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This year's Chase could be the best one yet

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Charlotte, NC (Sports Network) - Let the 10-week madness in NASCAR's premier series begin. From what we've seen on the track the past couple of months, the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is not only shaping up to be a thriller, but an entertaining one as well.

Sunday's 400-mile race at Chicagoland Speedway kicks off this year's Chase. It will be the first time the 1.5-mile oval in Joliet, IL hosts the playoff opener.

Jimmie Johnson begins his campaign for a sixth consecutive Sprint Cup title, but is this the year that someone ends his dynasty? Right now, Kurt Busch would love to be the one who does it.

Last Saturday night's race at Richmond featured the next chapter in the on- going feud between Johnson and Busch. Will the bad blood between the two carry over into the playoffs? It's going to make this year's Chase a fun one to follow.

"SIX PACK"

Even though Johnson is the most experienced among the 12 Chase drivers, he isn't the clear-cut favorite to win the championship. He is the only driver who has been in the Chase each year since NASCAR began its playoff format in 2004.

Johnson ended the regular season just three points behind leader Kyle Busch. He also concluded the 26-race period with only one win, doing so by the slimmest of margins -- 0.002 seconds over Clint Bowyer -- in April at Talladega. Johnson will begin the Chase in the sixth seed.

Jimmie Johnson is the only driver who has been in the Chase each year since NASCAR began its playoff format in 2004.
"I think it's going to be a great Chase for the fans, exciting one for the drivers this year," Johnson said. "I think it's real difficult to pick a clear favorite. There's probably seven or eight drivers that have had momentum at some point that are getting warm at the right time."

Johnson generally shines when it comes Chase time. He has won 19 of 70 Chase races so far. Johnson scored just one victory during last year's playoffs, but he did succeed in his "drive for five" titles with a 39-point margin over Denny Hamlin.

Now it's time for Johnson and the No.48 Hendrick Motorsports team to start thinking about the "six pack."

JOHNSON VS. BUSCH

All eyes will be focused on Johnson and Kurt Busch at Chicagoland, following the latest encounter between the two this past weekend.

Johnson and Busch tangled twice during the 400-lapper at Richmond. The two spoke briefly after the race in hopes of resolving their issues. But is it over?

"The bottom line is we can race out there without running into each other, and that's where it goes," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, we have had a history over the years. We spoke [Saturday night] up on the stage, and I certainly hope it's behind us. I have no intentions to run people over."

The two also clashed the first weekend in August at Pocono. Both drivers traded paint on the final lap, which led to a heated argument between them on pit road shortly after.

"He's been able to beat guys the last five years by just out-driving 'em with what he has for equipment," Busch said. "If he wants to switch equipment, let's see what we can do, but I'm going to beat him fair and square with my Penske Dodge."

Boys, have at it.

WHO'S BEEN HOT AND WHO'S NOT LATELY?

During the past 10 races (Daytona to Richmond), four-time series champion Jeff Gordon has accumulated more points than any other driver. Gordon, who turned 40 years old in August, has finished no worse than 13th since the July race at Daytona. He claimed his third win of the season last week at Atlanta.

Following the conclusion of the 2010 season, team owner Rick Hendrick made a crew chief swap for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin and Gordon's teams this year.

Steve Letarte moved from Gordon's No.24 team and replaced Lance McGrew at Earnhardt Jr.'s No.88 team. McGrew paired with Martin at the No.5, while Alan Gustafson ended his crew chief tenure with Martin to serve in the role for Gordon.

"I'm really excited about our race team right now," said Gordon, who starts the Chase in the third seed. "I look back at our season and all the changes that were made with basically me going to a whole different team and getting to know these guys, getting an opportunity to work with them and learning how to communicate and how to get more competitive week in and week out."

At the start of the season, no one would have guessed that Brad Keselowski would make the Chase. Surprise, he's in. Keselowski has been on fire since suffering a broken left ankle and a sore back in a crash while testing on August 3 at Road Atlanta. His three wins -- Kansas, Pocono and Bristol -- helped him earn one of two wild card seeds.

"No matter what happens in the Chase, it's still an honor to be in it, and that doesn't mean I'm making excuses if we don't run well, by no means," he said.

Keselowski has scored the second most points (362) since the first weekend in July. He sat 22nd in points prior to Daytona.

While Gordon and Keselowski have been the two hottest drivers, Earnhardt Jr. and Hamlin have their work cut out if they want to contend for the title.

To the delight of many NASCAR fans, Earnhardt Jr. is in the Chase for the first time in three years. He will start in the 10th seed.

"I'm in the Chase, and I've got an opportunity to run for the championship," he said. "When you're not in the Chase, it's a consolation to finish 13th or whatever your opportunity is, the best you can do, but that's not all that exciting."

Earnhardt Jr. sat third in points after Talladega but steadily dropped in the rankings from there. In fact, he has recorded only one top-10 finish in the last 12 races. Earlier this month, Earnhardt Jr. extended his contract with Hendrick through the end of the 2017 season.

Hamlin, who finished a career-best second in points and notched a series-high eight wins last season, barely made it in this year's Chase. He earned the second wild card by virtue of his win in June at Michigan. Hamlin has been on somewhat of a roll the past few weeks.

"We're coming into the Chase now with three consecutive top-10s, which I'm not sure we've done that all year long," he said. "We've got some momentum. Who knows what's going to happen [at Chicago].

TOP SEEDS

Based on their four wins each so far this season, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick will start the Chase in the first and second seeds, respectively. Busch earned the top ranking since he finished higher in points at the end of the regular season. Harvick is coming off a win at Richmond.

Harvick and Busch also have an on-going rivalry. Their post-race brawl in May at Darlington led NASCAR to place both of them on probation for a month and fined them $25,000 each for their physical altercation. There's been peace between Harvick and Busch lately, but will that hold up during the Chase?

Busch began the 2008 Chase from the top seed after winning eight races, but his championship hopes quickly went up in smoke when he experienced engine trouble in the first two races. He's hoping that won't be the case this year.

"I'm ready for it," he said. "I think a lot of us are ready for it. We just want to get to Chicago and start working on these next ten races."

Harvick has had another phenomenal season. In 2010, Harvick ended the regular season as the points leader. He started that Chase in the third seed based on his three wins.

"I think last year we felt like we were a little behind on the win total, so to be even on the bonus points and the win total is a good accomplishment for us," he said.

After Chicago, the Chase moves on to New Hampshire, then Dover, Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega, Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix before it wraps up November 20 at Homestead.

CHASE SEEDINGS

1 - Kyle Busch (2,012 points)

2 - Kevin Harvick (2,012)

3 - Jeff Gordon (2,009)

4 - Matt Kenseth (2,006)

5 - Carl Edwards (2,003)

6 - Jimmie Johnson (2,003)

7 - Kurt Busch (2,003)

8 - Ryan Newman (2,003)

9 - Tony Stewart (2,000)

10 - Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2,000)

11 - Brad Keselowski (2,000)

12 - Denny Hamlin (2,000)

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

Follow Chris Symeon on Twitter and Facebook.

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