Chase preview: Can anyone spoil Johnson's drive for five?
Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
Charlotte, NC (Sports Network) -
Now that the 12-driver field for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship has been set, we'll figure out within the next 10 weeks if Jimmie Johnson's dynasty continues or whether someone has the potential to dethrone him.
The 26-race regular season featured some surprising stories, particularly the resurgence of all three Richard Childress Racing teams. Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer are in the Chase after each missed the playoffs last year.
Jamie McMurray came up short of making the Chase, despite winning the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. McMurray's Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, had an exceptional run in his first Chase attempt last year, but struggled throughout this season and never became a playoff contender.
Hendrick Motorsports has just two drivers -- Johnson and Jeff Gordon -- in this year's Chase. Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked to be in good shape to make the playoffs earlier in the season, but both drivers faltered during the summer months.
JOHNSON'S DRIVE FOR FIVE
Without a doubt, Johnson is the most experienced of the Chase contenders, as he is the only driver who has been in it each year since NASCAR began its playoff format in 2004. Johnson heads to New Hampshire next weekend as the second seed, trailing top seed Denny Hamlin by 10 points. Last year, he started the Chase in the third spot, but finished his record fourth consecutive championship season with a whopping 141-point margin over his second-place teammate Martin.
Jimmie Johnson has won the most Chase races with 18, including four last year.
Despite posting five wins, Johnson endured a somewhat frustrating regular season. After last month's night race at Bristol, he fell to ninth in points, and there were slight concerns that he might not make the Chase. However, Johnson has rebounded with third-place finishes at Atlanta and Richmond, and it appears that his No.48 team is back on track heading into the final 10 races.
"It's been awfully tough to win four in a row, but we'll show up and give 100 percent, and at the end of the ten races, if we give 100 percent and get beat, then we'll go home and be proud of what we did," Johnson said. "But if we squandered it away and do something stupid and say we just didn't give it our all, we'll be disappointed. We just want to do our best."
Johnson has won the most Chase races with 18, including four last year. He excels at most of the tracks on the Chase schedule, particularly California, Charlotte, Martinsville and Phoenix. So don't be surprised if Johnson once again picks up share of wins during the last two months of the season.
RCR's BEST CHANCE FOR A CHASE TITLE
For the third time in four years, Richard Childress Racing has three teams in the Chase. Childress won six championships with driver Dale Earnhardt, but the long-time NASCAR team owner has been without a Cup title since 1994. Could this be the year that RCR returns to glory?
Harvick's phenomenal season has been the highlight of RCR's resurrection in 2010. Harvick ended the regular season as the points leader, scoring the most top-10 finishes with 17. With three wins, he will begin the Chase in the third seed.
"I think it's the best from our team standpoint," Harvick said. "I think it's the best we have ever been prepared. It's definitely the most, probably not the most races we have run up to one point in the year. But as far as the plan and the performance and everything leading up to this point, I think it's the best chance that we have."
Burton and Bowyer will start the Chase in the 10th and 12 positions, respectively. Both drivers have yet to win this year, but they have been consistent enough during the season to make the title show. Bowyer took over the coveted 12th spot in points after the August 15 race at Michigan and held it from there to make the field.
Harvick likely will be RCR's best shot for the title, while Burton and Bowyer will have to step up their paces to be serious contenders.
JGR's CHASE VETERANS
Joe Gibbs Racing has two teams in the Chase, with Denny Hamlin earning the top seed after winning his sixth race of the season last Saturday at Richmond. Even though Hamlin underwent surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee in March, he has lived up to preseason expectations as Johnson's biggest threat for the title.
Hamlin has been in the Chase in each of his first five Cup seasons.
"I feel like the last five races of the Chase always seem to be really good for us, and we always gain points those last five," Hamlin said. "But the problem is, we race ourselves, or something like that, right out of it for the first two or three. So for me, it's about damage control at the beginning and trying to get the best finishes we can and see where we end up. If we are within shouting distance with five to go, then I'm pretty confident we'll have a good shot at it."
Prior to Richmond, Hamlin had not won a race since June, when he prevailed at Michigan. He suffered engine failure and finished 43rd in the Labor Day weekend race at Atlanta. Hamlin's Richmond win certainly will serve as a springboard heading into New Hampshire.
After missing last year's Chase by eight points, Kyle Busch is back in the playoffs. Busch secured the fourth seed by virtue of his three wins this season.
Two years ago, Busch won eight races and started the Chase in the top seed, but his championship hopes quickly went up in smoke after he experienced engine trouble at New Hampshire and Dover.
Busch ended this year's regular season on a high note, scoring three straight top-five finishes, including a win at Bristol, and moving up to second in points.
"We have a good shot at it, and I can't discount us one bit," Busch said. "I'm hoping we can run strong and hard and chase these guys down."
Kurt Busch, who won the inaugural Chase in '04, will start in the fifth seed, while Tony Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, will begin in the sixth spot. Both drivers certainly are considered contenders based on their previous Chase experiences.
Stewart picked up his first win this season in the fall race at Atlanta. He made last year's Chase in his first season as driver and owner. Stewart has won several Chase races, including last October at Kansas.
Busch's two victories this season came in the spring race at Atlanta and the 600-miler at Charlotte.
In '04, Busch won the inaugural Chase race at New Hampshire, and then went on to score eight top-10 finishes in the final nine playoff races to take the championship by only eight points over Johnson, making it the closest points battle in series history.
Stewart did not win a Chase race during his 2005 championship season, but he posted seven top-10 finishes, including three second-place runs, in the final 10 races to end the year with a 35-point margin of victory.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon also will be a contender, but it will require a significant season turnaround for him to have a chance to capture his fifth title. Gordon's winless streak has now reached a career-long 55 races. He will start the Chase as the eighth seed.
"I'm only focused on making sure that we are a part of that factor when we get down to Homestead," Gordon said. "Right now, it's kind of hard to get excited about that when you are sitting here being eighth after being seeded second all year long. The only way we are going to go see what we have got is get through the first three or four races."
Gordon has finished seventh or better in his previous five Chase appearances, including a second-place finish in 2007. He missed the playoffs in '05.
THREE ROUSHKEETERS ARE LONG SHOTS
Roush Fenway Racing also has three drivers represented in the Chase, but it will be a surprise if Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards or Matt Kenseth is in the title hunt heading into the season finale at Homestead.
Biffle is the only driver who gave team owner Jack Roush and manufacturer Ford a Cup victory so far this season. He will start the Chase as the seventh seed.
Edwards, who is seeded ninth, has not won a Cup race since November 2008 at Homestead (62 races ago), while 11th seed Matt Kenseth holds a 60-race winless streak, which began after the February 2009 race at California.
Based on the 12-driver field, this year's Chase might be the best and most competitive in history.
After Sunday's race at New Hampshire, the Chase moves on to Dover, then Kansas, California, Charlotte, Martinsville, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and wraps up November 21 at Homestead.