Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Top NASCAR races of the decade

NASCAR is asking the media to pick the races of the decade and the drivers of the decade. The first decade of the 21st century was definitely a head-turner, and sometimes a head-scratcher. It saw the introduction of the Chase. And it said good-bye to Dale Earnhardt. In fact, 2001 might have had the most impact on the entire decade. The year 2004, for better or worse, changed the way NASCAR decided its champions. The decade saw the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow and saw the checkered flag drop on some great tracks filled with tradition.
Here’s a look at how I ranked the top five races of the decade:

1. Ricky Craven’s win at Darlington Raceway, March 16, 2003. Craven won the race by 0.002 seconds over Kurt Busch, the closest margin of victory in the history of Cup racing. The two cars collided on the last lap and were joined at the fenders as Craven crossed the finish line a few sparks ahead of Busch.
2. Dale Earnhardt’s last win, Oct. 15, 2000. Everyone knows his last race, but how many can recall his last win. Fittingly it came at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, where he all but perfected the art of drafting. He won two races in what would be his last season in NASCAR. His other win came at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March.
3. Kevin Harvick’s first win, March 11, 2001. Harvick was tabbed to drive for Richard Childress Racing at the Cup level after Dale Earnhardt died in the Daytona 500. It was only Harvick’s third Cup start of his career. Harvick drove the No. 29 right out of the box, and no driver has donned the No. 3 on his car since.
4. Kurt Busch captures first Chase championship, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Nov. 21, 2004. Greg Biffle won the race, but Kurt Busch won the Chase. NASCAR decided to implement a playoff system called the Chase after Matt Kenseth won a lackluster championship in 2003. Kenseth won only one race in his championship season, but built up some a huge lead with consistent finishes that it left little drama in the final weeks of the season. That prompted NASCAR to make changes.
5. Dale Jr. wins at Daytona in July 2001. The Cup Series drivers returned to Daytona International Speedway five months after Dale Earnhardt died on the final lap of the season-opening Daytona 500. Conspiracy theorists cast a suspicious eye to Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning this race. Without question it was an emotional win for Junior. It was also an emotional race for everyone in it, from drivers to fans.

There were three races missing from the choices given to the media. These races had a significant impact on the decade. They might not have been the best races to watch, but they were three of the most important races of the decade.

Dale Earnhardt’s last race, Feb. 18, 2001. Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. His two drivers, Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr., driving for his Dale Earnhardt Inc. team, finished 1-2 with Waltrip out front. Earnhardt was in third place and had the best seat to watch his drivers. No one will ever know if he saw them actually cross the finish line though. He was spun out and crashed head-on into the turn 4 wall, never crossing the finish line himself.

NASCAR races into Thanksgiving, Nov. 23, 2001. This race was originally scheduled for Sept.16 at New Hampshire International Speedway. That of course was five days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. The race was postponed, as was almost every other major sporting event in the United States that week, and moved to the end of November. Robby Gordon won the race under the threat of snow flurries.

Jimmie Johnson all but clinches fourth straight Cup championship by winning in Phoenix, Nov. 15, 2009. Johnson won the race at Phoenix International Raceway and solidified himself among NASCAR greats. No other driver has won four Cup championships in a row. Only three other drivers have as many as four Cup championships. Say what you want about the Chase, but it shouldn’t take away from what Johnson has accomplished in the last four years of the decade.

Photo: At top, The closest finish in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series history came on March 16, 2003 at Darlington Raceway when Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch to the finish line by .002 second. (Photo Credit: NASCAR) 

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