JOLIET, Ill. – In some ways, NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup is like a presidential campaign.
After 26 weeks of preliminaries and posturing, from signing autographs to blaming their opponents for their bad luck and misfortune, everything is on the line. The 12 drivers, in the ninth edition of the Chase, begin a 10 week battle in Sunday's Geico 400 for the ultimate prize:
The Sprint Cup championship.
Ultimately, there is going to be just one person who wins the presidency, and likewise, one person who wins the Sprint Cup title. It's how they get there that will spell the difference between being a victor and an also-ran.
The run-up to this year's Chase—it's ninth edition (how time has flown since its inception in 2004)—has featured so many highlights and lowlights, that one has to wonder if the Chase will be somewhat anti-climactic.
Could 2012 be the best Chase ever?
I mean, after all, we've already had a season's worth of excitement—and there are still ten races left to go!
The season started with Brad Keselowski tweeting during a stoppage in the rain-delayed Daytona 500, quickly drawing him over 100,000 new Twitter followers.
The stoppage, itself, came from rather unique circumstances when Juan Pablo Montoya unexpectedly lost control of his car and plowed into a racetrack jet dryer—causing a spectacular fire that destroyed the dryer and made virtually every TV sports highlight show in the free world.
During the course of the season, we also saw father-to-be Denny Hamlin uncharacteristically win four races and enter the Chase as the No. 1 seed. His crew chief, Darian Grubb, began to feel a bit of vindication after being unceremoniously dumped after leading Tony Stewart to five Chase wins and, ultimately, the championship last season.
There was Dale Earnhardt snapping a 142-race winless streak at Michigan—part of a season that showed the greatest consistency of Junior's career. For perhaps the first time in his career, Junior is a legitimate contender to win his first Cup championship ten weeks from now.
There was Jeff Gordon's spectacular rally to make the Chase at literally the last possible minute. Then, almost as an encore, he enters the Chase reverting back to the days of old—growing a mustache that hasn't graced his face in nearly 20 years (crew chief Alan Gustafson, in turn, shaved his head, also in a sign of solidarity)—as an inspiration and motivational tool heading into the Chase.
Gordon has promised he won't shave it off until the Chase is over (of course, if he wins the title this season, maybe he'll keep the 'stache as a good luck charm and inspiration for potentially even more future championships still to come).
There was Kyle Busch feeling so confident he would make this year's Chase, only to fall embarrassingly short last weekend at Richmond.
Likewise, there was Carl Edwards, who finished just one point behind Tony Stewart in last year's championship Chase, only to come back in 2012 and completely miss the Chase as well.
There's Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., who, despite neither earning a win in the first 26 races, still made the Chase and are both considered legitimate contenders to win the title this season.
There was Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, in their final season together as teammates at Roush Fenway Racing, with different motivations to win the championship.
Kenseth, who started the season with a win in the Daytona 500, would like nothing more than to leave RFR after more then a decade with his second (and first Chase) Cup championship.
Biffle, meanwhile, is hoping to become the first driver in NASCAR history to claim championships in all three pro series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide Series (it was the Busch Series when he won it) and the Camping World Trucks Series (formerly Craftsman Truck Series).
This was also a season that saw Bob Osborne bow out as Edwards' crew chief due to some mysterious health reasons, while also seeing Gil Martin, who had been "reassigned" after last season, suddenly return to his former role as crew chief for Harvick last month—just in time to prepare for the Chase.
There was Brad Keselowski, who won a career-high three races and showed that with a few great breaks, even a blue-collar racer can come from obscurity to become one of the most promising and best young drivers in the Cup series today.
On the flip side, there was the embarrassment of Keselowski's now-former teammate, A.J. Allmendinger, who was suspended indefinitely from the sport due to violating NASCAR's drug policy.
When, or if, he'll return to NASCAR is anyone's guess (there have been rumors that Allmendinger may have competed in his last-ever Cup race and will be returning to his open-wheel roots next season).
On a related front, even if he does come back to NASCAR, Allmendinger won't be returning to Penske Racing; his seat will be occupied by Joey Logano in 2013 (who lost his seat with Joe Gibbs Racing for next season to Kenseth).
There was Kurt Busch, attempting to rebuild his career and personality at Finch Racing, only to be suspended for one race for being the same old Kurt everyone has come to love and/or hate.
There was Jimmie Johnson who, after failing to win a record sixth straight championship last season, came back with a vengeance to earn title No. 6 in 2012. He is certainly off to a great start, coming into Sunday's Chase kickoff by earning the pole position in Saturday's qualifying.
There was Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., who became the first drivers to ever make the Chase from the Michael Waltrip Racing stable.
There was Danica Patrick and her continuing development as a NASCAR driver. She's made great strides this season in the Nationwide Series, and she has a 10-race part-time schedule in Sprint Cup, which will serve her well as she prepares for a jump to a full-time Cup ride in 2013.
And last, but certainly not least, Kasey Kahne finally qualified for only the third Chase of his career. It helped that he's racing for the best team with the best equipment—Hendrick Motorsports—but the long-time fan favorite could be a dark-horse surprise as the Chase goes forward.
Yes, it's been a great 2012 season thus far, with lots of excitement, unexpected results and outcomes that even the best predictor in Las Vegas couldn't even come close to setting odds for and projecting.
With the way this year's Chase has shaped up, though, the promise of even more excitement and surprises is certainly ahead of us.
How much, exactly, starts with Sunday's race.
Where it ends will be determined ten weeks from now.
In between, all I can say is hold onto your seats and be ready to have your breath taken away at times, because what has been a great ride up to now is likely to only become even greater.
We've had a great appetizer in the first 26 races, now it's time for the main course..
NOTES: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won Saturday's Dollar General 300 in the Nationwide Series, finally unseating Elliott Sadler from the top spot in the standings. Sadler had been No. 1 in the series for the last 20 weeks, but Stenhouse now leads Sadler by nine points.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start Sunday's race from the back of the field after his team had to replace the motor in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on Saturday.