Following 26 grueling races, the dust has finally settled, with the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship field all sorted out and ready to duke it out for an exciting final 10 race to the title.
With the Chase action starting next Sunday at Loudon, N.H., the points have been adjusted for the top 12.
Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Brian Vickers, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Greg Biffle will race for the prestigious Cup title for the next two months on the road to Homestead-Miami, Florida in November.
Drivers who have won the most races this season will sit atop the standings, with those who have yet to claim a checkered flag finding themselves towards the rear of the playoff field.
Unlike in years' past, only one constant figure will be participating in what has otherwise shaped up as one of the most diverse top-12 group in the six-year old playoff system.
It's no secret that the familiar face is three-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, who had locked up his Chase seed last month. The driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet is now the only driver who has participated in all the postseason championship duels.
Johnson's bid for a fourth title (in consecutive seasons) will be the biggest storyline to follow down the stretch. Nobody has figured out the Chase quite like Team 48, peaking during these races just when they appear to play dead in the first 26 events of the year.
However, his road to an unprecedented fourth consecutive title will not exactly be a leisurely Sunday drive on the interstate. Johnson has to fend off eleven hungry sharks who will be ready to attack and capitalize for the top prize.
That said, even two-time Cup titlist Tony Stewart has reason to believe that Team 48 will be the one to watch, or rather, the one with the giant bulls' eye on their back.
"I guess Jimmie Johnson after three years of winning in a row would be considered the favorite," Smoke said per AP article by Jenna Fryer.
In reflection, Stewart did not discount his or other teams' chances of winning the Cup, noting how quickly fortune and luck can change in the racing business on a weekly basis.
There was one driver, not surprisingly, who felt that they were the team to beat for the championship.
That man was 2009 Chevy Rock and Roll 400 race winner Denny Hamlin, whose No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry collective has been one of the best in recent races.
"We're the only ones who can beat ourselves," Hamlin said following the 400-lapper at Richmond International Raceway.
Racing for the first time as the "captain" of the Joe Gibbs Racing group, the Virginian has been stout in the past month, with six straight-top 10 finishes (including victories at Pocono and RIR).
As a result, Hamlin now finds himself sitting in a tie for fourth-place with Kasey Kahne.
Another fascinating storyline will be the array of car owners who are represented in the Chase.
Sure, Rick Hendrick once again boasts the most drivers in the Chase with points leader Mark Martin, second-place Jimmie Johnson and sixth-place runner Jeff Gordon.
His arsenal appears to be stout and formidable with satellite leadfooters in Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman in second and ninth place.
Then there's the Cinderella stories in Team Red Bull and Felix Sabates, who has a minor but crucial role with Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. Both have got to be tickled to be in position for a Cup championship.
Sabates' last run at the Cup was in 1993 with driver Kyle Petty, who chauffeured the No. 42 Mellow Yellow Pontiac to a fifth-place finish in the final standings.
This time around, Sabates, with majority team owners Teresa Earnhardt and Chip Ganassi, will be monitoring their lead racer Juan Pablo Montoya, who clinched his first Chase berth on Saturday night with a 19th-place result.
Montoya has been urged by crew chief Brian Pattie to race conservatively for points to ensure a position in the Chase. Despite some criticism of "stroking for points," the aggressive Colombian has certainly earned his rightful spot as a title contender behind the wheel of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet.
Team Red Bull Racing has elevated themselves in the NASCAR scene from the laughingstock of the sport in 2007 to a title challenger with driver Brian Vickers.
Vickers, who once drove for Hendrick Motorsports with the No. 25 team, raced his way into the Chase with a strong seventh-place finish, which was enough to oust Matt Kenseth (who had made all the Chase playoffs until now) from his top-12 spot as well as successfully fending off Kyle Busch from a playoff berth.
Their summer duel was quite notable in Michigan, with both drivers creating an awkward tension in the post-race conference for a Nationwide event at the two-mile super speedway.
Despite their tricky relationship, Shrub congratulated his competitor following Saturday night's race.
Without a doubt, Vickers has been on a tear, racing his way from his season-opening, Daytona disaster to a prestigious place in the Chase for a team otherwise noted for their Formula One debacle with Scott Speed.
