The Sprint Cup Series heads into Chicagoland Speedway for the ninth Chase for the Sprint Cup, and with 12 drivers now within striking distance of the points lead, the championship battle has now been blown wide open. But who has what it takes to get the job done? While their seeding to begin the Chase doesn’t guarantee a better finish at the end of the year, a good position usually ends up being a tremendous help. In fact, the eventual champion has been seeded no worse than third every year except 2004 (Kurt Busch – 7th) and 2011 (Tony Stewart – 9th). So without further ado, let’s take a look at the Chase drivers and what we can expect from each one as the 2012 season begins to wind down.
*1st – Denny Hamlin*
*4 Wins, 11 Top 5s, 13 Top 10s*
Denny Hamlin comes into the Chase with all sorts of momentum. Having scored back-to-back wins at Bristol and Atlanta, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led 202 laps at Richmond and likely would have scored a solid top-5 finish if not for his fuel mileage. But despite an 18th-place finish, Hamlin is still set for a solid run at the championship. Everyone remembers 2010 when he came so close to grabbing the championship only to have it fall from his grip at Homestead, and it’s hard to think he won’t suffer another meltdown if he finds himself in the same position late in this Chase. However, Hamlin insists there were a different set of circumstances that led to his collapse and that he knows how to handle the pressure better this year. Of course, it helps that Hamlin has last year’s champion crew chief atop his pit box making the calls. In the end, everything combined might just be enough for Hamlin to snag his first career championship.
*2nd – Jimmie Johnson (-3 points)*
*3 Wins, 12 Top 5s, 17 Top 10s*
Jimmie Johnson enters the Chase not only as a five-time champion, but also as the only driver to have made NASCAR’s playoffs for all nine seasons it has been around. Is there really all that much to say about the Johnson / Knaus combination? It’s hard to argue with the pairing that has won five of eight championships under the Chase format. And while there are still 11 other drivers that would love nothing more than to continue what Tony Stewart started last year when he prevented a sixth consecutive championship, Johnson has found himself near the top of the standings for much of the season and has likely had a chance to try out a few things that will help give him an edge when the Chase begins.
*3rd – Tony Stewart (-3 points)*
*3 Wins, 10 Top 5s, 12 Top 10s*
Tony Stewart enters as the only driver to have won at all ten Chase tracks; he has a combined 21 victories at those venues. He started off the year strong, answering Denny Hamlin’s first victory with Darian Grubb in Phoenix with a win of his own the following week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Though the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet stumbled and nearly forced himself into using a Wild Card to make the Chase, he rebounded at Richmond with a solid fourth-place finish. While it’s unlikely that he’ll run off a string of five wins again this year, don’t count him out as a championship contender. Remember that he’s losing Office Depot as a primary sponsor, and the owner / driver would love nothing more than to show another potential backer that their money would be well represented.
*4th – Brad Keselowski (-3 points)*
*3 Wins, 10 Top 5s, 15 Top 10s*
Can you even consider Brad Keselowski as a dark horse pick for the championship anymore? With the numbers he’s put up in the last few years, it’s almost hard to even call him that, but one thing is for sure: he’s scored the most points of anyone in the last ten races. Despite having instability in the No. 22 team, the driver of the No. 2 Dodge has definitely not skipped a beat and looks to challenge for the championship this year. Regardless of whether he manages to grab the big trophy at Homestead in November, one thing is for sure: Keselowski is an integral part of Penske Racing and as such, his team will be given all they need to make a run; however, it might not quite be time for the No. 2 team just yet.
*5th – Greg Biffle (-6 points)*
*2 Wins, 10 Top 5s, 15 Top 10s*
Having sat atop the points standings for 14 of the 26 weeks in the “regular” season, Greg Biffle knows what it’s like to hold that lead, but perhaps what’s more impressive is that the driver of the No. 16 Ford has just four finishes outside the top 15 in the first 26 races. Though he’s seeded fifth thanks to two victories, the Roush Fenway Racing driver would love nothing more than to bring the organization its first championship since Kurt Busch won it all in 2004. And if Biffle can continue with the performance he’s put up for much of the year and throw in a win or two when it means the most, there’s a very real chance he could come out on top for the first time in his career.
*6th – Clint Bowyer (-6 points)*
*2 Wins, 6 Top 5s, 15 Top 10s*
With the pressure of being in the Chase off of his shoulders, Clint Bowyer was allowed the chance to gamble on fuel at Richmond Friday night and won. And despite being overshadowed by Jeff Gordon narrowly making the Chase, the driver of the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota is one to keep an eye on. He’s quietly been around for much of the season after starting off a little rocky, finishing in the top 10 just twice in the first eight races. With six top-10 finishes in his last eight races, Bowyer looks to have another shot at the championship after suffering a 150-point blow from a penalty in the 2010 Chase that took him out of contention following a failed postrace inspection in Loudon, and he’ll be out to prove that MWR can compete with the bigger teams.