NASCAR Sprint Cup: Defining Races of the Regular Season for the 12 Chasers

Ben MontedonicoContributor IIISeptember 11, 2012

NASCAR Sprint Cup: Defining Races of the Regular Season for the 12 Chasers

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    We've finally made it.

    The 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup is finally upon us. Twelve of NASCAR's brightest stars are prepared to compete over the next 10 races for the crown jewel of stock car racing, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.

    But before we begin NASCAR's version of the playoffs this Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, it's time to take a look back on the regular season and show you why the 12 drivers who made the Chase still have their eyes on that Sprint Cup trophy.

    Over the course of the first 26 races, each of our Chase drivers had at least one defining race that let us know he was going to be a contender here in 2012.

    My job was to pick through these races and find one for each driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup; your job is to simply read through it and reflect.

    Hold on tight as we take a ride into the past and see which races in 2012 allowed these drivers to be where they are today.

Denny Hamlin: Phoenix

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    Denny Hamlin was coming off an abysmal 2011.

    After falling just short of the Sprint Cup title in an eight-win season in 2010, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver found the winner's circle just once in 2011 and finished a disappointing ninth in the standings.

    Enter new crew chief Darian Grubb, who won the Sprint Cup title last year with Tony Stewart.

    In the pair's second race working together, Hamlin rediscovered his winning ways at Phoenix International Raceway after leading 61 laps.

    Hamlin triumph in the season's second race was the first of four that he would earn over the first 26 races, but it was by far the most important because it let us know that Denny is back.

Brad Keselowski: Kentucky

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    Kentucky marked Brad Keselowski's third victory of 2012, making him a virtual lock for the Chase.

    But, little did we know prior to that win just how good B.K. really was.

    In the four races leading up to that Saturday night event, Keselowski had four consecutive finishes outside the top 10, leading many to wonder if Brad would have to settle for a Wild Card two years in a row.

    But after leading 68 laps en route to his first win at the mile-and-a-half speedway in Sparta, Keselowski earned seven consecutive top-10 finishes and nine top 10s in the final 10 races of the regular season, including four top threes.

    Anybody who had any doubt that Keselowski is a title contender doesn't anymore.

Tony Stewart: Las Vegas

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    A year ago, Tony Stewart waited until race No. 27 to get his first victory of the season.

    In 2012, it didn't take Smoke quite as long.

    The defending Sprint Cup champ scored a statement win in Sin City, leading 127 laps and dominating on restarts en route to his sixth victory in 13 races dating back to 2011.

    The win was especially huge because of Stewart's decision to part ways with crew chief Darian Grubb after the duo won the title in 2011. Grubb won the week prior to Las Vegas with Denny Hamlin at Phoenix.

    As the Boss would show two more times in the regular season, the switch to Steve Addington didn't hurt too badly.

Jimmie Johnson: Phoenix

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    Sure, Jimmie Johnson would go on to win three races in the regular season, including a fourth victory in the Brickyard 400.

    But, if you recall how "Five Time's" season started out, you may remember that Phoenix marked a pretty significant race for the No. 48.

    After his car failed inspection at Daytona and a crash took him out of the race on Lap 2, Johnson went to Phoenix with minus-23 points, or less than me and you combined.

    Johnson and crew did what they had to, leading 55 laps en route to a fourth-place finish and, perhaps most importantly, leaving with positive points.

    The penalties from Daytona would be overturned, but the No. 48 let us know early that adversity was not going to keep them down.

Greg Biffle: Texas

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    Greg Biffle would have made the Chase without a win.

    Fortunately, he didn't have to. And Texas is one of the reasons why.

    Biffle crushed the field at Texas in April, leading 90 laps and scoring his first win since 2010.

    It wouldn't be the last time The Biff reached victory lane as his No. 16 car would find it in thrilling fashion after out-dueling Brad Keselowski at Michigan.

    But it was that Saturday night in Fort Worth that put Biffle on the map for 2012, and we'll get to see him race there once again in November.

Clint Bowyer: Sonoma

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    If anybody needed a win at the time the Sprint Cup Series hit Wine Country, it was Clint Bowyer.

