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Sylvania 300

The Chase is on - like never before

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / September 21, 2011

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For the first time since NASCAR adopted a 10-race playoff format to determine the champion of its premier touring series, the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship will be a wide-open affair.

So buckle your seat belts and cinch ’em up tight. This promises to be a wild ride.

That’s because all 12 Chase drivers, including the two wild-card entrants added to the field for the first time in Chase history, have an equal chance of dethroning Jimmie Johnson from his reign of five consecutive championships and hoisting the Sprint Cup at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Well, you know, there’s a lot of favorites, which is kind of weird,’’ said Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Dodge fielded by Penske Racing, who overcame a fractured left ankle suffered during a practice session Aug. 3 to earn the first wild-card spot by virtue of his three victories during the 26-race regular season.

“I feel bad for Jimmie,’’ Keselowski said. “Every year he comes into this deal, at least that I can recall, as the previous winner and he doesn’t get labeled the first favorite, which is kind of strange.

“You would think the guy that’s won it the last [five] years would be labeled as the favorite.’’

Not this year. There appears to be no clear-cut favorite.

Johnson, the only driver to qualify for all eight Chases, entered this year’s playoffs with one victory - at Talladega April 17.

His driver rating of 95.4 was his lowest since 2005.

“The first three years [Johnson won the Chase], we were pretty dominant, and you had to beat us,’’ said car owner Rick Hendrick, winner of 10 NASCAR titles: five with Johnson (2006-10), four with Jeff Gordon (1995, 1997-98, and 2001), and one with Terry Labonte (1996). “Last year, we came from behind and we proved to ourselves that maybe we’re not as dominant. But if you get into the playoffs and don’t let the pressure get to you and ruin your deal, you can still win it, and Jimmie won last year.

“But this year, if you look at everybody in the Chase, every single car in the Chase is capable of winning that thing.’’

While it may be a challenge to go against Johnson’s streak of dominance, Tony Stewart’s victory Monday in the rain-delayed Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway underscored the wide-open nature of this year’s Chase, which will make its next stop at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Sylvania 300.

Until this year, NHMS served as the venue that launched the Chase. Now it is second in the lineup.

Stewart’s victory at Chicagoland Speedway snapped a 32-race drought for the two-time NASCAR champion and is a prime example why any of the 12 drivers can win.

After all, Stewart entered as the No. 9 seed despite going winless during the 26-race regular season.

During last Thursday’s Chase media session in Chicago, Stewart told reporters he didn’t consider himself a contender, even though he won the championship in 2002 under the old format and in 2005 under the new system.

Asked whom he considered a dark horse among the dozen drivers, No. 5 seed Carl Edwards said, “Maybe Tony Stewart. Nobody’s been talking about him, but he obviously can win championships. He has the same equipment, basically, that Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have and he ran really well in Atlanta and I think he could be really tough.’’

Edwards proved prophetic when Stewart broke his drought in the rain-delayed Chase opener. The win vaulted Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet, from ninth to second in the points behind Kevin Harvick, whose runner-up finish helped him supplant top-seeded Kyle Busch, who finished 21st.

“One day doesn’t change the whole season,’’ Stewart said after his victory. “We’ve got nine races to go through still, and today’s an awesome day. I’m proud of what [crew chief] Darian [Grubb] did. I’m proud of our guys. But we’ve got nine more hard weeks.

“This is one of 10. So there’s a lot that can happen and a lot that has to happen.’’

The 12 drivers understand that there cannot be any mistakes at this juncture. They know any little slip-up or misstep can have dire consequences.

“I don’t think there’s a clear-cut favorite,’’ said Busch, who tumbled to ninth in the points, 19 astern of Harvick. “There’s guys that run well week in and week out and then maybe at a couple places they might stumble a little bit. It’s just about trying to minimize your damages in those kinds of days.’’

Unseating Johnson, though, would come as its own reward for any driver.

“You’re finally the guy that was good enough to put it all together to beat a guy who has won five in a row,’’ said Busch. “Jimmie and those guys, certainly the reason why they’re five-time champions - and five times in a row - is they’re good at what they do and they know what to do and when to do it.

“They don’t tend to put too much pressure on themselves throughout the Chase and they do a really good job at that,’’ Busch said. “For us, we’d love to be able to beat him. Ultimately, it means the most to win a Sprint Cup Series championship.

“And I don’t think it would say that you unseated Jimmie Johnson, but more so, you beat 11 of the best that were in the Chase this year.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.


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