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Inside NASCAR: Chase standings full of legitimate contenders

September 14, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Chase standings crowded with legitimate contenders eager to dethrone Johnson

And so it begins.

The preliminaries are over. The field is set. The 12 drivers left to compete in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup will commence doing so this Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in the first of the 10 Chase races that will determine the latest Cup champion.

After 26 races and the introduction of two wild-card berths into the Chase system, which generated more interest and intrigue than even the most optimistic minds in NASCAR had envisioned, it's almost time to get it on. The participants are predicting the best Chase in history, much as they have each of the years it has been run since its introduction in 2004.

Who will win it all?


Follow your favorite driver and explore the odds of them winning this year's title with CHASE CASTER! Predictions are updated several times a week.

But this year, folks seem to be paying a little more attention. The re-set Chase standings appear to be crowded with legitimate contenders anxious to take their best shots at dethroning five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

"It's 10 races and anything can happen in those 10 races," said driver Carl Edwards, the No. 5 seed. "You can have some sort of problem or bad fortune or good fortune at any point in those 10 races and things can change in a hurry, literally all the way up to the last lap of that race in Homestead.

"I'm going to predict the championship will be up for grabs until the last lap at Homestead. With this points system and as competitive as everyone has been, I just don't see a favorite and I don't see anyone on a real big run where they can be beaten by one bad race. I think it's going to be an amazing championship run."

With each victory in the regular season worth three points in the seeding system, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick begin tied at the top of the Chase standings by virtue of four wins apiece. Jeff Gordon, with three wins over the first 26 races, is seeded third and is three points off the lead under the new scoring system adopted for this season. Edwards, Johnson, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman, each with one victory thus far this season, comprise the fifth through ninth seeds but all are a mere nine points out of the lead. Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin are seeded ninth through 12th, respectively, and each is 12 points behind Busch and Harvick.

Kurt Busch, who won the first championship determined by the Chase in 2004, said the NASCAR playoff system can be exhilarating or exasperating -- as playoffs in all sports should be. He also said as a driver and a team, you'll know soon enough if you're a pretender or a true contender.

"Right now you look forward to these next 10 weeks and you hope that these 10 weeks go like the feel of 10 days," said Busch, the No. 7 seed. "If these 10 weeks turn into a 10-months-kind-of-a-feel, then you'll know the Chase hasn't gone your way."

Wild-card factor

The first 10 Chase positions were earned based on the top 10 finishers in the point standings. The final two went to the two wild cards, or drivers with the most wins who were situated 11th through 20th in the points.

"I'm looking at this like a 1-year-old with a new box of crayons."

--BRAD KESELOWSKI

Keselowski, in particular, put a charge into the wild card race with a late-season push that included a total of three victories. Had he been able to crack the top 10 in points, which he narrowly missed out on, he could have jumped to the No. 4 seed -- just three points out of the lead. As it is, he's the top wild-card qualifier -- meaning he gets in but is not awarded bonus points for his race victories.

That hasn't seemed to bother Keselowski much. He's ecstatic to make the Chase in only his second full-time Cup season, especially considering the fact that he's been racing with a broken left ankle since suffering the injury during a test session at Road Atlanta in early August.

"I'm looking at this like a 1-year-old with a new box of crayons," Keselowski said.

It isn't often drivers agree on everything. But virtually all of them seem to agree that adding the wild-card element to the Chase this year was a tremendous positive.

"The wild card is fantastic," Gordon said. "I don't see any negatives to it. I think it's been awesome."

Gordon noted that it was put into place after Jamie McMurray won three of the sport's biggest races in 2010 but ended up on the outside looking in when it came to forming the Chase field. He had the three victories, but not enough points to crack the top 12.

"I feel sorry for Jamie McMurray a little bit for last year and what it would have meant for him getting into the Chase -- but you look at Keselowski this year and the way that team struggled at the beginning, but has come on very strong," Gordon said. "I believe that team belongs in the Chase and they've secured that through the wild card. It's an exciting aspect and story to see how that wild card has played a role.

"I agree that it's the best thing since the Chase. And I say that regardless of my position."

--DENNY HAMLIN

"I like it because I think it's really about the top 10. I think keeping it to a top 10 in points and then adding the two wild cards, I like that. That's very cool."

Even those who fell short under the new system seem to like it.

"The wild-card thing, actually, when they announced it, I didn't think it would be a game changer," said Mark Martin, who missed the Chase this season. "But it really is -- and to me, it's the coolest thing they've done since they instituted the Chase. It's major. It changes everything for the guys who are not locked into the top 10 comfortably [heading down the stretch of the 26-race regular season].