Nevertheless, BV was quick to acknowledge his team's accomplishment, saying that he was ready to party after the race.
How will Carl Edwards' broken foot affect his odds of winning this year's title?
Will Jeff Gordon finally claim his fifth Cup after an eight-year drought?
Can Kurt Busch repeat his 2004 magic to win a second NASCAR crown?
Those are but a few of the storylines to watch for in this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.
Now, here are my odds and predictions for the 12 participants who will be going for the top honors of stock car racing. Each week, I will monitor and progress each driver and discuss their previous race performance, predict their outlook for the next event, and gauge their chances (in percentage) for a championship.
1) Mark Martin (5,040 pts/80-85%)
Fans may be tired about hearing about his age (which is 50, by the way) but his performance this season has been, well, one for the ages.
Martin has proved, time and time again, how he still has that competitive edge. Sentimentally, he is the favorite with any fanbase. In terms of one of the greatest all-time drivers of NASCAR history, we are witnessing one with Martin, who has come oh-so-close from being crowned a champion in the Cup series (1990, '94, '98, and 2002).
As the series leader in victories, with wins at Phoenix, Darlington, Michigan, and Chicagoland, "Mr. Consistency" looks to live up to his moniker with a hot streak of top-five results coupled with some victories.
Inconsistency, however, is the No. 5 Kellogg's/Carquest team's weakness (isn't it for any team), falling prey to equipment or accident issues on the track. That said, when Martin and crew chief Alan Gustafson are clicking on all cylinders, there's no other team that could top their performances like this stout crew.
2) Tony Stewart (5,030 pts/85-90%)
Perhaps as far back in Daytona Speedweeks in February did fans believe that Stewart was going to even make the Chase.
After all, he was essentially taking over a race team that had truly amounted to nothing in six hideous campaigns with Gene Haas.
Now, as the circuit hits up the "Magic Mile" in Loudon, the skeptics are far and few in between for Stewart-Haas Racing, who "won" the regular season championship by quite a margin over its peers.
As chronicled in the past, the only issue that may plague Stewart and his Darian Grubb-led No. 14 unit may be Smoke's anger problem. One would be foolish to dismiss that the Hoosier State favorite has suddenly mellowed down into a totally cool driver.
Those moments have been infrequent to say the least, which can be attributed to the solid, consistent campaign delivered by the former open-wheel racer. Title number three looks good...at least right now.
3) Jimmie Johnson (5,030 pts/90-95%)
Johnson is seemingly unstoppable. Like The Matrix protagonist Neo, who seemingly finds a way to dodge bullets and attacks his enemies in such an efficient and artful manner, Three-Time has made the Chase into his personal playground.
He has won the championship through the difficult, treacherous route before, having to use his mulligan in four of the ten races of the 2006 playoffs.
Despite an accident in Loudon and Talladega, as well as subpar results in Dover and Kansas, Johnson excelled down the stretch with five straight top-two finishes en-route to his first championship.
JJ has also won it in grand style, winning four straight races in 2007 (Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas, and Phoenix) to usurp teammate Gordon from the points lead and ultimately, the title that season.
Team 48 has been somewhat under the radar this year, similar to their last two NASCAR campaigns. Can you guess what happened after that?
Their Achilles' heal is bad luck, which has not exactly dogged their efforts in 2009. Or if Johnson decides to regrow his beard...oh, never mind.
4) Denny Hamlin (5,020 pts/80-85%)
Maybe I'm taking his word for it, but until someone or something on the track dethrones the No. 11 Toyota from another top-10 finish on race day, Hamlin has reason to boast his confidence for a first title.
For most of the 2009 season, they were nowhere really to be seen. It wasn't that they were struggling on the track, looking lost at sea like some of his peers this year.
Rather, the internal problems of JGR, mostly stemming from the No. 18 team, had something of a domino effect with the morale of Hamlin's unit. However, once teammate Joey Logano won his first career race in the June race at Loudon, it seemed like Hamlin and his team suddenly woke up.
