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The other six battling for the Cup championship

September 13, 2011, Sporting News Wire Service, NASCAR.com

Jimmie Johnson -- The winning formula for five consecutive championships is easy to articulate. The execution is another matter. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus know how to peak for the final 10 races, win enough of them to build an edge (Johnson has won a mind-blowing 19 of the 70 Chase races) and shrug off even the most disastrous of setbacks (witness the rally from a 39th-place finish at New Hampshire in the No. 48 team's 2006 championship season). Until someone else comes up with a better game plan -- and pulls it off -- Johnson is the champ.

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Six to stop six


Six drivers are heading into the Chase with the momentum to dethrone the five-time champ.

Ryan Newman -- Talk about a guy who has run below the radar. Newman has outperformed his owner-teammate, two time champion Stewart, this year, but he's not near the top of anyone's list of Chase favorites. In the nine races since July's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Newman has notched six finishes in the top eight, including a win at New Hampshire. History has shown, however, that you can't simply top 10 the opposition to death in the Chase. Odds are the champion will have to win at least twice in the final 10, and to do that, Newman and the No. 39 team will have to ratchet up their performance.

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Tony Stewart -- The 2002 and 2005 champ enters the Chase winless, and that's not a good omen. Typically, drivers who haven't won all season don't start ripping off victories in the Chase. On the positive side, Stewart had afterburners on his car in the Labor Day weekend race at Atlanta, coming from nowhere in the closing laps to finish third. Atlanta is an intermediate speedway, and though it drives differently from most other cookie-cutter tracks, there are five such speedways in the Chase. In fact, the Chase starts at a downforce track for the first time -- Chicagoland, where Stewart has two wins and seven top-fives in 10 starts. There's a lot to be said for getting off on the right foot.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr -- Earnhardt made the Chase the old-fashioned way. He earned it, by banking enough points to withstand an assault from Keselowski in the regular-season finale at Richmond. With new crew chief Steve Letarte on the pit box, Earnhardt accomplished his No. 1 goal of getting back into the Chase for the first time since 2008, his first year at Hendrick Motorsports. Letarte has indicated his setups were deliberately conservative when Earnhardt was protecting his position in the past few races before the Chase. The question is, can Earnhardt and the No. 88 team get the job done when they adopt a more aggressive approach for the final 10 races.

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Brad Keselowski -- In the final six weeks of the regular season, no driver was hotter than Keselowski, who broke his left ankle Aug. 3 during a test session at Road Atlanta and won at Pocono four days later to propel himself into the Chase conversation. Keselowski followed with a runner-up finish at Watkins Glen, a third at Michigan and a victory at Bristol that, for practical purposes, locked up the first Chase appearance for the 27-year-old. The question for Keselowski is not whether he can amp up his performance in the Chase but whether he can sustain what he's already doing.

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Denny Hamlin -- A hard wreck on Lap 8 of 400 typically isn't a confidence builder, but that may be just what proves to Hamlin and his team that they still have the mettle to contend. With his Chase hopes in the balance last Saturday at Richmond, Hamlin was a victim of a 15-car pileup in Turn 3, eight laps into the race. He lost a lap to the field, but -- somehow -- his crew repaired his heavily damaged car and made it not only functional but fast. Hamlin's near-miraculous ninth-place finish sealed a place in the Chase, but, more than that, it did wonders for the morale of a team that let a title slip away last year. As a wild-card qualifier, Hamlin is fighting long odds this year, but if he doesn't win the championship, it won't be from lack of effort.

Driver Page | Shop: Chase gear | 2011 Highlights