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Who do you like in this year’s “Chase?”

Coming into last season’s “Chase,” the least likely candidate to win the Championship was Tony Stewart.  Stewart began the 2011 “Chase” without a win and in the ninth seed. He’d done absolutely nothing in the 26-race regular season to suggest he’d do anything to make any noise in the ten-race dash for the Sprint Cup. Before the start of last season’s “Chase”, Stewart remarked that, “They were just taking up space in the field of Chase eligible race teams.” It would be better if they gave his team’s slot to a team that had a chance to win. In fact, Tony was so dissatisfied with the No. 14 team’s performance that he had already notified crew chief Darian Grubb that he would not be part of the team during the 2012 season.

You talk about a textbook case of how not to motivate an organization. For some magical reason the Stewart Haas team, with their crew chief knowing he would be out of a job at the end of the season, not only won the 2011 Sprint Cup, but over the following seventy days would go on to win a record-setting five of the ten races that made up the Chase for the Sprint Cup. 

 

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 last week 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 being 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 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.” 

And of course, the event evolved into a game of one-upmanship. Arguably, the line of the afternoon came from Tony Stewart. In response to a question about whether his head games worked during last year’s championship-winning Chase, Stewart deadpanned: “Ask Carl Edwards.” 

Brad Keselowski struck the first blow in this year’s “Chase” Sunday by winning the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland. Keselowski took the lead over Jimmie Johnson, the polesitter.  Keselowski inherited the top spot on Lap 242 after the pit stops cycled through and led the final 26 laps of the race. 

“It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout,” said Keselowski, who took the series points lead for the first time in his career. “It’s a 10-round bout. Week one’s done. We might have won the round, but we didn’t by any means knock ‘em out.”

 

You may reach Pete Barber at talkinracing@journalpress.

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