Sprint Cup begins Chase at Chicagoland

Let the Racing Begin

Well that was quite a finish to the 2012 regular season last weekend at Richmond International Raceway.  Clint Bowyer and his crew put in a great effort that landed themselves the victory, but that was hardly the biggest story of the night.  There was little left to decide inside of the top 10 as the drivers started their engines for the annual night race at Richmond.  The real action was clearly going to be the battle for the final Chase spot.

Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch represented the 2 favorites for the final Chase position with Busch holding a 12 point advantage entering the night.  Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano, & Ryan Newman all had a shot to make the Chase but they would have needed a victory to claim that final spot.  Paul Menard also had a very, very small chance but he too would have required a victory and, at best, for Gordon to finish worse than 20th and Busch to finish worse than 31st.

To simplify matters it was pretty much a 2 horse race for the final invitation to compete in the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup.  At the end of the day it was a grizzled veteran who claimed his place in the Chase.  Four time champ Jeff Gordon pulled off his most impressive second place finish of his career.  It was clearly a clutch performance by the #24 crew to get the car adjusted and out of the pits in quick effective ways.  Any legitimate NASCAR fan should be able to appreciate Gordon's recent accomplishment.  He has shown that he still has a strong competitive drive and is still a threat to win another championship.  So here is the list of Chase qualifiers as we go into the opening weekend of NASCAR's postseason at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, IL.

Current Sprint Cup Standings

*place in standings, driver, total points, points back from leader

1Denny Hamlin2012Leader
2Jimmie Johnson2009-3
3Tony Stewart2009-3
4Brad Keselowski2009-3
5Greg Biffle2006-6
6Clint Bowyer2006-6
7Dale Earnhardt Jr.2003-9
8Matt Kenseth2003-9
9Kevin Harvick2000-12
10Martin Truex Jr.2000-12
W1Kasey Kahne2000-12
W2Jeff Gordon2000-12

If you are like me and find the NASCAR points system hard to keep up with, I have included 2 links in this blog to help explain the points system and how the Chase drivers are determined.

Click here for the NASCAR points system:

Click here for Chase qualifying standards:

Now that we have that out of the way let us take a look ahead to the final 10 races of the season and try to figure out who will be labeled Sprint Cup champion in 2012.  The current point system really levels the playing field when the Chase begins.  As far the the Cup is concerned, the first place driver is only 12 points ahead of the last place driver.  Twelve points represents more than it used to historically, but it is still a relatively meaningless margin when considering the remaining 10 races.  With no clear advantage for any Chaser driver it seems pretty difficult to try to determine which one of these 12 guys has the best shot of winning the championship.

My gut tells me Jimmie Johnson and I think we can all agree that picking the #48 car as a favorite is hardly ever a bad move.  However, I'm not sold that JJ has the best shot to win.  Johnson already has 5 and I think there is something to be said for the desire to win for those drivers who have not been fortunate enough yet to win a Cup.  Of the 12 Chase drivers, 4 of them have previously won a championship (Stewart, Gordon, Kenseth, Johnson).  Which means that 8 drivers have the chance to become a first time champion.

That being said I feel that Denny Hamlin has the best opportunity of the drivers who haven't won yet.  I would hate to count out Dale Jr., Harvick, or the other guys but I just don't see championship caliber driving happening for any of those teams.  If I had to list my top 3 favorites I would say, in order of probability: Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, and (spoiler alert) Jeff Gordon.  Now I can already feel the skepticism by throwing Gordon's name in there but hear me out.  Gordon is in the twilight of his career and his seasons are numbered.  Jeff is still a great driver but his years of competitive driving seem to be coming to a close.  In addition, his drive to win is probably comparable to those young guys who are thirsty for their first championship.

Making the Chase used to be a given for someone like Gordon but this year he had to fight tooth and nail just to barely sneak in.  I think he knows that this is his last shot to win his fifth title.  Once upon a time the #24 team was racking victories faster than anyone had ever seen.  Things settled down in the 2000's but he has still been at the top of the list when it comes to talent.  He currently has 86 career wins and sits third all-time where he will most likely finish his career.  This would be the ultimate accomplishment for a man who entered NASCAR at the top of his game and has pretty much sustained that momentum throughout his career.  Someone, somewhere could make the argument that he is the best driver ever.  We will leave that argument for another day but let this blog serve as notice to NASCAR Nation.  Don't be surprised when and if Jeff Gordon finally captures that elusive fifth championship.

Parting Gifts

- Jeff Gordon has 1 win in 11 career races at Chicagoland and an average finish of 10.0.

- Jimmie Johnson has 0 wins and an average finish of 10.0 in 11 races.

- Tony Stewart leads all drivers with 3 career victories and an average finish of 8.73 in 11 races.

Written by: Craig Kibler


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