- Last Updated on Tuesday, 20 September 2011 19:45
- Published on Tuesday, 20 September 2011 19:45
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Two words describe the upcoming 10 races, in both driving style and championship handicapping: Wide open.
A 26-race regular season that brought us 15 different winners and five first-time victors, now offers up 12 championship contenders. These 12 — the best of the best — will compete in the next 10 races, at 10 different tracks, in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint
It all begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, a fitting spot to kick-off NASCAR’s playoff. Chicago, one of the biggest sports towns in the country, knows big events. And this is one of the biggest on a busy NASCAR calendar.
Green flag for Sunday’s Chase-opening GEICO 400 was set for 2 p.m. Eastern Time. Unfortunately, once again the weather refused to cooperate. After trying until about 8 p.m., NASCAR threw in the towel and rescheduled the first race of this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup for Monday at noon.
Five past NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions pepper the field. A few more seem likely to win a title in the future. Another is the eight-time Most Popular Driver. All are multi-race winners.
This season’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field just might be the strongest ever, making it seem like Jimmie Johnson’s five-year title run may finally come to an end. Four other champions are taking aim: Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth.
Three names that often come up during the “future champion” discussion are also vying for 2011 crown: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman are all in the top 50 on the all-time series wins list — and all are Daytona 500 champions.
Then there’s the dark horse, who actually might be the favorite: Brad Keselowski. Keselowski nabbed the first wild card spot and is arguably the hottest driver right now. Keselowski scored 362 points in the Race to the Chase — the 10 races preceding the Chase. Only Jeff Gordon (392) scored more.
Johnson Vulnerable Heading Into 2011 Chase?
It’s not so much that Jimmie Johnson has lost his mojo. It’s more that the competition has grown in ferocity. That’s the reason why 2011 seems more like the year that someone steals Johnson’s crown.
Then there’s this statistic that might provide some blood in the water: Johnson is entering this Chase with one win, the fewest of any of his previous seven Chases.
There’s also the possibility of a slow start. Chicagloand is one of five active tracks Johnson has not won. The others: Watkins Glen, Michigan, Homestead and Kentucky. Though, that might not matter. Johnson has had slow Chase starts before, finishing 39th in the 2006 opener and 25th last year. Both those races were held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
How Important Is A Strong Start?
Short answer: The jury’s still out. The average finish of the eventual champion in the Chase opener is 11.3. Not too bad, not too good. Only one eventual champion has won the Chase opener: Kurt Busch in 2004.
2005: Tony Stewart finished second; 2006: Jimmie Johnson finished 39th; 2007: Johnson finished sixth; 2008: Johnson finished second; 2009: Johnson finished fourth; 2010: Johnson finished 25th.
Last year, only one non-Chase driver won during the Chase — Jamie McMurray. Don’t be surprised if a non-Chase opens up the Chase with a quick victory.
The last two races at Chicagoland were won by Mark Martin and David Reutimann. Both missed the Chase this year.
Regular Season Surprises
This year’s regular season was the most competitive in several years. Consider the following statistics on this season’s competitive balance and record-breaking competition.
• 15 different winners, most through 26 races since 2003.
• Five first time winners (Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan, Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose).
• 16 different Coors Light Pole winners, most through 26 race since 2005.
• An average of 13 different leaders per race, most through 26 races in series history.
• An average of 28 different leaders per race, most through 26 races in series history.
• 16 races had a margin of victory under a second, most through 26 races since 2001.
That includes Talladega’s MOV of .002 seconds, which tied the closest finish since the inception of electronic scoring in 1993.