"The Chase is something that adds some drama to our sport. The whole thing is about trying to make it more appealing to our fans. And I think for the most part, it has. I think the wild-card thing has added a huge dimension to it."

Hamlin, who claimed the other wild-card berth by virtue of finishing higher in points than all others who also had one race win, said that Martin is spot on.

"I agree that it's the best thing since the Chase. And I say that regardless of my position," Hamlin said. "If they didn't have this wild card and it was the old system, we'd still have been battling three or four guys coming into the final weekend for the final spot. But even though it's the same, it's different -- because it opened up the door for so many other guys who played the right strategy through their year and got themselves a win to become Chase-eligible.

"We did the same thing by winning at Michigan. We were very fortunate to get the one win we did this year, so we were able to come into the final [regular-season] race at Richmond not thinking about it. I would hate to have to come into the final race having to win and win only to get into the Chase. So I think the wild card has opened up a lot of eyes to how exciting making the Chase is and can be."

Even A.J. Allmendinger, who finished 13th in points, begrudgingly gave the wild-card format high marks.

"I wish we would go back to 12 guys. We're 13th in points and only like seven points out of [12th]," he jokingly said prior to last Saturday's race at Richmond. "But seriously, I think it's cool for the fans and the drivers. Everybody has a shot. ... I think it's a good thing."

The 48 factor

The bottom line in the Chase is that to be the best you have to beat the best, as wrestler Ric Flair used to say -- or still does. No one disputes who is the best in NASCAR.

It's Johnson, the five-time defending champion. No one has come close to touching his dominance in the Chase era.

Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson have won their share of hardware since the Chase began in 2004. (Autostock)

Beating the best


Jimmie Johnson knows he can't win them all, but who will step up to win the next one?

You want numbers to back it up? Chew on a few of these: Johnson's 19 wins in the Chase are more than double that of the next-closest competitor (Edwards with eight); his average finish over 70 Chase races is a series-best 8.1 (with Gordon, at 12.1, next); his 40 top-five finishes in the 70 Chase races are 13 more than anyone else (Gordon is next with 23). And in the 60 Chase races since NASCAR began tracking such matters over the last six seasons, Johnson has led 11.5 percent of the laps. That's nearly double the number of laps led by anyone else, with Edwards next at 6.4 percent followed by Greg Biffle (6.0), Gordon (5.5) and Stewart (5.4).

How is it that Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet team for Hendrick Motorsports has been able to maintain such excellence during the Chase, year after year after year after year after year? And can they do it for a sixth consecutive season this year?

"I've learned a lot about myself and my race team. I think my team and teammates, team members, have learned a lot about themselves over the last five years," Johnson said. "We've just been taken back, amazed and impressed at our own abilities -- and we've continued to learn each year what we are made of and what we are capable of.

"We're certainly hopeful for a sixth. We are obviously in a good spot right now. We've been collecting a lot of points over the course of the year. We'll all find out starting this week who's off to a quick start, and the storyline will continue to develop each week from there."

Johnson said no matter what happens in these coming 10 weeks, he's enormously proud of what he and his team has been able to accomplish in the Chase era.

"I'm proud of my guys. I'm proud of myself. I'm proud of Hendrick Motorsports. There isn't another group of guys; another team; another sponsor that I'd want to go to war with," he said. "We've proven to ourselves time and time again what we're capable of, and we're looking forward to this year's challenge.

"I'm a realist. Absolutely, I know at some point we're not going to be the champion. I've thought about that a lot over the last four years, to be honest with you.

"But I think there's something within that [thought] that continues to make me hungry to succeed, and also something within all of it that has helped me enjoy what has been going on. We've already beaten the odds. We've done the things that nobody had done before and, inside of that, I've had a lot of fun. I think people saw that last year in the Chase. I hope to continue to carry that through this year's Chase, regardless of where we finish."

Momentum vs. rested

There are a couple of different arguments that can be made for various drivers heading into this Chase.

The top seed


Meet the top-seeded Chase contender Kyle Busch and find out his first number and what he does away from the track.

Flashback


Jeff Gordon's closest shot at a fifth Cup title came in 2007. He says this season has that same feel.

Head held high


Lessons learned last year have Kevin Harvick on top of the world heading into the Chase, Joe Menzer writes.

Johnson, as the five-time defending champ, cannot be discounted and, to many, still rates as the favorite because of how he has been able to dominate past Chases. Top seed Kyle Busch is a talented, brilliant driver -- but his average finish of 19.2 in 63 career Chase races is worse than every other driver except for Earnhardt Jr. (20.0 in 70 races) and Keselowski (22.0 in 18). There also are concerns about the Joe Gibbs Racing engines that Busch runs holding up over the entire Chase. And of course, another difference is that the latter three drivers have compiled some of their Chase race numbers in years when they actually fell short of making the Chase, something that has never happened to Johnson.

