|NASCAR's playoffs begin Sunday, here are the contestants (Getty)|
The storylines are many: Reigning champion and Chicagoland winner Tony Stewart seeks his fourth title; Denny Hamlin hopes to become just the third top-seeded driver to win a title under the Chase format; and Jimmie Johnson, with 20 Chase victories, is the remaining field’s biggest obstacle to a championship.
This year’s Chase field is studded with veterans – including four former champions with a combined 13 titles – from seven different teams. There are no first-time qualifiers. Hendrick Motorsports qualified all four of its drivers with Jeff Gordon completing a late-summer surge to claim the final Wild Card spot by three points over Kyle Busch.
Danica Patrick, a native of nearby Roscoe, Ill., will make her NSCS Chicagoland Speedway debut as well as competing in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series event. She recorded a NNS finish of 10th at Chicagoland a year ago.
One point is the difference between first and second places as NASCAR Nationwide Series teams assemble for Saturday’s Dollar General 300 Powered by Coca-Cola. Leader Elliott Sadler won at Chicagoland earlier this year. Reigning champion Stenhouse has finished no worse than second in his past three races and he’s cut into Sadler’s points advantage.
At least seven drivers are expected to do double duty this weekend including former NNS Chicagoland winners Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series teams travel to Iowa Speedway for their second of two races at the 0.875-mile short track where championship leader Timothy Peters won in July. Peters lead has shrunk to nine points over James Buescher, the series’ only three-time winner this season.
There have been six first-time winners in 2012 – one shy of the series record. A number of part-time and first-time competitors are expecting to make an appearance in the American Ethanol 200 Presented by Hy-Vee including former Iowa Speedway NCWTS Keystone Light Pole Award winner David Mayhew.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
Reigning Champion Stewart Seeks Title No. 4
Different season, different scenario for reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart. Stewart entered last year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ without a victory and the picture of frustration. He then ripped off two consecutive victories, at Chicagoland Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, en route to a record five Chase wins and a third title. Stewart heads into this week’s Chase opener at Chicagoland as the No. 3 seed with 2,009 points – just three points out of the lead. The winner of the first Chase race has gone on to win the championship just twice: Stewart a year ago and Kurt Busch in 2004. Stewart bids to become the fifth driver to win four or more NASCAR Sprint Cup titles joining Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
Hamlin Bids To Become Third Top Seed To Win Championship
With victories in two of last three starts – and four wins overall – Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin enters this year’s Chase as the No. 1 seed with 2,012 points. That’s three more than his closest three rivals, Johnson, Stewart and Brad Keselowski. Hamlin qualified for his seventh consecutive post season beginning in 2006, his first year as a full-time NSCS competitor. Position obviously is important in the Chase during which every point counts. Conversely, the No. 1 seed has gone on to capture the NASCAR Sprint Cup title just twice: Johnson in 2007 and Stewart in 2005.
‘Five Time’ Significant Obstacle To 11 Chase Rivals
Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Johnson represents the portal through which 11 other Chase qualifiers must pass. Johnson has won 20 times during the eight seasons under the Chase format. The Californian is the only competitor to have qualified for the post season all nine times. Johnson has yet to record a victory at Chicagoland Speedway but is the leader in a number Loop Data categories including Driver Rating (112.2). Johnson’s average Chicago finish is a series-best 4.6.
Seven Teams, No First-Timers In This Year’s Chase Field
Competitors from seven different teams have qualified for NASCAR’s post season including all four Hendrick Motorsport drivers Johnson, Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Roush Fenway Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing each have two drivers in the Chase field with Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Penske Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing bringing one each. This is the first season in the Chase for MWR, which became a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup team in 2007. Richmond winner Clint Bowyer is seeded sixth with 2,006 points while Martin Truex Jr. is 10th with 2,000.
This year marks the first time Earnhardt has qualified for back-to-back Chases. His 17 top-10 finishes is his best (previous 16, 2008) since joining HMS. Earnhardt is the No. 7 seed with 2,003 points.
Four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions are part of this year’s Chase: Johnson (five titles), Gordon (four), Stewart (three) and Matt Kenseth (one). Kenseth is seeded eighth (2,003)
Each of the 12 drivers has been a Chase participant in previous seasons although Bowyer, Kahne, Truex and Greg Biffle (No. 5, 2,006 points) failed to qualify in 2011. No. 4 seed Brad Keselowski (2,009 points) qualified as a Wild Card a year ago and finished fifth in final rankings. He enters the Chase having scored the most points over the season’s most recent 10 races. Truex and No. 9 seed Kevin Harvick are the only two Chase drivers without a victory in the regular season.
Kahne, Gordon Winners In Frantic Wild Card Derby
As anticipated, the frantic Wild Card derby went down to the wire in Sunday’s early hours at Richmond. Four-time champion Gordon, a one-time regular season winner, edged Kyle Busch for the second of two Wild Cards by just three points. With Stewart preserving a top-10 ranking (10th), Kahne’s two victories claimed the other Wild Card spot. Each will start the Chase with a base of 2,000 points. Gordon is in the Chase for the eighth time, missing only the 2005 season. This will be Kahne’s first Chase since 2009 when he finished 10th in final standings.
Patrick Makes First NSCS Start At Home Track
Roscoe, Ill., native Danica Patrick has competed in NASCAR before at Chicagoland Speedway – but only as a NASCAR Nationwide Series driver. She’ll make her NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut this Sunday behind the wheel of the No. 10 Chevrolet. This will be her sixth NSCS start with finishes of 29th in her past two races at Bristol and Atlanta. Her best NNS finish at Chicagoland Speedway is 10th in 2011.