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Qualifying the Chasers: Chicagoland

September 15, 2012, Nick Margiasso,

Johnson to start Chase with pole; Stewart starts defense in 29th position

Denny Hamlin (Qualified 8th): Well, here we are again my friends. Is Denny Da Man? An early Chase lead in 2010 proved fleeting, as Five-Time swooped in for the last of a historic run of titles. Hamlin won't get a great head start, as he has not only never won in the Windy City but also has just a single top-five and one top-10 to his name in six career races there. Heck, he has as many finishes outside the top 30 as he does in the top 10 (31st last season and 40th in 2008).

Jimmie Johnson (Qualified 1st): Remember this dude? Vaguely, huh? There was a whole season there in between now and when he was holding a ridiculous five straight Cup title trophies. He gets the chance to Chase another one starting Sunday in Chicago. But this is one of those tracks that JJ has never been in love with and looked downright mortal at considering some of his booming stats in other domains. Johnson has nary a win, a couple seconds, a pair of thirds and a single fourth-place. He's also coming off a 10th there last year and a 25th in the last season of his championship run. Very, well, normal for him at least.

Tony Stewart (Qualified 29th): Tony, Tony, Tony. A lot has been said about the man -- and by him, quite honestly -- but here he is; in the Chase; ranked third in the points standings. It won't be quite a year yet since Smoke revved up his championship run by fighting off Matt and Martin (who will be fiery Chasers again in Chicago) down the stretch for his third career Chicagoland win -- the most by any Cup driver in the track's short history. Not a bad place for a little déjà vu, maybe.

Brad Keselowski (Qualified 13th): Bad-Fast Brad is definitely the next big thing in Cup, and next is happening right now. He just made his first Chase last year and now, for his second go-round, he's put himself in the top four to start out this season's Chase race. It's no fluke either, as the driver of the Blue Deuce answered his last major criticism of lacking consistency by finishing the "regular season" by finishing in the top10 in nine of the last 10 races, five of those in the top five and even notching a win. He's only raced thrice at Chicagoland, but has made marked improvement each time through -- going from 32nd to 18th to fifth. Is a win next?

Greg Biffle (Qualified 22nd): The planets are back in alignment in the Galaxy of Greg with a 2012 Chase berth that may help him forget missing last season's "postseason" -- his first Chase-less year since 2007. Biffle, aided by starting this season with a trio of third-place finishes and winning in the seventh race, sat atop or very near the top of the points standings all season. He bolstered that with a late win at Michigan, cementing his Chase-ification. But he's not going to love starting in Chicago. He's only finished in the top 10 once (2008), and his 2011 finish was his best in three years ... a 26th-place. Yeah, not good.

Clint Bowyer (Qualified 9th): The leader of the Michael Waltrip Racing upstarts and owner of all of its wins, Bowyer spun a so-so season into a fine (wine) one with a Sonoma win. That big win came amidst nine top-10s in 13 races -- and that's before he closed the book on the regular season with a win. He hasn't gotten higher up in the standings than 10th in a season since 2008, but he has already tied his season-high Cup win tally with two. But Chicago as a starting point for his Chase chances? He's sneaky-good there, with top-10s in each of his last three races.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Qualified 4th): Junebug!!! He's back battling for the Cup championship!!! Or is he, really? Yes, technically, he's in the Chase field of course, but he certainly hasn't looked too tough on the race track since his big slump-busting win at Michigan. Where you could feel him almost honing in on that win in June, you could almost feel the mojo slipping away a bit since. He's basically showing up in every other race since that win and these are his last six finishes of the season: 32nd-28th-4th-12th-7th-14th. Meh. That expression also applies to his Chicagoland output, where he has won once, and finished third there last season, but has finished between 15th and 38th in one-third of his races there.

Matt Kenseth (Qualified 3rd): The law of averages is the calling card of Kenseth. He just plugs along, matches his highs and lows with one another, balancing ups and downs. His regular season finished with three top-10s in his last eight races ... he also has as many finishes at 23rd or higher in that same span. He nailed that season-opening Daytona 500win ... then promptly finished 13th and 22nd in his next two races. And, guess what? Same thing at Chi-town. After pulling down a runner-up in 2007 and a seventh in 2008, his next three finishes there were 23rd-13th-21st. Not too bad, not too good.

Kevin Harvick (Qualified 35th): Kevin is definitely the guy this year that you can look at and say, "How'd he get into the Chase?" Zero wins. Not a lot of top-fives or, really, top-10s comparatively to other Chase drivers. He just plain didn't have a bad race. His worst run of the entire season was finishing a not-too-awful 25th after crashing in Talladega. Chicagoland could easily be where he makes the big move for the season, though. Although he's just one season removed from a career-worst 34th at the track, he has finished outside the top four just twice in the last six years. And that's not even counting wins in his first two starts at the track.

Martin Truex Jr. (Qualified 18th): The other Junior ... well, he's in the Chase, too. He hasn't snapped his winless streak like his fellow second-coming-of-a-racing-namesake did in 2012 (Martin's has been going on since 2007), but at least he's playing the game for the first time in a long time. Truex, he of that solitary career win in '07, has only sniffed the top 10 in points once in his Cup career before this season. He's not as bad as you might expect at Chicago, but hanging out in the teens at this race for a career won't get him closer to a win.

Kasey Kahne (Qualified 6th): Kasey is a bit like the flip side of Kevin's story. Unlike the "how-did-he-get-here-winless-Harvick" situation, Kahn's motto might as well be "two-wins-and-somehow-just-in" version of a season tale so far. He's got as many or more wins than seven Chasers, and has been nasty fast lately. The problem? Early struggles. In fact, with ugly finishes in his first six races to the tune of 29th-34th-19th-37th-14th-38th it's a small miracle that he's even in the postseason. He's a wild card, literally and figuratively of course, at Chicagoland -- he has been around the top five in the last three races there after an awful first four shots at the track.

Jeff Gordon (Qualified 19th): There's only one thing anyone worth their salt wants to talk about regarding The Rainbow Warrior. That he got in amazingly on a last-ditch wild-card effort at Richmond, right? Nope. It's what that wild card berth has brought about a re-birth of ... The 'Stache. That's right, the amazingly misguided, creepy evildoer pencil moustache that Jeff broke onto the scene with in the early '90s is back in a bigger, grayer way. So, stats-shmats ... let's see The 'Stache in action please. Right now. The 'Stache could shine right away in Chicagoland, where JG has six top-fives in 11 races there, including a win. That's amazing ... just not as much so as, yup, The 'Stache!