Chase for the Championship

NASCAR Chase for the Championship Preview

Rankings NASCAR's Chase for the Championship Performances

The Best and Worst of the Chase
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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese ranks NASCAR's eight Chase for the Championship playoff performances. From the unbelievable to the forgettable, they're all here.</p>
2012

In 2003, Matt Kenseth became the final Winston Cup Champion in less-than-dazzling fashion. He won all of one of 36 races while posting 24 top 10s for an average finishing position of 10.2. He clinched the title by merely starting the second to last race of the year at Rockingham. After promptly blowing an engine and finishing dead last, he ended the year 90 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, and 207 ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR News & Notes of the Week

Michael Waltrip Racing renaissance continues
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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long takes a spin around the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit with Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.</p>
2012

The race shop was once a movie theatre. The team’s finances proved as stable as a house of cards. No surprise that one of NASCAR’s biggest dreamers was the owner.

Five years later, Michael Waltrip’s team is in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time. Michael Waltrip Racing brings an intriguing mix with drivers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., who both have shown the ability to string several strong races together this season.

10 NASCAR Sprint Cup Contenders and Pretenders

Drivers and teams to watch as the circuit hits its mid-summer classic in Daytona
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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese runs through the contenders and the pretenders for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.</p>
2012

Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (please don’t call it the Pepsi 400 — Firecracker 400, however, will be accepted) marks the halfway point in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

Tony Stewart Wins Martinsville

Stewart wins third Chase race, narrows point gap

by Matt Taliaferro

Prior to NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, Tony Stewart stated that his inclusion in the playoffs may simply be wasting a spot in lieu of another, more worthy contender. Three victories later, the two-time Cup champion finds himself in the thick of the title hunt after a win in the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

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<p> Tony Stewart passed Jimmie Johnson with two laps remaining to win the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.</p>

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Two'fer Tony Stewart

Stewart wins second straight, assumes NASCAR Chase lead

by Matt Taliaferro

Most had written off Tony Stewart as a legitimate 2011 championship contender — including himself, if you believed his words in the midst of a 27th-, ninth- and 28th-place string just six weeks ago. After all, his No. 14 team was winless through NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, averaging a pedestrian 14.2-place finish with only three top 5s.

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<p> Tony Stewart won his second straight race to lead off NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup with a win in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.</p>

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NASCAR Chase Preview

Can anyone unseat Jimmie Johnson?

by Matt Taliaferro

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<p> Athlon Sports handicaps the NASCAR Chase for the Championship field, wondering if there is any team on the circuit that can end Jimmie Johnson's five-year reign as Sprint Cup Series champion.</p>

As for Busch, I’ll believe a “New Kyle Busch” exists just as soon as his older brother proves he’s really in Johnson’s head. Kyle is an on-track skirmish away from going thermonuclear still — although “thermonuclear” may be overstating it a tad. You can’t deny the progress he’s made in the “Quit Being a Jackass” department, but that attitude seemed to be what gave him an edge.

Busch’s equipment is the other concern. Despite all the wins over the last three years or so, Joe Gibbs Racing always manages to trip themselves up in the Chase somehow or another. That said, Busch seems to be much kinder to his equipment (under the hood equipment, that is) than his teammate, Denny Hamlin. This is a big Chase for Kyle from a career-standpoint perspective, so not fading is important. If he finishes in the top three I’ll be convinced he’s ready to take on the mantle of Sprint Cup Champion in 2012.

One driver who has no convincing to do is Jeff Gordon. A rejuvenated Gordon, with ace-in-the-hole crew chief Alan Gustafson, has the desire, hunger — and at long last, the pure speed — to give Johnson all he wants. The four-time champ is finally throwing W’s on the board again, and winning a race or two in the next 10 is imperative. If anyone is to slay the Goliath that is the 48 team, this is it.

Carl Edwards was the latest, and thus far, only multi-time preseason pick to give Johnson a run for his money. It’s been a strange season for Edwards, though, as he has enjoyed only one trip to Victory Lane thus far. Granted, it’s safe to say that the team was doing some R&D (and contract) work through the summer and has rounded into form. He’ll factor, although to what extent is not yet clear.

Skipping down the standings a bit, Brad Keselowski looks dangerous. Yeah, it’s easy to jump on a guy’s bandwagon when he’s hot and in his second full-time campaign on the Cup circuit, predicting a title run may be putting the cart before the horse. But Keselowski is a different bird. He seems to thrive on high-pressure situations, completely at ease while in the eye of the hurricane. Where Denny Hamlin fumbled one away last year, Keselowski can be counted on to keep both hands on the ball. If — and that’s admittedly a big “if” — he can keep pace through the first six races, he’s a guy the big boys don’t want to see near the top heading down the stretch.

