got off to a great start by winning the pole for Sunday’s race. The speed would translate into the Ford 400 and the No. 99 car would be the one to beat on the afternoon.
Another variable came into the equation, as rain fell half-way through at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Mother Nature would strike twice, when a rain shower caused a caution on lap 214 to erase Edwards’s advantage. Stewart came in to pit, for what would be his final stop, a few laps earlier, and stayed on the lead lap and ahead of Edwards when the No. 99 car came into pit.
From there on out, it was all-or-nothing to win the title. Stewart made a bold three-wide move after the restart to take the lead and Edwards trailing behind. The two ran 1-2 for the last 32 laps. Although Edwards kept Stewart in sight, the No. 14 car had enough for the fifth win on the season and for Stewart’s third Cup championship.
Both drivers tied in points, but Stewart had the tie-breaker with his five wins to Edwards’s one. In big NASCAR moments, this would rank up there in one of the best title battles in the sport’s history. Stewart had to pass 118 cars at Homestead to take the title and become to first owner-driver to do so since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 and leads to the number one finale in the countdown.
The 1992 championship battle might go down as the best in the record books and on the same magnitude as 2011. Six drivers had a mathematical shot at the title. Davey Allison came into Atlanta after scoring a win at Phoenix the week before and taking over the points lead. The No. 28 team went through everything during the 1992 season and overcame many obstacles to get them into that position. Allison suffered some injuries during the season, but didn’t keep him out of the car.
The driver third in points heading into Atlanta was owner-driver Alan Kulwicki, who wrote his team off the championship after falling finishing at Dover in Sept. The driver leading the points after Dover, Bill Elliott, kicked off the season by winning four of the first five races and the Junior Johnson team started to re-kindle that consistency in Sept.
Before Atlanta though, the No. 11 team started to stumble, with Elliott having finishes of 26th or worse in four of the next five races. It also led to Elliott losing the points lead to Allison after Phoenix.
Once the green flag dropped at Atlanta, a Cup champion was going to be crowned at the end of the afternoon. The title contenders started to come to the front once the race got going. Elliott and Kulwicki traded the lead a few times after the half-way mark. Allison’s day came to a crashing halt when Ernie Irvan spun and the No. 28 car couldn’t avoid the spinning car and the Alabama driver didn’t re-fire the car. Allison was done for the day and championship hopes out the window. Elliott passed Kulwicki for the final time on lap 310 and drove away to score the victory. Kulwicki’s “Underbird” came home second.
At the end of the day, Kulwicki led one more lap than Elliott to gain the extra bonus points for most laps led and was the Cup champ. The 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta was also a changing of the guard, as Richard Petty drove his last race and Jeff Gordon made his first start. Allison and Kulwicki both lost their lives during the 1993 season, as both champ Dale Earnhardt and Atlanta race winner Rusty Wallace did a polish victory lap with both of their flags to honor them at the end of the season.
The 1992 and 2011 season finales can be argued as No. 1, as both have different ties to them and have a greater importance in NASCAR’s history.
Do you think another race deserves to be on list? If so, tweet me at @KyleMagda with your thoughts.