After their hiccup at Indy in late July, the three-time Chase participant logged in six consecutive top-10's, including wins at Pocono and Richmond. His poorest finish in that stretch was a 10th place result, which came at Watkins Glen and Michigan.
Momentum can be something of a beauty in this business, with the No. 11 and 83 team capitalizing on their hot streaks that have urged them into Chase contenders.
The only thing that stands in this driver and team's way is themselves. Hamlin tends to find a way to cost himself a race with his temper while his crew occasionally botches a pivotal, late-race pit stop. Do I need to mention their episode at Darlington of 2007?
5) Kasey Kahne (5,020 pts/70-75%)
Here is another example of the late waker with Kahne, who like Hamlin, did not have much to write about for most of 2009.
In fact, his Richard Petty Motorsports team only made the news, in terms of the rumor department with manufacturer problems stemming from Dodge's bankruptcy earlier this season.
You say Toyota, I say Ford, which is how they've moved since Kahne's spectacular accident at Daytona in July. Double K notched wins in late June at Infineon and on Labor Day Sunday at Atlanta, which boosted his No. 9 Budweiser team to Chase contention and ultimately, the playoffs.
Overaggressive driving tends to hinder this Enumclaw, Wash. native on the track, who ultimately finds himself baffled at either his actions after the race or displacing his antics on the track on another driver.
If Kahne can work on that (try saying that nine times fast), he might be quite the dark horse player when the series hits up the progressive banks of Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
6) Jeff Gordon (5,010 pts/85-90%)
It has certainly been quite a solid season for Gordon, who is experiencing another renaissance of sorts both on and off-the-track in 2009.
Off the track, he is a proud father to two-year old Ella Sofia and a happy husband to Ingrid Vandebosch, with both making their rounds to the track on race day.
On the track, the No. 24 DuPont/National Guard team has been excellent, leading laps and often overcoming problems during a race to rally home with a great finish.
Wait, I thought the object of racing was to win races, right?
Well, that's the strength and weakness of the No. 24 team. Gordon can still drive the wheels off his car and sends some insightful input on his car's handling during the course of a race.
The problem has been with how the team attacks those handling problems in order to get their car to be as competitive and strong as those closers like a Jimmie Johnson or lately, Hamlin and Vickers.
Gordon fans are somewhat discontent with crew chief Steve Letarte, who sometimes lacks that killer instinct to help his driver attack late in the race. If that remains an issue in the Chase, Team 24 will be nothing more than a top-five player than a title holder.
Potentially, look for "The Rainbow Warriors" to press for victories, especially in the season finale at Homestead (the only track that Gordon has yet to win at in the Cup ranks).
7) Kurt Busch (5,010 pts/65-70%)
Dodge's sole representative is the 2004 Cup winner, who has raced a great but not so spectacular 2009 with his sole win at Atlanta in March.
Unlike little brother Kyle, Kurt has been pretty cool headed, save for his Chicagoland episode with Jimmie Johnson with their late-race battle that resulted in crumpled sheet metal and some bruised egos.
Distraction is perhaps their biggest con, since crew chief Pat Tryson will depart from the No. 2 crew to join Michael Waltrip Racing's No. 56 NAPA team in 2010. Yes, Busch will give some great data and feedback during race weekend, but will he and his Penkse Racing unit give their entire efforts to Tryson on the specifics?
Another setback is that he and his team are indeed, the only Dodge team in the Chase, as well as in 2010. It could also be seen as a pro, since the struggling automobile company can devote their attention on winning a title with a single unit.
Busch will be nothing more than a quiet title contender, who needs some kind of inspiration, or a fire in his eyes like in 2004 if he looks to win it all again this season.
8) Brian Vickers (5,010 pts/75-80%)
If you happen to be neighbors with Vickers or know any TRB employee, forgive them if they happen to be blasting their radio to Journey's song "Don't Stop Believin'" because indeed, that's what the No. 83 did that earned them this Toyota group's first Chase berth.
It's an incredible story for both driver and team, which starts in late 2006. Vickers had already announced his intentions to defect from Hendrick Motorsports to drive for TRB in 2007, a team that undoubtedly had their work cut out for them in their short run prospects.
