Finally, it's about that time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup season when the action and battle for the championship heats up in grand fashion.

After dueling for 26 regular season races, in which first-time winners were crowned and old heroes rejuvenated their careers, the 12-man field for this year's title has been set.

Although the past five seasons have produced the same champion in Jimmie Johnson, this year's field might have what it takes to dethrone the No. 48 Lowe's Chevy team from the top of the heap.

To say the least, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus will have their work cut out for them from Chicagoland this weekend to the very last racing weekend of the year at Homestead-Miami in mid-November.

Johnson will have to combat with four-time race winners Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Penske Racing duo of Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski, Stewart-Haas' arsenal in Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, Roush-Fenway Racing's Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin.

Together, those drivers have a combined total of 18 wins, 83 top-fives, and 141 top-10 finishes. These racers and teams have all the resources, talents, and knowledge to not only mount a charge against Johnson, but to break out and dominate at any chance they get in the final 10 races of the 2011 season.

Then again, Johnson has the potential to step it up as he usually does during the Chase. Regardless of his regular season performances, he seems to find a way to churn up his performances to the next level until he has the competition at his mercy.

Call it "Jimmie proofing" or just a change in the schedule, but NASCAR made some realignments with the Chase this year, as Chicagoland will kickoff the playoffs while New Hampshire will host the second race of the final stretch. Teams that can excel at 1.5-mile speedways will certainly have the advantage throughout these last 10 weeks, which will test their will and strength in what should be the most intense portion of the year.

So who are the early favorites, the dark horses, and the drivers who are just glad to be in the Chase but don't stand a shot at this year's title?

Here's a quick look at the 12-driver field, of course, with the opinions and thoughts of each driver just by this writer, and not representative of the drivers and teams themselves! While it is not listed in the same standings orders, each week, we'll analyze the field in this style.

The Early Favorites

Kyle Busch: Without a doubt, Kyle Busch's four wins, 13 top-fives, and 16 top-10's have him as the clear favorite of the Chase. While there's been the talk that he's been a "new" Kyle Busch, let's give credit to the driver here first.

He's shown remarkable poise and some restrain in situations where he might've lost his temper in the past. In a way, it's somewhat reminscent of his older brother Kurt's performance in the inaugural Chase in 2004 and we all know how that turned out.

The only concern for "Rowdy" down the stretch is how he somewhat struggles at the 1.5-mile tracks. They truly need to step it up, get the grasp on their car's set-ups and get the handle dialed in immediately at these venues if they want to breakaway from the pack quickly.

As for Chicagoland, it's like a Katy Perry song for the young racer - "Hot and Cold." Will we see the Kyle Busch that dominated but choked in 2008 or will we see the one that will truly show fans that he's a "new" man?

Jeff Gordon:  He's back - or is he? It seems like every season in an odd-numbered year, Gordon and his No. 24 Chevy team often step it up (minus 2005, but that's another story).

Although they don't have the same number of wins like in 2007, the year in which they came oh-so-close to capturing their first "Chase" title (fifth Cup overall), their poise and confidence matches that year's efforts. Crew chief Alan Gustafson has really gotten his crew to work diligently in only a way that a Gordon team performs - with excellence.

Their only weak spot as of the moment are restarts, which was highly evident during the Richmond race last Saturday night. Sure, they definitely got hurt by the Paul Menard spin caution, but it wasn't like Gordon was mired in traffic. If the Drive to End Hunger/DuPont team can figure out how to capitalize late in the going, there's no stopping them - not even a five-time champion who's had the edge every season since 2006.

Brad Keselowski: With three wins during the regular season, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe earned their way into the Chase the hard way. In late July, BK found himself 21st in the standings and needing a prayer to make it to the postseason.

Prayer, huh? August was more like "An Idiot's Guide To Making The Chase," of course done in brilliant fashion with two wins and finishes of third or better in every race last month. It didn't matter if it was the road course at Watkins Glen, as he took home a runner-up finish.

Heck, it didn't matter if it was a short track like Bristol - he conquered that concrete monster and showed he had the prowess and intelligence to win at such a challenging track.

Inconsistency is one thing that comes up as a concern area for any "rookie" team in the Chase, although they're probably not even aware of the pressures of this grinding 10-race stretch. Perhaps that will be to their advantage, although the restrictor plate race at Talladega might be an interesting one to watch for them - for better or worse.

Jimmie Johnson: Is there any doubt as to why the El Cajon, CA native has won the title for the past five years?

