By Jared Turner
The dress rehearsal is over and it’s down to business this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway where the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup kicks off on Sunday with the MyAFibRisk.com 400.
With the standings reset and the 16 championship contenders seeded based on wins from the regular season, there’s a three-way tie atop the points between Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch.
Even more significant, however, is that just 12 points separate the championship leaders from the five winless drivers who enter the Chase with no bonus points.
Although the season is 26 races old, Sunday’s showdown at Chicagoland for all practical purposes represents a fresh start for each of the 16 men who will contest the title. In other words: While there are clear favorites to advance out of the Challenger Round into the 12-driver Contender Round, there will undoubtedly be some surprises over the three weekends that make up the Challenger Round – and the rest of the Chase, for that matter.
History has proven that all bets are off when the Chase begins. Drivers starting out deep in the championship field have on multiple occasions been able to catch fire when it really counted. Just four years ago, for example, Tony Stewart made the Chase but – for good reason – was a virtual afterthought where the championship was concerned.
Winless over the course of the regular season, Stewart miraculously captured five wins in the 10 Chase outings to seize his third title in NASCAR’s top series.
Think something like this couldn’t happen again this year? Well, it certainly could. The only question is if it will. This much is certain: No one, even Joe Gibbs Racing – winners of eight of the past 11 races – is taking anything for granted.
“You got 16 teams,” team owner Joe Gibbs said. “We always talk about winning being super-important. To be quite truthful, being consistent is going to be a huge part of it, too.
“All 16 of these teams earned their way in. If somebody gets hot down the stretch, we’ve seen it before, if somebody gets hot, they got a chance to win a championship. I just hope it’s one of our cars.”
Although recent trends seem to favor a Gibbs driver winning the title, beating reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick is going to be no small task. Despite winning just twice during the regular season, Harvick amassed a series-high 22 top-10 finishes in 26 races and led the standings from the third race until the points were reset following last Saturday night’s race at Richmond.
“I know that they’ve been on kind of a record deal there this year,” said Gibbs, referring to Harvick’s number of top 10s, which include 10 second-place finishes.
“He (Harvick) says they’re stronger than last year. I believe that. I think obviously that’s a very strong car.”
Harvick, for his part, makes no attempt to mask his confidence about mounting another title run.
“Well, I feel like as a team we have been there, done that,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “We’ve been in Phoenix and Homestead pressure situations and succeeded in both of those situations. I think when you look at the group there’s not a lot of them that have done that, and you’ve just got to keep pressure on them, and I think as you go into Chicago, you just know that you’re not going to make any friends and you don’t have to worry about it. … It’s not about making more friends.”
But it is about being fast, something the Gibbs drivers have done better than anyone over the past couple months. Will Harvick or someone else be able to catch them in the Chase?
5 To Watch At Chicagoland
Matt Kenseth is the 2013 Chicagoland winner and returns on the heels of a standout performance at Richmond, where he triumphed in convincing fashion.
Kevin Harvick’s quest to repeat as Sprint Cup Series champion begins in earnest at Chicagoland, where he’s a two-time race winner.
Brad Keselowski has won two of the past three races at Chicagoland including the one in 2012, when he went on to capture the Sprint Cup title.
Joey Logano has been stout at just about every track this season. Chicagoland, where he has yet to score a victory, should be no different.
The 2008 winner at Chicagoland, Kyle Busch comes into the Chase with four wins and tied for the series points lead. Pretty impressive for a guy who missed the first 11 races.