NASCAR & Auto Racing

Turning points of the season

HOMESTEAD, Fla. - When you roll back through the highlight reel of the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup season, there will be plenty of dramatic moments to remember.

The season’s first race, the Daytona 500, ended in breathtaking fashion with Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin dueling for victory on the final lap with half the field wrecking a few hundred yards behind them.

The first “car of tomorrow” race at Bristol ended with Kyle Busch edging Jeff Burton in a last-lap battle. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon hammered on each other down to the wire at Martinsville. Jamie McMurray won by a whisker in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July.

But as we head into the season’s final weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway, none of those moments makes our six-pack of pivotal moments that brought us to where we are going into Sunday’s Ford 400.

Jimmie Johnson leads Jeff Gordon by 86 points as Johnson tries to wrap up his second straight title. Had it not been for the following five moments, things might be very different:

Johnson’s wake-up call

No. 5 Jimmie Johnson finished 39th in the Daytona 500, but won four of the next nine races and had 10 top-10 finishes in his next 11.

But, as has been that team’s pattern, the middle of the season proved problematic. In June and July, Johnson had just two top-10 finishes. Only five of Johnson’s 33 career victories have come in June, July and August. He has 13 in February through May and 15 in September, October and November.

When he finished 37th at Chicago and 39th at Indianapolis, he fell to ninth in the standings. Even though he was still 265 points ahead of the Chase for the Nextel Cup cutoff at that point, it was not a good trend.

But Johnson went to Pocono on Aug. 5 and finished a solid fifth in a race that Kurt Busch dominated. Third-place finishes followed the next two weeks and the Chase was again a foregone conclusion.

Points in escrow

No. 4 When NASCAR chairman Brian France announced “tweaks” to the Chase format on Jan. 22, he said that each of the 12 drivers - up from 10 - making the Chase would start the 10-race playoff with 5,000 points plus 10 points for each race won in the first 26 events.

Johnson won six times in the “regular season,” including the final two races at California and Richmond. That meant he started the Chase with 5,060 points in first place even though Jeff Gordon had more points in the first 26 races. Gordon won four times, so he had 5,040 points to start the Chase.

Under the system used in the first three Chase seasons, Gordon would have started the Chase with 5,050. Johnson was fourth in the standings after 26 races, so he would have had 5,035. So the change in the format means Johnson had 35 more points in relation to Gordon that he would have had previously.

That means Johnson would be 51 points ahead now, not 86.

Texas showdown

No. 3 As Johnson dueled with Matt Kenseth for a victory over the final laps of the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, there were several moments when the two ran side-by-side that disaster could have struck.

Kenseth got completely sideways once before saving it. If he and Johnson had wrecked, things would be very different right now.

As it turned out, Johnson won his third straight race and moved into the points lead. If he’d settled for second he would have come out of Texas with a 15-point lead. By winning, he not only had a 30-point edge on Gordon but a 10-gallon hat full of momentum, too.

Twice the charm

No. 2 On the final pit stop at Atlanta, Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, is able to see that several other cars among the leaders are taking two tires. So he calls an audible to do the same on his team’s stop, allowing Johnson to gain track position.

When Denny Hamlin’s car sputters because of water in his fuel on the restart, Johnson is ahead of the ensuing mess and winds up taking the lead and the victory. It’s his second straight win, and it propels him back toward the top of the standings.

Kansas upside-down cake

No. 1 With thunderclouds descending all around Kansas Speedway, Tony Stewart rolls the dice and stays out on the track as the LifeLock 400 passes the halfway point, making it an official race.

The rain finally arrives, and as the lightning crackles and the winds blow it seems that Stewart’s strategy has paid off in a big way.

Most of the other drivers in the Chase had pitted just after halfway, and almost all of them were scored outside the top 20 when the race was halted after 148 laps. If that had been the end of the day, Stewart would have left Kansas with a substantial lead in the Chase standings.

But the rain stopped and NASCAR decided to restart the race. Immediately after the restart later that day, Stewart got a piece of a multicar wreck that damaged his Chevrolet.

A few laps later, that damage caused a tire to blow and Stewart wrecked. Several other Chase drivers had their days ruined in those two incidents as well.

When the race ended, Johnson led Gordon by six points and Clint Bowyer by 14. Stewart was fourth, but 117 points back. From that point forward, the championship race was never more than a three-man battle.