What’s there to say about Matt Kenseth? He threw up a flurry of victories this year (for Kenseth, a flurry is two) and deceptively cruised through the first 26 races, showcasing a consistency that’s become his trademark. He’ll need another flurry to bag this title, which may be asking a lot, as his style is not conducive to a 10-race hot streak. That said, he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig will have their moments. Just not enough of them.

Kurt Busch’s No. 22 team is an enigma. World-beaters one week, out to lunch the next. Has the success of his teammate (Keselowski) hindered Busch’s performance? That may seem like an asinine question, but I’m convinced the more a guy shouts one thing from the rooftops, the less likely it’s true. In this case, Busch claims to be in Johnson’s head (riiiiippppp…), implying his team is the mentally superior of the two. I don’t buy it, and I don’t buy that Kurt and his crew are serious title threats.

There’s quite a dip down to the four remaining Chasers. Ryan Newman has put together a nice season thus far with 13 top 10s. But is the sixth Hendrick team — OK, we’ll call them the fifth Hendrick team with Mark Martin all but gone — capable of winning this whole dog ’n’ pony show? And what of his Stewart-Haas teammate and car owner, Tony Stewart? What a long strange trip it’s been for his No. 14 team. Quite frankly, something’s amiss there to the point that there is no magical switch for Smoke to throw and make it all right. Maybe Danica Patrick’s input next season will help …

Then there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin. Look, Junior made for a nice story earlier this season when he posted a slew of top-12 showings, but while other teams have improved, Junior’s has stagnated. Some of the Chase tracks favor The Son, but like Stewart, there’s no magic switch to be thrown.

That leaves Hamlin, the latest in a long line of drivers who got out-drank by Johnson last season and is suffering a year-long hangover. Hamlin could actually surprise, although if he gets in an early hole, it’ll be R&D Season for the 11 team. A win isn’t out of the question, but a championship is.

So in the end, I believe it’s a two-horse race between Johnson and Gordon, with Harvick, Edwards and Keselowski not too far behind. And like I said earlier: Until someone proves they can take down the most dominant team of the decade, I have to side with the 48 team.

Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @MattTaliaferro

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Chicagoland Speedway

Previewing NASCAR's Geico 400

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Race: Geico 400
Location: Joliet, Ill.
When: Sunday, Sept. 18
TV: ESPN (2:00 p.m. EST)
2010 Winner: David Reutimann

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<p> Previewing NASCAR's first Chase race, the Geico 400, from Chicagoland Speedway.</p>

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And then there were 12

Kevin Harvick wins a wild one in Richmond; Chase field set

by Matt Taliaferro

The final 300 miles of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ regular season were some of the most intense of 2011. Chase bubble boys Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin were involved in a lap 8 wreck; Chase longshot Marcos Ambrose spun three times; and Chase locks Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson continued a feud that has slowly festered over the last two seasons.

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<p> On a night when the NASCAR Chase for the Championship field was set, Kevin Harvick held off Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon to win the Wondeful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway.</p>

Sixty laps later, Johnson got his revenge, diving into Turn 1 under Busch and spinning the No. 22 around. Johnson hit the wall in the process, requiring a lengthy stay in the garage, but once again, Busch marched on.

“I know we’re in his head,” Busch said later. “If we’re going to race this way, he’s got to know that there’s 10 other guys in this Chase, not just the 22 (car).

“He’s got to learn to race. He’s been able to beat guys in the last five years just by out-driving them with what he has for equipment.”

Johnson replied with a shrug, saying, “OK ... I got run over going into (Turn) 1, so if you’re going to spin me out, I’m going to spin you out.

“I’m sure I’ll go find him and talk to him and he’ll run his mouth. And we’ll go from there.”

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Earnhardt, had a tough, but ultimately successful, evening. Earnhardt qualified for his first Chase since 2008 by recovering from the lap 8 accident that crushed the nose of his Chevrolet. He then used up what was left of the front end by spinning Ambrose and Travis Kvapil in separate incidents, displaying an aggression not typically seen in the 36-year-old. He finished 16th.

Earnhardt joins Johnson, Busch, Gordon, Edwards, Harvick, Hamlin and Stewart, along with Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman in the Chase.

“I’m proud to be in the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like I’m a good enough driver to be in the Chase, (and) my team is good enough to be there.

“I can look back over the season and just easily think of several instances where we cost ourselves 10 or 15 points and made this situation difficult this weekend. Had we been more conscious and smarter at certain times we wouldn’t have had to even worry about it this weekend.”

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