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Preview: 2012 Chase battle gets underway

With the Chase line-up now set and the battle of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship about to be fought over the next ten weeks, we look at the 12 men still in the running.
With the drop of the chequered flag at Richmond last weekend, the field for the 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship was set. The dozen still in with a chance of winning the title are:

1. #11 Denny Hamlin Joe Gibbs Racing 2012pts
2. #48 Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Motorsports 2009pts
3. #14 Tony Stewart Stewart/Haas Racing 2009pts
4. #2 Brad Keselowski Penske Racing 2009pts
5. #16 Greg Biffle Roush Renway Racing 2006pts
6. #15 Clint Bowyer Michael Waltrip Racing 2006pts
7. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Hendrick Motorsports 2003pts
8. #17 Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Racing 2003pts
9. #29 Kevin Harvick Richard Childress Racing 2000pts
10. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Michael Waltrip Racing 2000pts
11. #5 Kasey Kahne Hendrick Motorsports 2000pts
12. #24 Jeff Gordon Hendrick Motorsports 2000pts

As part of the Chase process, the 12 Chase contenders all have their points reset to 2000 for this weekend's opening round of ten at Chicagoland Speedway. Those who finished the regular season in the top ten also gain 3pts for each race that they won so far this year, while those who qualified on the "most wins" wildcards - Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon - are deemed to have "burned up" their wins in making it into the Chase and therefore start at the back of the standings.

So how does that leave the field going into the first round of the Chase play-offs?

Full house for Hendrick Motorsports

The stand-out fact from the Chase line-up is that only one team has managed to get all of its drivers into the post-season shootout for the Sprint Cup title, and that's Hendrick Motorsports. Two drivers - Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. - made it in by finishing in the top ten, while their team mates Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon clinched the two "most wins" wildcard spots. By any standards that's a hugely impressive achievement, and any mutterings that the team may have been doing something "hinkey" but seemingly undetectable with the rear ends of their cars to improve handling can be taken as jealousy on the part of their rivals on pit road - for the moment at least.

"I feel we've got a good shot at it. We've been consistent all year long, we just hope we can keep that up," said Earnhardt of his Cup prospects. "Everybody runs as hard as they can run all the time no matter what the circumstances. So you can't really, you know, ask more out of yourself or ask more out of your equipment. You do that already. You run as hard as you can anyway."

Earnhardt agreed that it made a difference having all four Hendrick drivers in the Chase this year: "I think it just makes the group of guys all that much tougher. It's hard not to talk about the morale, how it helps the company, how the company is proud, how everybody works hard during the off season to find some speed," he said. "We're a much better company this year, and we're able to reap the benefits of that with all four of us being in the Chase. It will be fun."

And Earnhardt was especially full of admiration for Jeff Gordon's determination to make the Chase, despite going into the final regular season event at Richmond on the back foot to Kyle Busch.

"Jeff's really clever and savvy with how he races," he said. "Aside from just outright speed, you got to outsmart him a lot of times to beat him, which is tough. He's won a lot of championships, knows how to get it done, knows what it takes, the mindset, how to prepare himself mentally."

"It was amazing, I still can't believe we actually did it," chipped in Gordon himself. "I know how proud Rick [Hendrick] is to have all four teams into this Chase. That was a big goal of ours. Pretty amazing to know we accomplished that."

By contrast, Kasey Kahne's situation going into Richmond had been rather less fraught. As the only driver not in the top ten to have two wins already in his pocket, his position had been all-but confirmed in advance: "I'm just really, really happy and excited to be able to do that. Hendrick Motorsports, Mr. Hendrick, gives us great opportunity to win races and run up front, the way the season started, to fight back, make it into the Chase. I feel like the last few months have been really strong."




Related Pictures

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The victorious Stewart-Haas Racing team celebrate winning the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Tony Stewart`s hands raising aloft his 2011 Sprint Cup trophy in victory lane at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, Nov. 20. [Photo Credit: By Chris Trotman, Getty Images for NASCAR]
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Quaker State Chevrolet, and team mate Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, celebrate after qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 8, 2012 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota, Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet (bottom L-R) Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M/Owens & Minor Ford, Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Budweiser Chevrolet, Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Quaker State Chevrolet, Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 5-hour Energy Toyota, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Best Buy Ford, pose after qualifying for the Chase for the Cup after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 8, 2012 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS, holds his daughter, Lydia Sunday, November 22, 2015 before final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Johnson and other Jeff Gordon teammates at Hendrick Motorsports wore tribute hats to honor the retiring Chevy driver prior to the start of the race. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, races to a sixth place finish Sunday, November 22, 2015 in the final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Gordon finishes third in the Chase for the Cup Championship. This was Gordon`s last race as a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver. He has made 796 consecutive Cup Series starts, earned 93 wins, and 81 poles - all behind the wheel of Chevrolets. (Photo by Andrew Coppley/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Defending Sprint Cup Champion Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS, races to a second place finish, Sunday, November 22, 2015 in the final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Harvick finishes as the runner-up in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. (Photo by Andrew Coppley/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Defending Sprint Cup Champion Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS, races to a second place finish, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS finishes in sixth place, and Martin Truex, Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Visser Precision finishes in twelfth place Sunday, November 22, 2015 in the final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. This Chevrolet drivers finished 2nd, 3rd and 4th (respectively) in the Chase of the Cup Championship. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Series championship contenders Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 AXALTA Chevrolet, Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, take part in pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Former racing driver Mario Andretti, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 AXALTA Chevrolet, and Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton pose during pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 AXALTA Chevrolet, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John`s Chevrolet, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Crispy Toyota, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 AXALTA Chevrolet, and Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Crest Chevrolet, celebrates with the trophy in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR XFINITY Series Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 21, 2015 in Homestead, Florida (Photo Credit: Jeff Curry/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Ideal Door/Menards Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Jeff Curry/Getty Images)
Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Ideal Door/Menards Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Ideal Door/Menards Toyota, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Ideal Door/Menards Toyota, talks to Erik Jones, driver of the #4 Toyota Toyota, on the grid during pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2015 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Defending Sprint Cup Champion Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS, qualifies for thirteenth position Friday, November 20, 2015 for Sunday`s Championship 4, the final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida. Harvick will be joined by Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS and Martin Truex, Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Visser Precision Chevrolet SS to compete for the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)

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