    The newest addition to Michael Waltrip Racing was ninth in the points heading into Sonoma, and without a road course victory in his career, Bowyer was slated to fall outside the top 10 in points with no win to fall back on.

    But the twists and turns were kind to Clint, as the kid who grew up on the flat roads of Kansas navigated the hills to perfection, leading 71 laps en route to a dominating victory.

    It was all uphill from there for Bowyer, as he'd notch six more top 10s over the final 11 races including a win Saturday night at Richmond.

Dale Earnhardt Jr: Michigan (1)

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    Yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was having a good year leading up to the Father's Day race at Michigan.

    But it wasn't until Junior finally broke into victory lane that we actually believed he could contend for the championship.

    Four years after his last NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, which occurred on the same track and on the same weekend, Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided he wasn't playing around any longer.

    Earnhardt Jr. torched the field on that hot summer day, leading 95 laps and giving Junior Nation that long-awaited "W."

    It also put him in a great position to make the Chase.

Matt Kenseth: Daytona (1)

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    There is no track type on the circuit that Matt Kenseth has dominated more than plate tracks in 2012.

    And it was the first race of the season at Daytona International Speedway where Kenseth became the first winner of 2012...and a two-time Daytona 500 champion.

    Kenseth led more laps at the other two plate races (Talladega, 67; Daytona (2), 89) than he did in the season opener (50), but it was that first event in which Kenseth took home the hardware as well as the early advantage in the race to the Chase.

    Kenseth didn't slack off too much in other areas, netting three top fives on short tracks and six top 10s on intermediates.

    But it's the plate tracks where Kenseth was his best, and it was the season's first race that helped catapult him into the Chase.

Kevin Harvick: Atlanta

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    To say Kevin Harvick's regular season was underwhelming would be fair.

    In the season's first 26 races, Harvick managed just four top fives, 11 top 10s and had a goose egg in the win column. Not exactly Chase-type numbers.

    But the positive thing for Harvick is that two of those top 10s came in races No. 25 and No. 26, with the former taking place at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

    Harvick was dominant in parts of that event, leading 101 laps, second only to Denny Hamlin with 105. Harvick would go on to finish fifth, but more importantly, he looked capable of winning.

    If Harvick is peaking at the right time, look out.

Martin Truex Jr: Kansas

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    Martin Truex Jr. didn't win in the regular season, but he came close. Twice.

    The first of those close-but-no-cigars came at Kansas back in April, where Truex led a race-high 173 laps but would come just short, getting beat by Denny Hamlin.

    He'd lose another heart-breaker to Hamlin at Atlanta in September.

    Prior to the race at Kansas, Truex already had five top 10s and was fourth in the standings. But his run that day solidified MWR's flagship driver as a legitimate Chase contender in 2012.

    His run at Atlanta didn't hurt, either.

Kasey Kahne: New Hampshire

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    Kasey Kahne may have been positioning himself for a Wild Card berth, but his win at New Hampshire in July essentially sealed it for him

    With a win at Charlotte already under his belt, Kahne was racing for points in the final stretch leading up to the Chase but knew that a win may just be enough to launch him into the playoffs.

    And win he did, as the No. 5 was out front for 66 circuits on that muggy summer day.

    At the time, there was still a chance Kahne could miss the Chase if drivers such as Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards found victory lane a couple of times.

    It never happened, and Kahne's New Hampshire win made him the only Wild Card driver with multiple wins.

Jeff Gordon: Richmond (2)

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    Yes, if not for his fluke win in the rain at Pocono, Jeff Gordon would not be in the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    But if ever there was a point in the season where one truly felt he was capable of challenging not just for the Chase, but for the title, it was Saturday night at Richmond.

    Gordon's car was poor. After starting second, he faded into the 20s and off the lead lap.

    But when the rains came, the ballgame changed. And after getting back on the lead lap and off sequence with Wild Card rival Kyle Busch, it was Gordon who was in the driver's seat.

    The four-time champ drove the race of his life in the waning laps at Richmond, finishing second and clawing his way into the Chase by just three points.