Ten to Go: 2012 Chase

Nine years ago NASCAR took everything we held dear about the points races and tossed it all out the window creating the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Last season they went one step further, restructuring the points system in an effort to put more emphasis on winning. This effort culminated in the tightest points battle in the history of the sport with two drivers going head to head until the final lap of the season. When all was said and done, two names sat atop the standings and a win broke the the tie. Pretty exciting stuff.

But that was last year.

Hosting the opening for the second straight season, Chicagoland Speedway hopes to start the Chase off with a bang this Sunday as 43 drivers line up and go for all. Of course all eyes will be on the top 12 as we all make predictions on who will come out on top.

Let’s see how the top 12 stack up.

Denny Hamlin starts the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup first in points. The father-to-be is hoping to finally put all the puzzle pieces together and claim his first title. The lone Chaser for Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin has four wins in 2012, but his luck at Chicagoland has been hit or miss in the past. In six races Hamlin has an average finish of 19.2. and he’s never won there, but that doesn’t mean he won’t start the 2012 Chase strong. His crew chief Darian Grubb called the shots for Tony Stewart last season and we all know how that ended. Stewart and Grubb dominated the Chase, winning five of ten races before the two parted ways. Grubb’s experience leading a Championship team combined with Hamlin’s hunger may prove to be the ultimate combination. However, they've gotta make sure their JGR engines don’t give out before they have a chance to get the ball rolling.

Jimmie Johnson finds himself seeded second heading into Chicagoland. Johnson and Team Lowe’s had their share of ups and downs during the regular season, but none of that matters now. Johnson knows how to turn up the heat in the post-season – they don’t call him Five-Time for nothing! Consistency has never been a problem for Johnson although last season his Chase got off to a rough start and he’s hoping to return to Championship form. Johnson has 58 wins to his name, but none of them are at Chicagoland, though he’s got eight top 10s in ten races at the track. Will Jimmie and Chad hoist the trophy once again? A lot of it depends on how this weekend goes.

Defending Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart has three wins at Chicagoland Speedway
including last season’s Chase opener. Although Stewart has three wins to his credit in 2012, there’s a lot of pressure on the owner/driver to repeat. It’s going to be hard to top last season, but Stewart is a driver who doesn’t give up, even when the chips are stacked against him.

In only his third full-time season Brad Keselowski makes his second appearance in the Chase. Wins at Bristol, Talladega, and Kentucky put the Penske Racing driver in fourth position in points heading into the final ten race shootout. Keselowski has vowed to finally bring the Cup Championship to “The Captain” and if his performance in the 2011 Chase is any indication of what we can expect, it’s certainly a possibility. In three races at Chicago the driver of the No. 2 has an average finish of 18.2 with one top five to his credit.

Never in the history of NASCAR has a driver had the distinction of winning the Championship in all three major series. In 2012 Greg Biffle could earn that status. The former Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series champion earned two wins on his way to a Chase berth and has an average finish of 9.2 in the first 26 races of the season. Chicagoland Speedway isn’t among Biffle’s best tracks, which could hurt his chances of getting off to a strong start. In nine races the driver of the 3M Ford has only one top 10 finish.

Michael Waltrip Racing makes their first Chase appearance with two drivers making it in. Chase veteran Clint Bowyer is coming off his second win of the season at Richmond last weekend and looks to prove MWR has what it takes to compete with the likes of Hendrick and Roush. Bowyer’s stats at Chicagoland include five top 10s in six races. The question is whether or not the team has the longevity to make it through the final ten events without self-destructing.

If consistency is the key to winning a championship, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the man for the job in 2012. Although his one win puts him seventh in the standings heading into Chicago, Earnhardt Jr. has been on a roll in 2012 earning 17 top 10’s and an average finish of 9.9. More impressive for the driver who has struggled since joining the Hendrick stable is that he finished the first 20 races of the season on the lead lap. At Chicagoland Speedway Earnhardt has one win and three top fives in 11 starts. Will the stars align for Jr. this season? Chicago will be the first of ten tests he and Letarte will have to pass if they hope to reign supreme.

Nine years ago Matt Kenseth won the final Winston Cup. In 2012 he hopes to bring Jack Roush another championship, but it won’t be easy for the No. 17 team. Starting the Chase in eighth after his one win at Daytona, the team may have to deal with some friction in the closing weeks as they prepare for Kenseth’s departure from Roush-Fenway Racing at season’s end. Don’t count them out yet though - he’s got four top-10 finishes at Chicago.

2011 earned ninth place seed Kevin Harvick the nickname “The Closer.” Unfortunately he hasn’t been able to close the deal in 2012. To even stand a chance of winning the championship, Harvick needs to return to his winning ways and Chicagoland may be his best chance. In 11 races the driver of the Budweiser Chevy has two wins and an average finish of 10.4. 

In his second Chase appearance Martin Truex Jr. is perhaps the dark horse of the top 10, but it’s only a matter of time before the New Jersey native finds himself back in victory lane for only the second time in his Sprint Cup Series career. Seeded in 10th, Truex has made great strides this season and has been in contention for the win on several occasions. His performance at Chicagoland has been lackluster at best, having never earned a top five on the 1.5 mile track. Look for Truex to fly under the radar this weekend and earn a solid finish that will start off his Championship bid on the right foot.

Kasey Kahne’s history is one of inconsistency and instability, but now that he's with Hendrick Motorsports he's got a championship-caliber team behind him and two wins under his belt. Earning his way into the Chase via the first wild card spot, Kahne is going to be on everyone's radar in the last ten races. Although the stats show Kahne’s average finish at Chicago to be 21st, he’s finished the last three events at the track in the top 12.

It’s been 11 years since Jeff Gordon last won the championship but his desire hasn’t waned. Making it into the Chase by the skin of his teeth, Gordon proved at Richmond he’s not ready to hand over his helmet. Luckily for the No. 24 team, Gordon has been a solid performer at Chicagoland, earning one win, six top fives, and seven top 10s in 11 starts. Will this be the season Gordon finally becomes a five-time champion and will the return of the famous mustache help bring his mojo back?

Credit for all photos: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs

Skirts and Scuffs Founder Katy Lindamood has been following NASCAR since the age of 12. She's never known a season without Jeff Gordon and looks forward to celebrating her 20th season as a fan in 2013. Katy picked Brad Keselowski as her 2012 Champion and stands by this choice.
Ten to Go: 2012 Chase Ten to Go: 2012 Chase Reviewed by Katy Lindamood on Friday, September 14, 2012 Rating: 5