NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup opens Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway. Forget everything that has happened so far this season.
Tony Stewart entered last season’s Chase seeded ninth and gave himself zero chance of winning. He had gone winless in 26 races during the “regular season."
Stewart won five Chase races and the title, in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.
“You can have guys that have been running well, and they fall on their face in the Chase," Stewart said recently. “We proved last year that you can be flat on your face for 26 weeks and look like a show dog at the end of the deal."
With Stewart’s warning in mind, here is a look at the seeded field for the 10-race title run:
• Denny Hamlin (2,012 points): In the regular season, Hamlin had two wins at Chase tracks (Kansas and Phoenix) and two second-place finishes (New Hampshire and Charlotte.) He also has been good at Martinsville throughout his career.
The key for Hamlin is avoiding disaster in the early races. Hamlin buried himself last season by finishing 31-20-18-16 in the first four races.
• Jimmie Johnson (2,009): The Chase favors Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports. Both excel on 1 1⁄2-mile tracks, and there are five on the schedule: Chicago, Charlotte, Kansas, Texas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Johnson has a second at TMS and a third at Kansas this season.
Johnson, a five-time champion, has 31 wins in 175 career starts on Chase tracks. Jeff Gordon also has 31 wins on these tracks, in 278 career starts.
• Tony Stewart (2,009): Stewart won two of the first five races in the regular season before cooling. He has been carrying a heavy workload as an owner with Stewart-Haas Racing. While preparing for the Chase, Stewart is also trying to drum up sponsorships for next season for himself and teammate Ryan Newman.
Stewart has an average finish of 12.5 on Chase tracks. Only Johnson (10.1) and Gordon (12.2) are better. Stewart is the only racer to have won at all 10 Chase tracks.
• Brad Keselowski (2,009): Keselowski made his Chase debut last season and was on the fringe of contention until he became impatient and finished outside the top 15 in each of the final four races.
To take the championship, Keselowski will need a substantial lead going into the final three races. He has a career average finish outside the top 20 at each track: TMS, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami.
• Greg Biffle (2,006): The regular season included races on eight Chase tracks. Biffle had the best performance among the Chase field in those races. He had five top-5s and a worst finish of 13th at Martinsville. Biffle is with Roush Fenway, which last produced a Cup champion in 2004, with Kurt Busch. The organization has had two drivers finish among the top five in each of the last two Chases.
• Clint Bowyer (2,006): If there is momentum in the Chase, Bowyer must be considered a leading contender. He finished eighth or better in five of the past six regular-season races, with a win at Richmond on Saturday.
Plus, the first two stops in the Chase have been good to Bowyer. He has an average finish of 10.2 at Chicago and won Chase races at New Hampshire in 2007 and ’10. Bowyer also has two wins in 13 career starts at Talladega.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2,003): NASCAR’s most popular driver is in the Chase for only the third time in the past eight years. He was not a factor last season, finishing 14th or worse in six races.
Talladega will be the make-or-break race for Earnhardt. If Earnhardt does not continue his career success — five wins in 25 starts — at the restrictor-plate track, he will be an also-ran.
• Matt Kenseth (2,003): If Kenseth makes it to TMS in contention, the chances of winning his first Chase and second Cup title increase. Kenseth has two wins, 11 top-5s and an average finish of 8.6 at TMS.
In the past two Chases, the usually consistent Kenseth has been undermined by a few bad races. He has had five finishes out of the top 20. That includes two finishes outside the top 30 in the last four events last season.
• Kevin Harvick (2,000): Harvick suffered along with the entire Richard Childress Racing operation, which went winless in 84 Cup starts. Harvick was not bad but was rarely in contention late in races because of handling problems. Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are the only racers in the field without a victory.
Gil Martin returned as crew chief for the last two races, and Harvick had a fifth and a 10th with Martin. In 2010-11, Harvick had seven wins and 25 top-5s with Martin as the crew chief.
• Martin Truex Jr. (2,000): In the Chase for the first time in his career, Truex is the longest of long shots.
Truex is winless in his past 194 starts overall. He has a career average finish of 15th or better at only three Cup tracks: Charlotte (12.7), Phoenix (15.2) and Homestead-Miami (10.4.)
Like his Michael Waltrip Racing teammates, Truex performed well late in the season. He had five top-10s in his past seven starts.
• Kasey Kahne (2,000): Six races into the season, Kahne was 31st in the standings and looking like a huge mistake by Hendrick Motorsports. Kahne rallied with wins at Charlotte and New Hampshire and seven top-5s in the final 20 races of the regular season.
Kahne flopped in his previous two Chase appearances, in 2006 and ’09. In each Chase, he had four finishes out of the top 30.
• Jeff Gordon (2,000): After a season full of bad racing luck, Gordon needed a strong finish — two seconds and a third in the final three regular-season races — to sneak into the Chase as the second wild card. Can he build on that and challenge for his first title since 2001?
In the past two seasons, Gordon has not been a factor in the Chase. He finished outside the top 20 in nine races.