In what has been perhaps one of the most craziest and exciting seasons in NASCAR history, it's only right that it's playoff time in the Sprint Cup Series. It has come all down to it with these next 10 races, the final ones that matter most for 12 drivers and teams who've clawed and fought their way for eternal glory.
On some occasions, the path to victory has been somewhat easy. For others, it's been an epic quest and journey through adversity and struggles to make it into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship field. There's 12 different stories that explain how each competitor made it to the final fight, ones that indicate the strength and determination of their chances for that glorious title and trophy.
Although there's no perfect science in predicting who'll win this year's championship. it's certainly not a stretch to analyze and glance over at the teams and drivers who'll comprise this year's "title class of 2012."
For one car owner, namely Michael Waltrip, it'll be the first time that his teams have made the Chase, with both of his full time efforts making their inaugural bid for the Cup. Clint Bowyer's put together a banner year, nabbing a pair of checkered flags while Martin Truex, Jr. has parlayed consistency to earn his first Chase berth since 2007.
Another car owner has a 33 percent chance at hoisting an amazing total of 11th championship, as all four of his teams punched their tickets to the Chase. Jimmie Johnson is the clear favorite to get the Cup over at Hendrick Motorsports, although teammates Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are hungry to lay claim for their Cup. Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon and his No. 24 team fought off inconsistency and bad luck, as well as a roller coaster experience at Richmond last weekend to make their seventh Chase appearance.
Penske looks to finally hoist his first title, while the likes of Stewart-Haas, Gibbs, Childress and Roush hope to add on to their organizations' amazing checkered resume with the 2012 Cup.
It's a wide open field this season, with the best of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing ready to make their first moves to get into position for the title with the kickoff race at Chicagloand Speedway. Sure, the title can't be won at the first race of the Chase, but many title bids have ended immediately with a poor result that's extinguished any dreams of Cup glory.
Teams that excel at intermediate speedways are at an advantage at this 1.5-mile quad-oval speedway. Horsepower, handling, and engine reliability are just some of the keys to victory at this venue. With that in mind, who does the advantage go to at Joliet, IL? Find out and read below!
- Denny Hamlin (4 wins, 2012 points): Hamlin seems to be the odds-on favorite for the title and why not? He's got Darian Grubb at the helm and he knows a thing or two about titles, especially last year with Tony Stewart's historic and momentous run to a third Cup. After a somewhat middling campaign last year, the 2010 runner-up looks prime to overcome that bridesmaid hangover. Wins at Phoenix, Kansas, Bristol, and Atlanta were convincing and indicate to the No. 11 team's competitors that they won't back down so easily like in years' past and will wind up sitting in the top-five in points.
- Jimmie Johnson (3 wins, 2009 points): Five-Time is another driver that cannot be easily dismissed for this year's title race. Johnson is the model of perseverance when it comes to overcoming adversity. How many times have we seen the No. 48 team overcome a bad pit stop, an ill-handling car, or a poor qualifying effort to salvage their afternoon with, say, a win? Victories at Darlington, Dover, and Indy were dominant and convincing to the masses that perhaps, we'll need to come up with a new nickname for this Hendrick-powered effort. A top-five points effort is realistic with this team.
- Tony Stewart (3 wins, 2009 points): Ah, here's a driver who's in a far better position than last year for another championship down the stretch. Last year, he wrote himself off from the Chase before winning five events and pretty much proving that wins and consistent strong efforts could wipe away regular season blues. Only thing stopping this team from perhaps making another run at the Cup is their inconsistency at top finishes, although this was the same issue in 2011. And we all know what happened then. Stewart owns wins at Las Vegas, Auto Club, and Daytona. As of the moment, they look more like a team that'll finish in the sixth-10th points position range.
- Brad Keselowski (3 wins, 2009 points): This one's tough because Keselowski and his No. 2 Miller Lite team's the only Dodge team but with them switching over to Ford next year, he's somewhat of a Roush-Fenway satellite effort. Sure, the motors and sheet metal are Mopar-laced, but BK and crew chief Paul Wolfe have Greg Biffle to turn to as far as advice down the stretch. Last year, they placed fifth after garnering a Wild Card seed, which gives some hope to Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon for their Cup bids. Still, this could be an interesting team to watch down the stretch. BK has wins at Bristol, Talladega, and Kentucky. Like Stewart, they'll be more apt to get a sixth-10th points finish.
- Greg Biffle (2 wins, 2006 points): Roush-Fenway's hopes at a third Cup title solely rests on the No. 16 team. That's not to say that Matt Kenseth isn't capable of winning a championship, but let's face it, Roush-Fenway will put 100 percent focus with Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia. Here's a good story here, as Biffle had missed the Chase by a mile last year but has come out of the gate in 2012 as a man who's hungry for the Cup. The pride of Vancouver, WA will show his peers that he's legit serious for a title run, as he garners wins at Texas and Michigan. Top-five is definitely realistic with the No. 16 team.
