Out of the tens of thousands who queued up before dawn last summer for a chance at the golden ring on "American Idol," it will come down to a head-to-head match between San Diego's Adam Lambert and Arkansas native Kris Allen. The two advanced Wednesday night after the elimination of initial favorite Danny Gokey and will vie next week to become the eighth "Idol" champion.

Emerging from the crowd as a judges' and audience favorite in the very early days of the audition episodes, Gokey was propelled to the front ranks of the competition by his powerhouse rock-blues vocal style and effusive personality. His "Idol" journey was also marked by the shadow of grief: It was revealed in the auditions that Gokey's wife had died just before he tried out.

Gokey spoke of his "American Idol" bid as a homage to her memory; his performances often ended with the singer curling his hands into the shape of a heart, a gesture seen by many observers as a call out to his lost partner.

On stage however, Gokey seemed the most buoyant of spirits. His constantly upbeat, goofy good humor won him legions of admirers, keeping him out of the bottom tier every week this season -- until Wednesday.

For weeks, a Gokey showdown with pop phenomenon Adam Lambert was spoken of as inevitable.

Ultimately, however, that destiny was undone by the surprise emergence of Kris Allen, the soft-spoken, folky singer who has been referred to as a dark horse. Although the low-key Allen never appeared to threaten the season's two giants, he steadily turned in impressive performances. On Tuesday, with a cliffhanger Top Three in the balance, he gave what might have been the strongest outing of the night with his pared-down, soulful version of Kanye West's "Heartless."

After Wednesday's show, the two finalists flipped a coin to decide position in next Tuesday's performing finale. Allen won the toss and, given the choice, elected to have Lambert lead off in the final battle.

richard.rushfield

@latimes.com