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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)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, races to win Sunday, August 17, 2014 in the Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy Johns Chevrolet SS finished second. This was Gordon`s third win of the season. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, celebrates with a burnout after winning the Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday, August 17, 2014 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. This was Gordon`s third win of the season. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
With General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, holds the Michigan Heritage Trophy after winning the Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday, August 17, 2014 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. This was Gordon`s third win of the season. In 2013, MIS began awarding the Michigan Heritage Trophy as a recognition and celebration of the automobile and it`s importance to the race track and the manufacturers competing in NASCAR. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, celebrates with his crew after winning the Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday, August 17, 2014 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. This was Gordon`s third win of the season. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 GoDaddy Chevrolet, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet, Trevor Bayne, driver of the #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford, Justin Allgaier, driver of the #51 Brandt Professional Agriculture Chevrolet, and Michael Annett, driver of the #7 Allstate Peterbilt/Pilot Chevrolet, are involved in an incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, and Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, lead the field to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, races Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Sam Hornish Jr., driver of the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, leads the field at the start of the Nationwide Childrens`s Hospital 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 16, 2014 in Lexington, Ohio.  (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy Johns Chevrolet SS, qualified sixth Friday, August 15, 2014 for Sunday`s Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. Harvick is 8th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, captured the pole position Friday, August 15, 2014 for Sunday`s Pure Michigan NASCAR Sprint Cup 400 race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. The was Gordon`s second pole position this season. He set a new track record in the final round of qualifying with a lap of 206.558 mph. Gordon is second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, celebrates capturing the pole position Friday, August 15, 2014 for Sunday`s Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. The was Gordon`s second pole position this season. He set a new track record in the final round of qualifying with a lap of 206.558 mph. Gordon is second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)

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