DRIVERS BATTLE FROM February into September to earn a place in the 12-man Chase field. And then the real pressure begins, for the 10 playoff races offer virtually no margin for error. This season four contenders ran into trouble in the opener at New Hampshire, putting them in an early hole from which they couldn't escape. By contrast, top seed Mark Martin won at New Hampshire and went on to give reigning champ Jimmie Johnson a fight all the way to the finish, at Homestead, though a wreck at Talladega cost Martin dearly. Johnson, of course, had his own calamity, at Texas, but he also won four of the 10 races. That will buy you a mulligan—and earn you a fourth Sprint Cup.
1 JIMMIE JOHNSON
DEFINING MOMENT: Dover
Going into the Chase, Johnson had just one top 10 in his last six starts. Could the 48 actually be vulnerable? Uh, no. After a fourth at Loudon, Superman took off at Dover, winning and leading 271 of the race's 400 laps.
2 MARK MARTIN
DEFINING MOMENT: Talladega
Top seed Martin was superb in the Chase, with seven top eight finishes. But he was undone at 'Dega, caught in the Big One and dropped from a likely top five to 28th. "I want to go down racing," he said. "Not like that."
3 JEFF GORDON
DEFINING MOMENT: Texas
Gordon had been strong all season, with 16 top fives going into Texas. With Johnson wrecking, another top five would have put Gordon within striking distance. Instead, he came in 13th, gaining far too little ground.