Originally written on Race Review Online  |  Last updated 9/15/12

 

Past Champions’ Luster Makes Winning ’12 Title Challenging

There are four good reasons why becoming a first-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion is supremely difficult. This year’s challenge is to beat four competitors who have been to the top of the mountain before – 13 times, to be exact.

The 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ roster is stacked with veterans, headed by former champions Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth.

Johnson won five consecutive titles between 2006 and 2010. Gordon counts four championships. Stewart is a three-time and reigning titleholder. Kenseth’s single championship came in 2003, the season before the Chase format was introduced.

The four have won a combined 91 times on the 10 tracks comprising the Chase schedule. Johnson and Gordon each have won 31 Chase-track races.

Johnson enters the Chase as the No. 2 seed with 2,009 points – three behind leader Denny Hamlin. Stewart, also a three-time winner, is seeded third also with 2,009 points. Gordon must come from the rear as the 12th and final seed, claiming the second Wild Card by three points over Kyle Busch. He starts with 2,000 points.

Johnson statistically is the top contender with a Chase track Driver Rating of 108.7. He claims the best average start (10.6) and average finish (10.1) and has led 14.2% of laps run. He is without a victory at Chicagoland and Homestead but has finished second twice at both tracks.

Gordon, whose last championship came in 2001, is the all-time leader among this year’s qualifiers on Chase tracks with 278 starts, 122 top-five and 167 top-10 finishes. He has a second Driver Rating of 97.3. Homestead is the only Chase track on which Gordon has failed to win, his best a third in 2004.

Stewart is the only driver in the postseason to have won at every Chase track and is the defending winner of Chicagoland’s GEICO 400. He has 21 victories on the 10 post-season stops, third-best to Johnson and Gordon. His Driver Rating (94.9) ranks third among Chase qualifiers.

Kenseth, who’ll run his final 10 races for Roush Fenway Racing, counts eight victories on five of the 10 Chase tracks – but none at Chicagoland, where he has a pair of runner-up finishes. He won the Coors Light Pole in Joliet a year ago. Kenseth has a fourth-best Chase track Driver Rating of 94.0.

All 12 Chase qualifiers have been in the postseason before. Johnson has qualified for all nine under the format. The 12 drivers have won a combined 318 NASCAR Sprint Cup races.

They represent seven different organizations, with Hendrick Motorsports having put all four of its drivers (Gordon, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne) into the Chase. Roush Fenway Racing (Kenseth and Greg Biffle) and Michael Waltrip Racing (Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.) each have two drivers. MWR reaches the Chase for the first time since becoming a full-season team in 2007. Joe Gibbs Racing (Hamlin), Penske Racing (Brad Keselowski), Richard Childress Racing (Kevin Harvick) and Stewart-Haas Racing (Stewart) complete the field.

Chevrolet represents half the Chase field with six drivers. Toyota fills three spots, Ford two and Dodge one.

No. 1 Chase Seed Hamlin Predicts Wins To Be Crucial

Denny Hamlin has no illusions about what it will take to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. And as the Chase’s No. 1 seed, the Virginia driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota has proved so far in 2012 he’s capable of meeting the challenge.

“It’s going to take wins. That’s going to be the most important thing,” said Hamlin, whose four regular-season victories give him 2,012 points heading to Sunday’s GEICO 400.

Seeding gives a driver bragging rights – for exactly one week. But No. 1 seeds have become the champion just twice under the Chase format: Tony Stewart in 2005 and Jimmie Johnson in 2007. (see chart page 2)

Stewart was winless a year ago before winning at Chicagoland Speedway and the following week in New Hampshire en route to a Chase-record five victories.

Hamlin had the championship trophy all but engraved with two races remaining in 2010 but finished second. JGR has added a key ingredient it lacked, a championship crew chief, Darian Grubb, who backed Stewart’s title run a year ago.

“What took us out of the championship in 2010 really were a lot of different circumstances,” Hamlin said. “I think I'll just be a lot more relaxed this time around.”

Earnhardt-Letarte Bond Makes Championship Realistic Goal

This could be the season Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins it all. And if he does, he’ll credit crew chief Steve Letarte to pushing him over the top. The second season with Letarte calling the shots for Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet has been a hit – and then some.

Earnhardt qualified for consecutive Chases for the first time. His 17 top-10 finishes in the season thus far are the most in HMS equipment. And there’s that elusive Michigan victory, which broke a four-year drought in June.

“You know, I just think that Steve deserves a lot of credit for our performance. Steve puts a lot into the program,” Earnhardt said of Letarte’s skills. “He's helped me as a driver. He's helped me become a better driver. He's shown me how I can be a better asset to the team inside of the car and outside of the car. I think he's improved me in a lot of areas.”

Earnhardt has thrived as a true member of a team – something lacking earlier in his career.

“I never really had anybody ask much of me other than bring the helmet, get in, [ask] ‘How does it drive?’” he said. “He's a lot more detailed and wants a lot more information. It's just a totally different atmosphere, a totally different culture than I'm used to being around.”

The team has taken the season one race at a time and will continue to do so in the Chase.

“I think you can't think too far ahead of yourself,” Earnhardt said. “You just got to be smart and try not to make any mistakes or get yourself in any holes early on.”

Where Do We Start?

Below is each Chase champion’s seed at the start of the 10-race Chase …

2004 Kurt Busch: 7
2005 Tony Stewart:1
2006 Jimmie Johnson: 2
2007 Jimmie Johnson: 1
2008 Jimmie Johnson: 3
2009 Jimmie Johnson: 3
2010 Jimmie Johnson: 2
2011 Tony Stewart: 9

Bad Brad Anything But In Race To The Chase

Looking for a dark horse pick to win the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship? Try Brad Keselowski on for size (if you can even call him a dark horse anymore).

Keselowski enters the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with the second-highest points total (2,009), and more momentum than any other driver. He scored more points in the Race to the Chase – the 10 races preceding the Chase – than any other driver, by a wide margin. His other stats also trumped his competitors. A breakdown …

Keselowski scored 378 points over the last 10 races. Second-highest in points scored were Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, who each tallied 363.

He scored nine top 10s in the previous 10 events, two more than Gordon’s seven.

Keselowski and Gordon each had six top 10s in the last 10 races, which ranks atop that list.

The question now becomes: Can Keselowski continue his consistent ways? He couldn’t last year, when he made his first Chase appearance. Last season, Keselowski entered the Chase with six top-10 finishes in seven races. He ripped off another two top 10s in the first two races (at Chicagoland and New Hampshire), but stumbled down the stretch with six finishes outside the top 15.

Martin Truex Jr., who made his second career Chase and first since 2007, might surprise a few spectators over the next two months. He, too, comes in hot. Along with top 10s in five of the last seven events, Truex has eclipsed the 100.0 Driver Rating barrier in six of the last seven races.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon look to continue a recent trend in sports these days – championships won by Wild Card teams. Major League Baseball instituted the wild-card system in 1994, with five wild-card teams winning the World Series since (four of them since 2000). The defending champion St. Louis Cardinals were a wild-card team. The most recent National Football League wild-card Super Bowl champions were the Green Bay Packers in 2010. NASCAR implemented the Wild Card last season, with Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin as the first two winners. Keselowski had the better championship finish – fifth. … Milestone Watch: Hamlin will make his 250th start and Scott Speed will attempt to make his 100th series start. … Last weekend at Richmond, Joe Nemechek became the fifth driver to reach 1,000 NASCAR national series starts. … Danica Patrick will make her sixth career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start. She has either improved or matched her previous finish in each start.

NASCAR PR

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