The sport gets a fresh coat of paint and a spit-shine when the 26-race “regular season” climaxes. Each week’s Chase race produces new story lines for national consumption.
That has been evident as Johnson, the supremely skilled and confident superstar who strung together an unprecedented five consecutive championships, has inched to a seven-point edge over ascending 28-year-old star Keselowski through eight of 10 Chase races.
Jarrett certainly knows the pitfalls that can befall any driver around any corner. He knows the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix on Sunday could significantly alter the landscape, possibly even propelling Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne back into title contention. They’re lurking if Johnson and Keselowski stumble.
But Jarrett, winner of the first major race at Homestead back in 1996, added, “I really believe we’re going to have that epic-type battle going down to the very last lap at Homestead.
“I look for both Jimmie and Brad to finish in the top five or six at Phoenix, and I really don’t think Brad will be any more than 10 points out when they go to Homestead.”
Not every Homestead finale during the 2004-11 history of the Chase has produced a storybook ending. Those are rare. But the championship has been on the line every time the green flag waved here. That’s as much as anyone should expect.
No greater contrast between the frequent pre-Chase doldrums and Chase dynamite exists than the 2003 championship that triggered innovation and the 2004 title fight that instantly created the desired pyrotechnics.
Matt Kenseth, whose low-key demeanor once prompted his wife Katie to wear a T-shirt proclaiming, “I’m with What’s-His-Name,” cruised to a stress-free 2003 championship, clinching it before the Homestead finale.
Under new Chase guidelines a year later, Kurt Busch, Gordon and Johnson arrived for the showdown in a points cluster. Busch defended a precarious lead and wore the crown because, Greg Biffle, Busch’s Roush Racing teammate, won to deprive race runner-up Johnson of the winner’s points that would have secured the championship.
And a loose wheel that separated from Busch’s Ford as he sensed the problem and darted for the pits rolled not harmlessly onto pit road but down the front straightaway, where it necessitated the yellow-flag caution that enabled Busch to stay on the lead lap and in position to claim the title.
Really, you can’t make this stuff up. NASCAR officials will be hoping for further evidence of that to emerge from next Sunday’s showdown.