By Jerry Bonkowski
After 26 races full of anticipation and build up, the 12th edition of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup is here.
When the green flag drops on the MyAFibRisk.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday afternoon, 16 drivers will begin their quest to potentially win NASCAR’s most celebrated championship.
Only one will emerge from the season-ending and championship-deciding race at Homestead-Miami Speedway 10 weeks from now with the ultimate victory.
Along the way, there will be excitement aplenty, as well as drama, anger and even angst as NASCAR fans watch the field get pared to 12, 8 and eventually a final four heading into Homestead.
But before we kick off the road to Homestead, there are a number of questions to begin the Chase with:
* Can Kevin Harvick win his second consecutive Sprint Cup championship?
* Given his near-miraculous comeback from a devastating crash in February, can Kyle Busch top it all off by winning his first Sprint Cup crown?
* Will Jimmie Johnson earn his seventh Sprint Cup championship, tying him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most championships by a single driver?
* Despite a winless regular season, will Jeff Gordon rally back as only he can and end his 23-year Sprint Cup career with his fifth championship?
* How will first-time Chase entrants Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard fare?
* Can Ryan Newman, whose “consistency first” run carried him to a runner-up finish in last season’s championship battle, once again reach the final four at Homestead?
* Joe Gibbs Racing is the only team with four drivers in the Chase. Does that give JGR a decided edge?
* Ford has just two representatives in this year’s Chase. Will Joey Logano end his season the way it began, with a win – and potentially his first Sprint Cup championship? Or will teammate Brad Keselowski earn his second career Cup title in four seasons?
* Will Martin Truex Jr. cap off a career-best season with his first Cup championship?
* After 16 years of trying, will 2015 finally be Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s year for that long-awaited first Sprint Cup championship?
* Will Denny Hamlin be able to overcome the pain of a torn ACL in his right knee and use it as motivation to reach the Chase final four for the second straight year?
* Matt Kenseth won the last Cup championship in 2003 before the advent of the Chase the following season. With four wins thus far this season, including three in the last six races, can Kenseth carry that momentum through all 10 Chase races and earn his second career championship?
* After losing the 2011 championship to Tony Stewart by a tie-breaker, will Carl Edwards win it all in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing?
* Will the five drivers who failed to win a race during the regular season – Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer – finally reach victory lane in the Chase?
* Speaking of Menard and Newman, can they snap a 21-year drought and earn the first Cup championship for Richard Childress Racing since Dale Earnhardt last did so in 1994?
* With Michael Waltrip Racing closing at season’s end, can Clint Bowyer deliver on his promise to win the championship not only for himself, but also for the 200-plus employees that will be without jobs after this season?
* Given all the highs and lows he’s gone through this season both personally and professionally, can Kurt Busch bounce back to earn his second Cup championship?
* And let’s not forget all those drivers that fell short of making the Chase. Can guys like Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and others have an impact in the Chase and serve as potential spoilers?
That’s quite a few questions, indeed. How they’ll ultimately be answered begins Sunday.
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR and motorsports for NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @JerryBonkowski