This week the Chase for the Sprint Cup moves from the Windy City to the Granite State. With only the first race of the "playoffs" in the books, it's still entirely too early to predict who will be the champion, but the 12 contenders gave fans a glimpse of the battles to come. The race at Chicagoland didn't have the same intense, beating and banging style of racing of the last few weeks, but in the end, the battle between the brash up-and-comer Brad Keselowski and skilled five-time champion Jimmie Johnson provided plenty of drama and may have set the stage for a showdown between two titans of motorsports: Penske Racing and Hendrick Motorsports.
1. Brad Keselowski – Winner of the first race of the Chase, and leading the points for the first time in his career, Keselowski likely hopes to capitalize on that momentum rather than rely on his record at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. In his six starts he’s scored two top fives and 3 top 10s with an average finish of 15.3. Not bad, but not the kind of finish he needs to keep Five-Time off his heels. And since beating the No. 48 has been Roger Penske's goal for years, you can look for Paul Wolfe and the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge team to grab another gear to stay ahead of Johnson.
Jimmie Johnson – The No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy knows the way to victory lane at Loudon. With three wins, seven top fives and fourteen top 10s, Johnson has the best record of the Chase drivers at NHMS. While Denny Hamlin has a better average finish with an 8.8, Johnson’s 9.5 average covers 21 races instead Hamlin’s 13. After the GEICO 400, Johnson said, "We'll take second and go on. This is a fantastic way to start the Chase." Really? Compare that to his post-race quote from Texas Motor Speedway in April when he said, "Yeah, man, second sucks." Which do you think he meant more? Considering that Johnson made it to eighth on the all-time wins list in just 12 years, it's not likely he'll be satisfied with second this week.
4. Denny Hamlin – Running out of fuel on the last lap of the first race was not the start to the Chase that Hamlin planned. Dropping from first to fourth with his 16th place finish, he has some points to make up and crew chief Darian Grubb needs to show he can rebound from such a critical error with a driver that's never won a championship. As mentioned earlier, Hamlin's average finish at Loudon is 8.8, but that's with only one win in those 13 races. He tweeted "This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week." Bold words, but can he back them up and take that No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota to the front?
5. Kasey Kahne – Chicago gave Kahne his sixth top-three finish of the season and took him from the Wild Card to fifth in points. If the No. 5 Farmers Insurance team continues to perform with that kind of consistency, this welterweight could move up in class and contend for that heavyweight championship. He's only got one win in 17 starts at Loudon and an average finish of 16.8, but the Kenny Francis-led team seems to have clicked and could be a threat to be the first Hendrick car in victory lane during the 2012 Chase.
6. Clint Bowyer – In his tenth-place finish at Chicago, Bowyer improved a spot from his fifth-place seeding in the Chase. Not the start he'd have preferred, perhaps, but still not a bad way to begin. After all, with nine more races in the Chase, if he improves by just that one spot each race, the championship will be his. And Loudon's not a bad place for him to add another win - two of his seven career victories came at NHMS. Bowyer has never won more than two races in a season and he's already scored two in 2012, so a win this weekend would be more than welcome for the driver of the No. 15 5-hour ENERGY Toyota.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – After qualifying fourth in the GEICO 400, Earnhardt Jr. started in the back of the field for an engine change. Despite that impediment, he and crew chief and head cheerleader Steve Letarte carved out an eighth-place finish. The No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew / National Guard team needs that kind of determination and poise at Loudon since Earnhardt Jr.'s average finish is 16.2 in 26 races, with no wins among them and four DNFs. His best finish at NHMS was third back in 2004, but with a fourth place in July and an air of confidence he's not had in years - if ever - look for Junior to try for another win. With his consistency this season, he just might get it.
8. Greg Biffle – Biffle went into Richmond in first place in the points and came out in fifth. With his 13th-place finish last week in Chicago NASCAR's version of Rodney Dangerfield dropped to eighth overall. Since he led the points for 14 of the first 26 weeks of the season, he'll want to get the No. 16 3M Ford back to the top, but his past performance at NHMS puts him in the middle of the pack. Biffle's average finish of 16.3 includes only one win. He's only won more than two races in a season once in his Cup career and that was back in 2005. Crew chief Matt Puccia's has only two career Cup wins. Can he and Biffle make it three this weekend? Stranger things have happened in the Chase.
Martin Truex Jr. – While his eighth place finish in Chicago wasn't the worst of the season for New Jersey native Truex Jr., it wasn't his best either. He will want to perform better in front of his fellow New Englanders at Loudon, maybe even get that elusive win on his home territory. In his 13 Cup starts at the Miracle Mile, he's only got three top fives, but this has been a breakout year for Truex Jr. and his MWR teammates, so it would not be surprising to see the No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota in victory lane.
10. Kevin Harvick – The dreaded RCR handling monster reared its ugly head at Chicagoland for Harvick and the best he and Gil Martin could manage was 12th place. Certainly Harvick seems happier with Martin back on the pit box, but his performance showed the issues are deeper than just who is calling the plays. Harvick's won at Loudon and 12 of his 23 starts have netted top-ten finishes, but the No. 29 Budweiser Chevy team will need to be on top of their game for Harvick to get his first win of the season.
Matt Kenseth – Chicago was not Kenseth's kind of town last weekend when a shock fell off the No. 17 Best Buy Ford, causing him to fall from the top 10 to 25th. He clawed back to 18th place - certainly not the way he wanted to begin the Chase. A comeback at New Hampshire could be problematic since it's not his strongest track. He's got an average finish of 14th, but no wins and only five top fives in 25 starts. Kenseth's 13th place in July cost him the points lead. Will this visit drop him out of the Chase or put him closer to his second title?
12. Jeff Gordon – The momentum Gordon built with his gut-check performance at Richmond crashed into the wall at Chicago. If the four-time champion and three-time Loudon winner hopes to remain relevant, the No. 24 Dupont Chevy team will need some of that magic for which NHMS is nicknamed. While Gordon's average finish of 10.7 in 35 starts is impressive, he's not won at the track since 1998. With the competition as fierce as it is this season and the luck he's had, almost everyone has counted Gordon out at this point. Does Big Daddy have it in him to overcome such long odds? It should be fun to watch him try.
All photo credits to Lisa Janine Cloud/Skirts and Scuffs