Whether he's bearded or not, seemingly has a new firesuit and paint scheme every year, or has different challengers battling him, the man that Yahoo! Sports affectionately calls "Vader" has a few consistencies - such as winning titles and bringing fear to his competitors.

This year, they've been somewhat dormant. Is this by design or have their peers on the track simply caught up with them? Time will only tell, but rest assured, this is usually their time to shine and they often do. 

Contrary to popular belief, Johnson will not be deterred from the task at hand by any driver, especially Kurt Busch. Sure, we saw him retailiate and try to wreck Kurt Busch at Richmond last Saturday night, but then again, after the race, which driver seemed to be getting to the other's head more, especially during the press conferences?

Carl Edwards: Perhaps Edwards still has that bitter defeat in 2008 left in his mind, as he challenged Johnson down the stretch that year only to come up short despite his nine wins that just weren't enough to beat the No. 48 team.

This year, however, it might be "Concrete Carl's" chance to really step it up and prove to fans and his rivals that he can win car owner Jack Roush's third Cup title.

While they've not been exactly reinventing the wheel or shown the same kind of "breakthrough magic" that Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski have shown this summer, don't dismiss the amazing success that Edwards and his crew chief Bob Osborne can produce when they're on all cylinders.

About the only weakness that they've shown is the occasional wreck or mechanical ailment that bites any team. Fortunately for them, it seldom happens, so as long as they continue their pace, they'll at least be within striking distance for the first half of the Chase.

Dark Horses

Kevin Harvick: It might be a snub to put "Happy Harvick" down in this category, especially when you consider the fact that he's won four races this year. He's looking much stronger than he did last year, so perhaps this will be the only time we'll see him in the "Dark Horse" section.

However, he hasn't exactly been consistent or strong in recent weeks, except for his domination at Richmond last weekend. Then again, one race doesn't make a driver or team, but it certainly garners the publicity and affection from the media.

If we're to base his race this Sunday at Chicagoland from his performance at Kansas, there are some reasons for concern with the pride of Bakersfield, CA. He wasn't exactly at the front of the field, as he ran in the teens all day, which won't win you a Cup.

Matt Kenseth: Let's not forget how his quiet success can be somewhat deadly to the rest of the field, even if they've only scored two wins this year. After all, he won at Texas and Dover, which aren't exactly the smoothest of tracks to conquer on the Cup circuit.

Also, don't forget that he has crew chief Jimmy Fennig at the helm, and he's been in the midst of championship battles in the past. Longtime fans may remember him atop the pit box for Bobby Allison during the 1980s as well as for Mark Martin during the 1997 and '98 seasons.

Quiet consistency might be what it takes to be crowned a champion, which would be somewhat ironic considering how his sponsor, Crown Royal, will not be returning to the No. 17 team after this year. If they can win the title, just imagine how much they'll expedite their sponsor search for 2012!

Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart: No, we're not just combining these two because of the fact that they're teammates. Rather, their seasons are somewhat similar in nature, although Newman has his win from earlier in year at Loudon.

Both don't exactly have "step it up" material right now, but they're not exactly "Chase filler" material, if you catch our drift. 

Stewart and Newman need to work on their intermediate track programs as a collective unit. At some of these tracks, Stewart shines while Newman is mired in the pack, while at others, it's vice versa with that scenario.

Kurt Busch: Is Kurt Busch in Jimmie Johnson's head or is it the other way around? You tell me after you've seen this clip of the 2004 Cup champ from Yahoo! Sports.

He'd probably make the Early Favorites list if he wasn't so hot-headed, like that clip demonstrated - during a press conference.

Sure, he got the best of Jimmie Johnson but if his only mission is to wreck or mess with the 48 team, then he's probably forgetting the fact there's 10 other drivers on the track he has to defeat.

When he's focused and putting all his concentration on his car and team, he's as stout as his teammate Brad Keselowski and the front-runners of the Sprint Cup Series. However, when he's more content on exacting revenge or trying to play vigilante against Johnson, you're not going to beat anyone on the track.

Will we see him try to beat and bang the sheet metal off the No. 48 car or will we see him beat and bang his way to the front of the field?

Chase Fillers

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin: Simply put, until they can show us what they can do now rather than get into the Chase based on early season success, the Nos. 11 and 88 camps will just be happy they made the postseason rather than be obscure forces on the track that just run their cars as billboard machines.

They have the knowledge and talent to turn it around - the question is, do they have enough time to do so?

[Yahoo! Sports via]