Can a driver win the Chase without winning a race in the final 10 races? Does the 2010 champion have to follow the Jimmie Johnson blueprint? If you look back over the last four years, Johnson, Chad Knaus and the No. 48 bunch's performances have essentially followed the same script. But unlike Hollywood, each Johnson sequel has been better than the season before. (OK, maybe not for NASCAR fans, but certainly for Johnson)
Here's what the three Chase-era champions have done to win the Sprint Cup title. Here's a hint: Top 10s are key.
2004: Kurt Busch. Busch won the first Chase race at Loudon, and then never finished higher than fourth in the last nine races. However, Busch had seven finishes in the top 6, including a fifth at Homestead after he lost a tire heading to pit road. His two worst finishes in the Chase were a 10th at Phoenix and a 42nd at Atlanta after blowing an engine. He beat Jimmie Johnson by eight points.
2005: Tony Stewart. Stewart is the only Chase champion to not win a race in the Chase. Stewart had three second-place finishes and five top 5s, but won the championship by minimizing his bad finishes. His worst finish was a 25th in that debacle on the new surface at Charlotte Motor Speedway -- he blew a tire while leading -- and finished 18th at Dover and 15th at Homestead to clinch the title. He finished 35 points ahead of Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
2006: Johnson. Vader used a strong last six races to take the 2006 title, his least dominant title of the four. He started the Chase with a 39th place finish at Loudon and didn't get a top 10 until the fifth Chase race at Charlotte, where he finished second. From then, he won at Martinsville and finished second in the next three races before winning the title with a ninth-place finish at Homestead to beat Matt Kenseth by 56 points.
2007: Johnson. JJ won 10 races in 2007 and four of those wins came in the Chase. He finished 14th at Dover and Charlotte but won Chase races six through nine at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix. His seventh-place finish at Homestead was almost a formality, as he beat Jeff Gordon by 77 points after finishing seventh. No other driver was within striking distance.
2008: Johnson. Johnson won three races in the Chase in 2008, including that great finish at Kansas ahead of Edwards after Edwards bounced off the wall banzaing the final corner. He only finished outside the top 10 twice, and those were 15th place finishes at Texas and Homestead. Johnson also was awarded the pole for three straight races in the middle of the Chase because of rain, but given his performance in those three races, he probably would have qualified up front anyway. He beat Edwards by 69 points.
2009: Johnson. Four of Johnson's seven wins came in the Chase at Dover, California, Charlotte and Phoenix. The win at Phoenix was Johnson's fourth straight at the fall race in the desert. Johnson's only finish outside the top 10 was when he did the tango with Dances With Walls (Sam Hornish Jr.) and collected the inside wall on the backstretch at Texas to finish 38th. Johnson finished fifth at Homestead to record his biggest championship blowout yet, a 141-point victory over Mark Martin.