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The Home Stretch

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Chris Daughtry

“It’s all good now,” says Chris Daughtry. Visiting PEOPLE’s offices with his wife, Deanna, during a whirlwind New York City press tour May 15, the laidback rocker and Idol front-runner was putting on the best face following his ouster five days earlier. Though he admits to being in shock when host Ryan Seacrest delivered the news, Daughtry has made peace with the decision, saying it must have “happened for a reason.” Some of his fans, however, think the Idol voting was a downright scandal—at least one online petition, with more than 16,000 names attached, is calling for an Idol recount, after a series of callers reported that their attempt to dial-a-vote for Daughtry ended up routed into Katharine McPhee‘s ballot box.

But Daughtry, 26, remains upbeat. He’s hoping to write his own music, make his own albums and sell out stadiums, with or without Simon Cowell and company. “You always wonder if you’re gonna get rock credibility when you go on Idol and to have that—I couldn’t ask for more,” he says.

In fact, his rock cred is so high that the alt-rock band Fuel has offered him the vacated lead singer slot after hearing him do their hit song “Hemorrhage (In My Hands)” on the March 1 Idol. “He’s perfect for Fuel,” says manager Paul Geary, who adds that Daughtry secretly auditioned three weeks ago. “He has the right voice, the right look.” But is Fuel right for him? Says Daughtry: “I’m just thinking everything through and making sure that I make the right decision for me and my family.”

Katharine McPhee

The other Idol finalists got hometown parades, but Sherman Oaks, Calif., the L.A. suburb where Katharine McPhee grew up, doesn’t grant permits so easily. “We figured if they couldn’t do a parade in town, we’d do one for her,” says family friend Susie Welby. “We lined up in the driveway [of her parents’ home] and had the kids out front holding a big banner with a 30-ft. balloon arch.” Inside, 25 relatives and friends held a party for McPhee, 22, who bantered with everyone until her family insisted she leave and rest her voice. She got a bigger reception that afternoon at her alma mater, Notre Dame High School, as 1,100 students cheered her arrival. When a teen boy in the bleachers asked for a kiss, McPhee (class of 2002) obliged, but not before warning: “On the cheek. Don’t turn your face.”

Taylor Hicks

“I knew this would happen,” says Taylor Hicks‘s mom, Pam Dickinson, who’s beaming as her son performs before 4,000 screaming fans during the soulful Idol’s hometown visit to Birmingham, Ala. “I knew he was going to become a star,” she says.

She’s not the only one. “Taylor was born famous; he just didn’t know it yet,” says Hicks’s Birmingham bandmate Brian Less. As for Hicks’s unusual stage presence: “He gets so into his music that he can’t stop his tics and weird dancing.”

His bizarro gyrations evoked cheers from the crowd as Hicks, 29, belted out the ’70s soul classic “Will It Go Round in Circles.” He later serenaded 12,000 at a shopping mall, mingled and bantered to the point of exhaustion (at one point he signed autographs while slumped against a wall). “You can take a nap in the limo,” a FOX producer said, and Hicks smiled. Later that evening he’d recovered enough to address a cheering throng of some 2,000 outside the Birmingham Museum of Art, shouting, “I’m going back to Hollywood and win American Idol for Alabama!”

Elliott Yamin

You can say this about Elliott Yamin: He sure has perseverance. Growing up, says his mother, Claudette, “he used to sing and his brother used to knock on the walls and say, ‘Shut the heck up.'” That didn’t stop him from testing out his crooning skills in public, but “someone at a karaoke bar told me when he sang, he made them turn the lights low,” says Yamin’s great-uncle Carman Hoffman. “He was so bashful. Now he’s singing in front of, what, 35 million people?”

During his hometown visit to Richmond, Va., Yamin, 27, greeted about 100 fans at a local radio station who were wearing “Yellin’ for Yamin” T-shirts and later threw out the first pitch at a Richmond Braves minor-league game before a sold-out crowd of 10,000-plus. “I’ve never seen Richmond so happy,” remarked Yamin’s girlfriend, whom the family will identify only as Amanda. For his part Yamin slyly ducked any questions about romance. “Social life? What social life?” he quipped. “I’m married to American Idol right now.”