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."