The first 26 races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule are in the books and for 12 drivers the final 10 races of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup – which includes a stop at Texas Motor Speedway for the AAA Texas 500 – are all that matter as the field has now been set for NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
A new season will begin this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway for 12 drivers who will battle the final 10 races for the chance to win NASCAR’s championship. With the points now reset, the field is wide open and everything that happened during the previous 26 races are in the past and it is anybody’s championship.
“Everybody is a factor, obviously,” three-time, defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart said about the 12-driver Chase field. “It just showed all 12 of them are capable of doing it now. You look at the run that Jeff (Gordon) had tonight, raced his way in. That's the kind of drive you have to have to win a championship. All 12 guys have a shot, and a good shot I think.”
Stewart’s impressive championship run last year sent a message to this year’s Chase field that momentum can be secured by grabbing the checkered flag.
Stewart limped into last year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with no victories and nearly fell into the wild card spot. A win to start the Chase at Chicagoland provided the necessary spark, kicking off a string of five victories in the final 10 races to propel him to the championship.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin, who will start the Chase atop the standings as a result of his four victories during the first 26 races, has not forgotten about Stewart’s historic performance during last year’s Chase. It has served as an important lesson to him and other drivers.
“I just think that all these teams are really, really good and can be good at any point in the season,” Hamlin said. “So who knows who has saved what for Chicago. You know, maybe they have an awesome car and they just are going to ride that horse all the way in on all the mile-and-a-half tracks. They've just been saving it.”
For Gordon, who looked all but out of the Chase after going a lap down during last weekend’s race at Richmond, battled back and found a little luck in what has been an up and down season. Gordon benefited when Kyle Busch and his crew chief, Dave Rogers, opted not to pit on Lap 277 when rain red flagged the race.
When the race restarted following the delay Gordon’s fresher tires prevailed, sending him to a runner-up finish and securing the final wild card position by a mere three points over Busch. For Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team, battling adversity could be the prescription to make him the true “wild card” of the 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
“When that was over, they told me I was in the Chase, we made it, I mean, I was ecstatic,” Gordon said following the race. “I was going nuts. To me, after you have that kind of effort, fall back, then come up there and finish second, almost win the race, make it in by one point, man, I don't see any reason why we can't go over these next 10 races and be a real threat for the championship.”
With just 10 races to make a championship push, drivers understand there is little room for error. Points racing will not be an option and there will be an added emphasis on winning.
“I think you can't think too far ahead of yourself,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “You just do what your job is that day and try to accomplish the goals you set forth in that afternoon. That's all you can do. You got to go show up every week and run against everybody and try to have the best finish you can have, try to win the race.”