The two drivers who appear to have the most momentum going into this Chase are Gordon and Harvick. Not only have they won the last two races (Gordon in Atlanta and Harvick at Richmond), but their entire teams seem to be peaking at the right time.

"I feel like our car is better and our team is stronger [than in previous recent Chases]. Certainly our confidence is higher," said Gordon, who has not only the win at Atlanta but nine top-five finishes in his last 11 starts. "So I'm pretty excited."

Harvick is, too, after finishing seventh in Atlanta and then winning at Richmond.

"It's really going to come down to who makes the least mistakes," Harvick said. "There are a lot of cars that can win, a lot of cars that can be competitive. It's going to be who makes the least amount of mistakes and capitalizes the most on the days that the others are off."

Johnson does not deny that others, most notably Gordon and Harvick, come into this Chase carrying more positive momentum than he does. He also has his own on-going, on-the-track issues to resolve with Kurt Busch -- which will hurt the chances of both drivers if they don't put them to rest, and soon.

But Johnson believes he has a mental edge that the others, or at least some of the others, may lack. Even though he has won only one race this season -- in his five previous championship runs, the fewest he had won heading into the Chase was three in 2009 -- Johnson said remaining solid in the point standings allowed him to save his mental energy for what looms ahead.

"I feel rested. I feel the fact that you can clinch early and come in is an advantage," Johnson said. "I don't think that you have a chance to rest physically. We're still going through the motions. Every team member on every team, every driver, you still do the same reps if you will.

"But the mental side of it, it's just draining, especially if you are worried about things night after night after night. Worried about mechanical failures or flat tires; crashes on the track -- things that could take you out of being in the Chase. That stuff adds up and it takes a toll. The championship pressure itself, it's big. So I prefer to come in rested. That was one of the goals the No. 48 team had coming into the season: to clinch early and not come to Richmond [for the final race before the Chase] all stressed out."

Chase convert

Truth be told, Johnson did not like the idea of the Chase when it was introduced in 2004 -- even before he finished second that year to the champion, Kurt Busch.

"I wasn't a big fan of the Chase when it came along," Johnson admitted. "And here it has been the way I've won the championships for the last five years. I still think we would have two or three championships otherwise, if it was the old system.

"Then you can always argue the point that we race differently, which we do. You do make some decisions throughout the year to advance your cars and to handle things differently because of the Chase format. But at the end of the day, it's an interesting way to decide our champion."

If you were in charge ...


How do you think the Chase compares to other playoff systems? Should different tracks be included? What would be the ideal Chase, if you were in charge? Join NASCAR Nation and add to the discussion.

Johnson said he wasn't a fan of the idea of a Chase at first because he thought it was, in a way, disrespecting the storied history of the sport. But now he is fine with writing new chapters to the sport's legacy.

"Because I felt like the history of our sport and the fact that we have crowned so many champions prior to it in a certain way, I just felt like it needed to continue that way," he said. "But it's not the way it is now. Times change and things change.

"The Chase is very compelling for our fan base and I think it's a great change that our sport has gone through to convert over. You just have to buckle down and figure out what you need to do over those 10 races and take it from there."

For Johnson, keeping it simple has been smart. He has just built on his successes in a way that they have led to more successes.

"I think I was more intense in the early years because any driver has a lot of thoughts and you're trying to analyze all these situations," said Johnson, now in his 10th season as a full-time Cup driver. "Before you win a race, you wonder how you're going to handle those everything and you're trying to prepare for a variety of situations. Once you win a race, you're like, 'Oh, okay, this is how I do it; this is how I deal with pressure; this is how I hold someone off; this is how I find a way by someone. This is how you learn what adjustments you need to make late in a race.

"You start building some confidence in your own decision-making process. You get into the championship format and it's the same thing. So over time, I've built a lot of confidence in, truthfully, the way I think and the things that I focus on -- and I feel like I have a better road map on where to focus. I don't waste a lot of extra time worrying about other areas. Throughout all of that, you know, I'm not the smartest guy and I don't have a ton of brain power, so that's allowed me to kind of sit back and relax and have fun, too."

This year, others hope to join him. And followers of the sport hope Johnson is challenged as well.

"I've always love the Chase format. I wish it would have come along about two or three years later -- because the old points system was treating us pretty good back then," Gordon said. "But the format, the excitement of it, having a championship go down to the final race of the year and having that playoff-type system, I think is important for our sport and our fans."

And so let the 2011 version begin. It should be compelling.