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The 2010 Chase is the most competitive ever. It's not the closest. That distinction goes to the 2004 edition, when five drivers went into the finale with a decent shot at the title.
But this year's has the competitive edge based purely on performance. In the nine Chase races so far, Denny Hamlin's average finish is 5.8, Jimmie Johnson's and Kevin Harvick's 6.0. Between the three of them, they have just four finishes outside the top 10 and only one lower than 15th.
In 2004, everyone had at least one mulligan, and Kurt Busch won the title with an average finish of 8.9. If Busch '04 were racing for the title this season, he'd be heading to the finale trailing Harvick by 94 points.
So how did we get here, and what are the 12 Chase drivers feeling as the 2010 season winds down?
1st – Denny Hamlin: Controls his own fate
For 8½ races, the 11 team did everything right. The fact that they could still lose the title because of one mistake shows just how competitive this Chase is. It's Hamlin's championship to lose, and he knows it. If he wins it, he'll breathe a sigh of relief. If he loses it, the decision to not save fuel at Phoenix will haunt him forever.
In a word: Nervous
2nd – Jimmie Johnson: Going for fifth straight (-15 points)
Of all the things Johnson has accomplished in the Sprint Cup Series, the one thing he's yet to do is come from behind with one race to go to win a title. Don't for a second think he doesn't relish the thought of doing just that. He hasn't been the strongest driver in this Chase, but he has a chance to show that he has the mental fortitude to match his talent behind the wheel.
In a word: Motivated
3rd – Kevin Harvick: Done everything but win (-46)
If Harvick had been promised a 6.0 average in the Chase before it started, he'd have not only taken it, he'd have made celebration plans. And why not? That would have been good enough to win titles in four of the previous six Chases. Harvick says he feels disrespected because no one is giving him a chance to win. Well, he still has the chance to prove everyone wrong.
In a word: Angry
4th – Carl Edwards: Broke 70-race winless streak (-264)
He's probably wishing the win at Phoenix had come two years ago when he went there trailing Jimmie Johnson by 106 points in the Chase. While one win doesn't put him back on the level he was that season when he won nine races, it has to give his team some momentum heading into 2011.
In a word: Enthused
5th – Matt Kenseth: Showing signs of life (-311)
During the regular season, Kenseth led laps in six races. He's led laps in six of the nine Chase races so far. It's hard to improve this late in the season, but Kenseth has done just that. He came into the Chase without a glimmer of hope. He'll end it itching to get 2011 started sooner than later.
In a word: Optimistic
6th – Jeff Gordon: Drive for 5 continues (-338)
Outwardly, Gordon still exudes confidence, but you have to wonder how he feels on the inside. At some point, salvaging top-10 finish after top-10 finish has to get old, especially when you're Jeff Freaking Gordon and you're used to winning lots of races and start the season thinking championship. He was never really in the hunt during the Chase. The drive for five continues on.
In a word: Desperate
7th – Kyle Busch: Done in by Reutimann (-347)
What if? What if David Reutimann hadn't wrecked Busch at Kansas? What if his engine hadn't blown at Fontana? Would there be a four-man race for the title? Whatever you think about Busch's antics – and NASCAR certainly didn't think much of him flipping the bird to an official at Texas – he is going to be a challenger for titles for years to come.
In a word: Irritated
8th – Greg Biffle: Mr. Inconsistent (-349)
It's been an absolute roller-coaster for Biffle. One week he's leading the most laps and heading to victory lane. The next he wrecks and finishes 41st. Biffle has finishes of first, fourth, fifth and fifth in the Chase. He's also finished 19th, 19th, 33rd and 41st. To win a title, you have to be consistent, and that's where Biffle has come up short.
In a word: Unpredictable
9th – Tony Stewart: Faded in the end (-388)
He had Race No. 1 of the Chase won; that is until he ran out of gas. Stewart took responsibility for the gaffe, and though he did win in Fontana a few weeks later, he never really recovered. Since then, he's been a mid-pack racer without a single top-10 finish. During a 15-race stretch in the summer, Stewart looked like the champion he was in 2005. Since the calendar flipped to October, however, he's been invisible, which is hard to do if you're Tony Stewart.
In a word: Uncharacteristic
10th – Kurt Busch: Own worst enemy (-429)
The elder Busch had 15 top 10s in the first 26 races of the season. He's had two in the last nine. That pretty much sums up his Chase. Not only is Busch heading into the offseason on a down note, but his denigrating attitude has to be playing hard on his team. Yes, he has tremendous talent, but he seems to have lost most, if not all, of his momentum.
In a word: Self-destructive
11th – Clint Bowyer: Done in by penalty (-434)
In the first four years of Bowyer's Cup career, he'd won a total of two races. He matched that in this year's Chase, which normally would be reason to celebrate. Instead, Bowyer's 2010 will be remembered for the 150-point penalty he incurred for failing inspection after his New Hampshire victory. He probably wasn't going to win the title, but it would have been nice to see how he'd have fared without the penalty.
In a word: Unfulfilled
12th – Jeff Burton: Bad luck, bad decisions (-504)
Going into the Chase, Burton genuinely thought he could race for a title. Though he hasn't been as bad as the standings indicate – he's led laps in four Chase races – it certainly hasn't gone as well as he expected. He's wrecked twice, including that little run-in he had with Jeff Gordon that was Burton's own fault.
In a word: Disappointed