- Clint Bowyer (2 wins, 2006 points): Should he seriously thank Juan Pablo Montoya for being the sixth seed in the Chase? Perhaps, although those two have a checkered history with one another that could either be fodder in the articles or a storyline to watch in the final 10 races. With wins at at Sonoma and Richmond, it goes to show that the No. 15 team with Bowyer and headwrench Brian Pattie are game to play spoilers for the Cup, although they seemed destined to stay right where they are in the sixth-10th points range.
- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (1 win, 2003 points): Right here is the man to beat. That's right, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte are the potent duo that will upstage and outwit the other 11 teams to win the Sprint Cup championship in 2012. Consistency has been their greatest strength all year long, with their win at Michigan in June as the highlight thus far this year. While others may be going for the hot-shoe in Hamlin due to his four wins, Earnhardt's strong steady results will get the job done, and they'll at least see themselves in the top-five in points.
- Matt Kenseth (1 win, 2003 points): Sadly, Kenseth is a lame duck who may not be involved in too many future team meetings in the fall but with that said, his farewell to his Roush-Fenway years will be a memorable one for all the right reasons. Crew chief Jimmy Fennig has dealt with a driver as cool and smooth as Mark Martin for the past few seasons. Roush-Fenway has seen the glorious grounds of Victory Lane at Daytona with two career "Great American Race" wins and of course, that first Cup trophy back in '03. No championship is in the cards this year for Team 17 but that's not to say they won't put up a good fight, as they'll place at least in the top-five in points.
- Kevin Harvick (2000 points): His crew chief's back and they're seeking for redemption, hey now, hey now, Gil Martin's back. OK, so maybe Kevin Harvick isn't a singer (or is he?) but that's probably the tune that the No. 29 team has been humming since Bristol. Results have been stellar since the return of Harvick's old crew chief, but is it a case of too little, too late? The No. 29 Budweiser Chevy team has been so inconsistent all year long but this is why a 10-race Chase can easily erase memories of a middling regular season. Just ask Tony Stewart. However, they look more apt to finish outside the top-10, with just too many inconsistencies plauging this effort.
- Martin Truex, Jr. (2000 points): Do you think the Atlanta race's final laps replays in Truex's mind about every night since Labor Day Sunday? Hopefully, the No. 56 team won't be too caught up over their near-win opportunity at Atlanta, but it's gotta sting a little. Make no mistake though, despite having no wins thus far, the NAPA Auto Parts team led by crew chief Chad Johnston could be very strong down the stretch and Dover and Charlotte look like their best opportunities at Victory Lane. Dark horse at best, but a dependable driver for those good, solid top-10 runs who for now look best to finish outside the top-10 in points.
- Kasey Kahne (2 wins, 2000 points, Wild Card): Girls swoon over the Enumclaw, WA native so quickly, some are quick to flock to him quicker than a New York minute. Wait, what does this have to do with his 2012 season synopsis? Oh yea, a certain girl near a racetrack became a fan on Memorial Day Sunday and chose a winner. Also, Kasey Kahne's been amazing and strong since his spring swoon, with wins at Charlotte and Loudon as the centerpiece to their Chase bid. The No. 5 team's looking like a team destined for a top-five points finish. Just how far up the standings they'll be is all up to driver, crew chief Kenny Francis, and that pit crew on race day, good enough right now for a sixth-10th place effort.
- Jeff Gordon (1 win, 2000 points, Wild Card): Talk about luck in terms of bad and good. First, the bad: Gordon sure had ugly finishes in the beginning of the year, with more struggles and poor finishes than the 2012 Boston Red Sox. Unlike the hometown baseball team, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson shook off those struggles, worked feverishly on consistency and in turn, they got a win at Pocono by virtue of good luck. Ah, good luck - the No. 24 Drive To End Hunger/DuPont "20 Years" Chevy team have reeled off some amazing performances with a lil' bit of fortune on their side, with three consecutive top-three results at Bristol, Atlanta, and Richmond. Title may not be in reach, but if they somehow duplicated their strong run and finish at Richmond, where they overcame handling issues, for the next 10 races, they're at least looking at a sixth-10th points finish.
Agree with my predictions or disagree with them? I wanna hear from all of you about my Chase forecast by commenting on this piece below or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll be sure to publish the best thoughts and perspectives on my Chase preview this week on The Podium Finish! Let the best driver and team win in the best auto racing series of all!
Author's Notes: I'd like to dedicate this piece to everyone who believes in me, from my family (my parents and sisters), friends, JET, and just anyone who's stood by me and knows how much being in the world of NASCAR is my ultimate dream. Thank you all so much. Also, this article is dedicated to everyone whose lives have been touched and affected by the events of 9/11 - for those who gave all and for those who lost a family or friend on that horrible day, we will never forget and we shall press on as a world of one with love and appreciation for happiness, liberties, and dreams.