NASCAR Sprint Cup 2012: 8 Reasons This Is the Best Chase in History
Last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup produced an epic battle for the championship between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards that came down to the final race and required a tiebreaker to settle. While that may have seemed like a tough standard to eclipse, we may have just done it this year—and we've still got two races to go.
New teams are running up front. Drivers who have fallen out of Chase contention are still winning races, keeping things interesting for everybody else. At the heart of it all, we have a knock-down, drag-out war between the old guard—yes, when you win five Chase titles like Jimmie Johnson, you become part of the "old guard"—and the next big thing, Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski, for the championship.
Best Chase ever? Best Chase ever.
If you need a little convincing, here are eight reasons why:
Johnson Chasing History
No, this wouldn't be a historic championship for Johnson were he able to win it. It doesn't add to the record of five consecutive titles that he set from 2006-2010 and it doesn't tie him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most in Cup history with seven.
But before you can get to seven, you have to get to six, and that's where Johnson might be in two weeks' time. That sets him up for a potentially historic 2013 season, and with many years ahead of him yet, may help establish him as the best driver of the modern era.
Keselowski Becomes a Superstar
A summer charge towards the front of the pack punched Keselowski's Chase ticket last year and he managed to carry the momentum all the way to fifth place in points. This year, he's been even better, scoring 16 top-10s in the past 18 races. One of the exceptions, by the way, is an 11th place finish.
To all of those fans who were uneasy about where NASCAR's next star was going to come from after a barren crop of development drivers in the mid-2000s, Keselowski is your answer. Outspoken (to put it lightly) and polarizing, he's been the most fun driver to watch, both on the track and off, since Kyle Busch first broke out. He's got a bright future ahead of him.
Johnson vs. Keselowski: Showdown
The combination of Johnson's push towards history and Keselowski's stunning breakout means that Sprint Cup fans are enjoying the most complete challenge to Johnson's Chase authority ever.
With all apologies to Denny Hamlin, who has twice thrown away the opportunity in the past three years, Keselowski is the championship foil that Johnson has never had: completely unfazed by anything the five-time champion can throw at him.
Unlike Hamlin in 2010 or Carl Edwards last year, Keselowski emanates the confidence of a future champion. He's treating that future as if it's going to come this year, too, which is what makes his run to the front so impressive. Johnson's going to have to be flawless to hold the kid off—then again, he's no stranger to doing that in the Chase.
Michael Waltrip Racing Surges
Give Michael Waltrip Racing all the credit in the world for their transformation this year. It says something when your third-best car, the one belonging to Waltrip, Mark Martin and Brian Vickers, seems like it's in contention for victories every week.
Compare that to last year's operation, which saw Martin Truex Jr. and David Reutimann finish 18th and 28th in points, respectively.
Reutimann is gone, replaced by the aforementioned triumvirate, and Truex is about to finish in the top-10 in points for the first time in his career.
But it's this year's new team, the one belonging to Clint Bowyer, that has been most impressive. With three wins, Bowyer ranks third in points, and if the top two wreck each other at Phoenix, he could even have an outside shot at the title.
Another First for Hendrick
For the first time in their history, Hendrick Motorsports put all four of their cars in this year's Chase. It marked the first time that a team of that magnitude put its entire operation in the Chase since 2005, when then-Roush Racing put all five of its cars in the second year of the format.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson clinched their Chase spots by virtue of ranking in the top 10 in points after Richmond, while Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon secured the two Wild Card spots to complete the field.
Johnson leads, while Kahne and Gordon have been solid and Earnhardt Jr. posted a seventh place finish at Texas two races after returning from a concussion.
Kyle Busch Catches Fire
It's too bad that Busch didn't make it into this year's Chase because he's been almost as torrid as some of the drivers contending for the championship. He has five top-10s in the past eight races, with a best finish of second at Martinsville and 302 of 400 laps led at Dover on the way to a seventh place finish there.
In case you're wondering, that means Busch has scored 274 points in the Chase so far. Only four drivers, all of whom are in the Chase, have scored more points in the past eight races. In fact, were Busch Chase-eligible, he would be sitting a solid fifth in points, with Kasey Kahne within striking distance.
Kenseth's Farewell to Roush Fenway
Unfortunately, Matt Kenseth won't end his lengthy tenure at Roush Fenway Racing with a second championship. He currently sits tied with Jeff Gordon for fifth in points, 72 out of the lead and almost certain to be eliminated at Phoenix before leaving for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013 and beyond.
But that doesn't mean 2012 was a disappointment for Kenseth by any means. He scored his second Daytona 500 victory at the start of the season and has added two more wins at Talladega and Kansas in the Chase. As far as farewell seasons go, there have been many far worse ones.
Incredible Finishes at Talladega, Texas
In a series of wild races, two finishes have stood out. The first came at Talladega, when a field that had done so well to avoid major accidents all day wrecked on the very last lap. Tony Stewart's chop block on Michael Waltrip started the chaos, allowing Matt Kenseth to escape uncontested for the victory while 25 cars turned into a mangled mess.
But last week's finish at Texas managed to surpass Talladega's excitement, and it did so without producing a major accident. Brad Keselowski took the fight to Jimmie Johnson in a major way, racing aggressively on restarts and blocking the five-time champion as if their roles were reversed. Eventually, Johnson managed to capitalize on Keselowski's old tires on the third restart in a 20-lap span, taking his fifth win of the season.
Both drivers made it clear that the next two weeks are going to be a tooth-and-nail fight for the title—expect even better things this Sunday at Phoenix.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.