The first race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup gets the green flag on Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois. The GEICO 400 on the 1.5-mile tri-oval with 18-degree banking should thrill fans in the stands or viewers tuning in to ESPN at 1 p.m. this Sunday.
Twelve eager contenders will attack the track with at most only 12 points separating them from leader Denny Hamlin. With NASCAR’s 48 possible points per race, any contender could vault to the top with a good performance or with help from crashes or equipment failure from others.
Despite the opportunities offered from a tight point reset, in the past the first few races of the Chase have been dismal for some drivers. It seems routine that two or three teams get way behind early in the 10-race battle. Certainly crashing out or losing an engine in more than one Chase race will doom even the best chances.
There is so much on the line, and so few can be expected to be in position to grab the championship at the green flag in Homestead-Miami.
The top five drivers—Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle—shared their thoughts on the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway.
Denny Hamlin (No. 11 Toyota)
“I won't treat it any differently about the way I drive, things like that,” Hamlin said. “I think I'll be a little bit more aggressive on restarts and not give up those one or two points when they really, really count. That will change, but for the most part I think I'll just be a lot more relaxed this time around. I'm going to race week‑to‑week, not think about a championship until I get to Homestead.
“There's bits and pieces I've learned to each and every Chase that you apply to every year that's after that. So I'll learn the lessons from previous years and apply them. But, it's going to take wins. That's going to be the most important thing. To have wins, you have to have fast cars.”
Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Chevrolet)
“I always like going to Chicago,” Johnson said. “I think the city is great and I know there are a lot of race fans in the area. We’ve never won there, which is kind of frustrating especially because we’ve been close so many times. It’s also Chad’s home track. We really want to give him a win there.”
Tony Stewart (No. 14 Chevrolet)
“You just take it week to week,” Stewart said. “Technology in this sport changes so fast. What was good the last time you were there doesn’t mean it’s going to be good the second time around. You constantly have to work. You’ve got to keep pushing the envelope. It’s a place I like. This place is really getting racy as far as finally being able to move around and change lines and run anywhere from the bottom to the top. It’s a fun track because of that.”
Brad Keselowski (No. 2 Dodge)
“Last year we made the Chase and it was a really good feeling just to be included in those 12 cars and teams,” Keselowski said. “While we gave it everything we had to win it, it was more of a learning experience for us.
“This year we are going in really high in the points. We have the experience from last year and we are more prepared for the pressure that comes with being in the Chase. It’s just a different feeling around the team.”
Greg Biffle (No. 16 Ford)
“I love racing at Chicago, it’s a fun track to race on,” Biffle said. “Chicago is a real straightforward 1.5-mile track where you slide around a little bit, grip is always an issue and you’ll see everyone two and three wide on the race track. One of the most important things will be qualifying on Friday and getting a good starting position. It’s going to be a lot of fun and we’ll see the No. 16 in victory lane for the first race of the Chase.”
The intensity of the Chase will likely be felt most by contenders who perform well early in the playoffs and maintain leading point totals.
Making the Chase after the first 26 races has a level of pressure. Taking a point total into the last race at Homestead that has the potential to secure a good chance at the title—that's a whole other level of pressure.
One point determined the championship in 2011. It’s hard to get the points that razor-close again, but it’s not impossible.
After the checkered flag at HMS, the champion might accumulate many playoff points, as Jimmie Johnson has during four of his five crowns, or the point difference could be tiny going into the final laps.
One element is certain: Results from the next 10 races will influence that final show of the long NASCAR season.
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com. Unless otherwise noted, information and all quotes were obtained from personal interviews or official release materials provided by sanction and team representatives.