It's playoff time in NASCAR as the 12 best drivers in the Sprint Cup Series this season line it up this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., in the first event of the ten-race Chase for the Cup that will determine who, if anyone, can unseat five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.
Joe Gibbs' Racing's Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick of Roush Fenway Racing are co-leaders at the top of the Chase standings, each with four wins this season, entering round one of the championship series. Johnson currently sits in the middle of the Chase qualifying field, but he's come from behind several times before to win and defend his Chase crown.
"I have a lot invested in this, and I'd love to see the streak stay alive," Johnson said to reporters this week. "But at the same time, I've won five, and at some point we're going to lose one."
One driver who is hoping that this is the year Johnson's unprecedented championship run gets broken is Columbia, Mo.-native Carl Edwards. Edwards tied Johnson for the most top-ten finishes this season with 17. Twelve of those were in the top five, and he won the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway early in the season.
Edwards held or shared the lead in the points standings after 16 of the first 22 races until his No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford had electrical system issues at Michigan in August.
"I feel like we've shown this year that we can lead the points," Edwards said. "I feel like our team is strong, and we're able to apply our experiences. And, really, we're just faster. We're faster this year than we have been for a long time."
Last month Edwards agreed to a new contract to stay with Roush Fenway, ending all speculation that the Missouri native would be with a new team in 2012.
The only drivers other than Johnson to win a Sprint Cup championship under the Chase format, which began in 2004, are Kurt Busch (2004) and Tony Stewart (2005). As far as intermediate-track success at 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway, Stewart and Harvick are the only drivers in the Chase field who have won more than once there. Both have two career wins at Chicagoland. Jeff Gordon has only won one race at Chicagoland in ten starts, but has the best average finish there of all of this year's Chase participants (8.6). Owner-driver Stewart is close behind with seven top-five finishes in 10 races there.
After Chicago, the Chase moves to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which traditionally has served as the opening venue in the Chase format, then to Dover (Del.) International Speedway on Oct. 2, followed by Kansas Speedway a week later. This will be the second NASCAR stop at Kansas this year.
NASCAR expert and commentator David Caraviello says he feels like the Chase is a lot like a professional golf event. "You can't win it in the first round," he says, "but you sure can lose it." One exception may have been Johnson, who finished 39th in the opening Chase race in 2006 and came back to win his first Sprint Cup title.