Wide open. That’s how they’ll race. And that’s how this Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is shaping up.
Twelve of the best drivers in the world congregated at the House of Blues in downtown Chicago today for the annual Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Media Day. Media outlets from across the country representing print, broadcast and online outlets participated, with one prevailing question bandied about: Who’s the favorite to win the 2012 championship?
The answer: Who knows.
Some pointed to five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, whose 20 wins in the Chase is hard to overlook. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon received some votes, thanks to a torrid end to the regular season that included a runner-up finish at Richmond International Speedway. And of course, defending champion Tony Stewart got a few mentions.
But one of the biggest names in all of NASCAR – Dale Earnhardt Jr. – was top of mind for several of the 12 championship contenders.
“Everyone talks about him, but I don't feel like they put Dale Jr. in the serious contender category,” said Matt Kenseth, the 2003 series champion. “But in my mind, he's one of the favorites. He's been real quiet, almost sneaky consistent. I feel like this could be a good shot for him.”
Kenseth’s Roush Fenway Racing teammate agreed. Greg Biffle tossed out a couple of underdogs that fall under the “who to watch” category: Earnhardt and Biffle, himself.
“I believe [Earnhardt] has a better chance than ever, by far, to win it,” Biffle said. “He comes here running strong, and came in second in points behind me. We're two guys who were overlooked in the past to win the title. I think people realize that both of us are capable of it.”
So what does NASCAR’s nine-time Most Popular Driver think of all this? He agrees, to a point. He certainly thinks his matured mindset could translate into his first title in NASCAR’s premier series.
“I think back to how we won those [NASCAR] Nationwide Series championships,” Earnhardt said. “I didn't know how to win a championship; I didn't know how to race for a championship. I just went out and ran as hard as I could, and got a big enough lead to lock it up early. I thought at that time that I knew how to win championships, but I really didn't. And it's taken a lot of mistakes to get smarter and I feel like if I do what I need to do on the race track and not make mistakes, I can put myself in a good position to win this one.”