Weathering through a difficult '07 campaign and an inconsistent season last year, to say that Vickers and TRB deserve to be in the Chase is something of an understatement.
While Vickers does not carry the same amount of stock as Gordon, Johnson, or Stewart, the 25-year-old sensation has to figure in the title hunt with his willingness to attack for position late in the race.
Inexperience is a weakness for the No. 83 camp, although Vickers has seen his share of the Chase through former teammates Gordon and Johnson from 2004-'06. Will a fresh perspective cost this team or inspire this unit? Time will tell.
9) Carl Edwards (5,000 pts/70-75%)
By now, all the laughing and joking about Cousin Carl's Frisbee incident should dissipate with the Roush-Fenway racer making his way into the Chase, broken foot and all.
Spectacularly, the No. 99 AFLAC Ford stayed within the top-10 in points for most of the season, mostly due to their strong performances earlier in the year.
Notably, their weakness has to be their ability to close out a race. How many times have we seen Edwards and company start off strong, only to finish poorly?
Texas was a great example of this team closing out weakly, with a terrible final pit stop costing the 30-year-old from Missouri from winning that race (and ultimately 10 bonus points).
As his foot heals, so should Edwards' chances of winning a title. If he finds his way into Victory Lane, it might just be the impetus of this team breaking out of their season-long slump.
10) Ryan Newman (5,000 pts/50-55%)
Team owner Tony Stewart has to be pleased with his teammate's season, which placed Newman into the top 12 and a Chase berth in '09.
Newman's No. 39 Army Chevrolet team has turned it on, if you will, in the past four races, with four finishes of 15th or better (including three straight top-10's). When this team is hot, Rocket Ryan has been able to show his flashes of brilliance of 2002-'05 as a top-10 player.
A major weakness with Newman is his inability to close out a race, as well as figuring out how to devise a set-up that stays within reach of a critical adjustment or two in making the No. 39 car quite the force on the track.
Fridays are also not what they used to be. as Newman has averaged about a 14th place spot this year.
Improving on qualifying and race set-up are the major concern areas for Team 39, aspects that could either cost or strengthen their odds of winning a title.
11) Juan Pablo Montoya (5,000 pts/55-60%)
It's safe to say that if you told JPM that he was going stock car racing at some point in his career back in 1999, he would laugh at you.
Montoya was the hottest commodity in the FedEX Champ Car Series, piloting his Target/Chip Ganassi Racing ride to a title in 1999 and a 2000 Indianapolis 500 win. He went on to race in Formula One from 2001-'06, with an acrimonious and abrupt end in his last season to drive in NASCAR.
His transition was somewhat rough from the start, but since his rookie-winning season of 2007, JPM has groomed into quite the stalker during the races. Why so?
Well, just as the event progresses and fans keep their eyes on the powerful multi-car teams or the underdogs, Montoya works his way to the front in his No. 42 ride for a top-10 spot by race's end.
Although it sounds redundant, JPM is often defeated by his own anger and frustration, resorting to complaining rather than accepting responsibility for his mistakes that cost him a win or two.
A major strength of Montoya and crew chief Brian Pattie is that they have steadily produced productive days at the track, with cars that place in the top-10 and sometimes, in position for wins.
12) Greg Biffle (5,000 pts/60-65%)
Last but not least is steady, quiet Greg Biffle, who has not been too loud this season. Yet, the 39-year-old Vancouver, Wash. native has found himself in his third Chase, all with the No. 16 team.
Intermediate tracks seem to be Biffle's cookies and milk, excelling on those facilities in style (as evident in 2005). Remember how potent Biffle and his team were at the quad-oval venues four years ago?
Biffle's weakness is that on most race days, they have not been good enough to win races. That could be attributed to their lack of leading laps in countless races, although when he has paced the field, Roush's once prodigy often finds himself finishing in the top-10 by the end of the race.
The only way in which Biffle and company will have even a prayer for winning the Chase title is if they can get up front and stay among the leaders. If the 3M team cannot overcome this problem, they will be racing merely for TV time and a top-10 points spot for the banquet in Las Vegas.