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Previewing the NASCAR Chase for the Championship field

A look at the 12 drivers who qualified for the 2012 NASCAR Chase for the Championship:

DENNY HAMLIN

Drives: No. 11 Toyota

2012 wins: Four

New points: 2,012

Cut to the Chase: He starts the Chase with a lot of confidence and a ton of motivation. After dropping to 10th in points in mid August, he rebounded with consecutive wins at Bristol and Atlanta. After having a title snatched away in the finale in 2010, he faded to ninth in points last season. But an offseason shakeup led to the hiring of crew chief Darian Grubb, who won the title last season with Tony Stewart then was sent on his way. So that's more motivation.

JIMMIE JOHNSON

Drives: No. 48 Chevy

2012 wins: Three

New points: 2,009

Cut to the Chase: The five-time champion was under pressure early this season as it seemed Hendrick Motorsports waited forever for its 200th win. That it actually was only a 16-race winless streak speaks to the monstrous expectations at NASCAR's best team. That Johnson ended the skid, in May at Darlington, speaks to his position as the best driver in the team, and the series. Even after losing his crown last year he has to be the favorite again.

TONY STEWART

Drives: No. 14 Chevy

2012 wins: Three

New points: 2,009

Cut to the Chase: The defending champ has three victories this year, all at tracks (Las Vegas, Fontana, Daytona) where the series is not returning for the Chase. But who can count him out after last year, when he denigrated his own title chances going into the playoffs then won five of the 10 Chase races including a must-win classic at Homestead? "Smoke" can join a very short list of four-time champions (Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Johnson, Jeff Gordon).

BRAD KESELOWSKI

Drives: No. 2 Dodge

2012 wins: Three

New points: 2,009

Cut to the Chase: He never shies away from controversy, is always quick with a Twitter post (or photo) and has had an impressive number of tiffs with competitors for someone so young. There's also this: He's unquestionably one of NASCAR's rising stars and the man who has made Penske Racing a legitimate contender for its first Sprint Cup championship. Keselowski already delivered the team's first NASCAR title on any level, in the Nationwide series in 2010.

GREG BIFFLE

Drives: No. 16 Ford

2012 wins: Two

New points: 2,006

Cut to the Chase: This has been a turnaround season for Biffle, who finished 16th in points last year. But that slump was the exception — he made the three previous Chases and has finished in the top three in points twice in the Chase era. And 10 of his 19 career wins have come at Chase tracks. He has quietly been the standard-bearer this season at Roush Fenway Racing and, at 42, this might be his best chance for a championship.

CLINT BOWYER

Drives: No. 15 Toyota

2012 wins: Two

New points: 2,006

Cut to the Chase: He came into Saturday with the fewest laps led this season of anyone in the Chase, 97. But at Richmond he came back from a flat tire caused by contact with Juan Montoya and stretched his final tank of fuel all the way to the finish for a victory. And if he repeats his form from earlier this season at Loudon (third in July), Dover (fifth in June) and Talladega (sixth in May) he would get off to a strong start in the Chase. He has done it before; four of his six career Cup wins have come during the Chase.

DALE EARNHARDT JR.

Drives: No. 88 Chevy

2012 wins: One

New points: 2,003

Cut to the Chase: Has any driver with two wins in the past six years — both at Michigan, which isn't a Chase track — drawn so much pre-Chase attention? Of course not. But a quick look at his 2012 statistics reveals why: His 17 top-10 finishes are tied with teammate Johnson for the series lead, and Earnhardt has finished outside the top 20 just three times all season. That kind of consistency is a Hendrick Motorsports trademark. And who else would you bet on at Talladega?

MATT KENSETH

Drives: No. 17 Ford

2012 wins: One

New points: 2,003

Cut to the Chase: His departure at the end of this season for Joe Gibbs Racing, after 13 full seasons at Roush Fenway Racing, comes on the heels of his second Daytona 500 victory. He hasn't been to Victory Lane since and hit a bit of a rough patch the past two months. But of the eight tracks where the series returns for a second time during the Chase, Kenseth, the 2003 series champion, owns top-fives at five of them this season.

KEVIN HARVICK

Drives: No. 29 Chevy

2012 wins: Zero

New points: 2,000

Cut to the Chase: This has been an atypical season for Harvick, who has been third in points the past two seasons. The entire Richard Childress Racing operation has been down this season, and team leader Harvick has been no exception. Even after finishing 10th on Saturday at Richmond he has the fewest top-five finishes (four) and top-10s (11) of anybody in the Chase. He went 11 consecutive races without a top-five before finishing fifth last week in Atlanta.

MARTIN TRUEX

Drives: No. 56 Toyota

2012 wins: Zero

New points: 2,000

Cut to the Chase: This has been a breakout season for Michael Waltrip Racing, and veteran Truex has been the steady presence behind the team's rise. He has yet to win this season and still only has one Cup victory, in 2007 at Dover, which was also the year he landed his lone Chase berth until now. But including his brief time at the front Saturday at Richmond he has led 423 laps this season, sixth-most in the series, and had steadily risen to the top five in the standings before points were reset.

KASEY KAHNE

Drives: No. 5 Chevy

2012 wins: Two

New points: 2,000

Cut to the Chase: He knows how to start up front — his average starting position is 9.2 and only part-timer Mark Martin (8.5) and Biffle (9.0) are better. His 13 top-10 finishes are tied for eighth. But a few bad breaks, namely three crashes among four DNFs, kept him out of the top 10 and kept him from collecting the bonus points he would've carried into the Chase for his two wins. A Chase bid is the expected norm at Hendrick Motorsports.

JEFF GORDON

Drives: No. 24 Chevy

2012 wins: One

New points: 2,000

Cut to the Chase: A certain Times staffer (ahem) wrote last week that to get to the Chase, Gordon needed the kind of break he hadn't gotten all season. Voila, welcome to Richmond! For most of Saturday's Federated Auto Parts 400 it looked like there was no way Gordon would get anywhere near Kyle Busch for the final wild-card spot. Then a bit of rain and some pit strategy broke Gordon's way and he charged through the field to finish second while Busch faded to 16th. Gordon's comeback put all four Hendrick cars in the Chase.

Previewing the NASCAR Chase for the Championship field 09/09/12 [Last modified: Sunday, September 9, 2012 3:06am]
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