NASCAR's exciting postseason format begins Sunday in Chicago, as race one of 10 in the Chase for the Sprint Cup takes place with the MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
As the Chase begins, it's tough to decide who exactly is in the driver's seat, with more than a couple of standouts emerging throughout the season. Brad Keselowski made a late surge to take the points lead, but Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and more are lurking in contention. And, of course, six-time champ Jimmie Johnson is around as well.
With only 16 drivers remaining alive for the championship, more than half the field will be relegated to playing the spoiler. As we've seen in years past, drivers who fail to make the Chase can wreak havoc for those still contending for points.
Friday's qualifying events were canceled in the wake of heavy rain hitting Chicagoland, which made Kyle Busch the pole-sitter. Per a report from Reid Spencer of NASCAR.com, the rule book demands the fastest practice laps decide the qualifying order in the event of a rain delay.
Let's break down the upcoming Chicagoland race that kicks off what is sure to be a thrilling NASCAR postseason.
When: Sunday, September 14, 2014
Where: Chicagoland Speedway, Chicago
Start Time: 2 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN (pre-race coverage begins 1 p.m. ET)
Live Stream: WatchESPN
|2014 NASCAR at Chicago Sprint Cup Lineup|
|4||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||17||Ford|
|13||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88||Chevrolet|
Note: Only first 25 of 43 drivers listed. Full starting lineup found at NASCAR.com.
Drivers to Watch
This Sprint Cup season hasn't quite gone as Kyle Busch had hoped, but he sits in eighth place entering the Chase and began making early moves indicative of a late-season surge Friday. With the fastest lap in practice, Busch won the pole after Friday's qualifying event was scrapped due to rain. The first lead of the Chase season will be his, even if it's short-lived.
There's no doubt that Busch could use some breaks after an up-and-down season. He won the Auto Club 400 in the fifth race of the season but has since struggled and sputtered to four straight finishes of 36th or worse—a streak he just recently broke two races ago.
Boasting a fast car in qualifying—or practice qualifying, if you will—can be a huge indicator of a driver's chances of victory, but Busch pumped the brakes and indicated the momentum must be carried.
"Having a good (speed) there in practice means a lot, but there's obviously a lot of things that need to happen in the race this weekend for us and getting off to a good start and being able to carry that into the next 10 weeks," he told The Associated Press' Jenna Fryer, via ABC News.
Busch opened up the Chase last year with two second-place finishes, and starting out strong again will put him in position to contend with the likes of Gordon, Earnhardt and Keselowski later in the Chase.
If you want to make a case for the most impressive season that few saw coming this year, it has to be the season Jeff Gordon has had thus far.
He hasn't won a Sprint Cup championship since 2001, but you couldn't tell it by the season he has posted. His three victories on the season are tied for second-most among Sprint Cup contenders, and he has more top-10 finishes (17) than anybody.
Gordon has come a long way just in the past year. In 2013, he squeaked into the Chase with the 13th-place qualifying spot. This year, he led the standings for most of the year and enters the Chase in second.
This season is just different for Gordon's team, he admitted to The Baltimore Sun's Jack McCarthy.
"We haven't had a team like this since 2001," Gordon said. "In 2007 we were close, in 2004 we were close, but I don't really think we ever really had this kind of momentum, this kind of chemistry since we won the last (2001) championship. I'm real excited about our chances."
The 23-year racing career of Gordon's is already one of the greatest the sport has ever seen, but adding a fifth title in a new and incredibly competitive era of NASCAR would be a huge achievement.
Starting in the No. 8 spot Sunday, the 43-year-old won't have to go far to reach the leaders. If his racing style this season is any indication, he should catch up to them in no time and be feared as much as any other driver.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It's already been a resurgent year for Dale Earnhardt Jr., no matter how it finishes. But anything other than a Sprint Cup championship for a driver of his pedigree will be a disappointment after the season he's had.
Earnhardt's three Sprint Cup victories are his most since his insane six-win season in 2004, but he has undergone some big-time struggles in the decade in between. He finished outside of the top 20 in points in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, only finishing in the top five twice in those nine seasons.
In 2014, it's been a different tune from the onset. Junior opened up the season with a resounding Daytona 500 victory and then posted two victories at Pocono to continue his momentum. He remains dangerous in the Chase standings, starting in third place just behind Gordon and Keselowski.
On Sunday, though, Earnhardt will have to battle to get in position with a 13th-place starting position. He shared some struggles he faced during practice on Twitter:
Junior will be 40 by the time the Chase is over with. While Gordon and a few others have defied age to race into their mid-40s, this may be the last serious chance he has to compete for a Sprint Cup title—something he has never won.
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