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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 finished in fifth place and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Designate A Driver Chevrolet SS finished in third place Sunday, September 21, 2014 in the Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. Both Johnson and Harvick are in the Chase which continues in next week`s Challenger 16 race. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 Belkin/Wemo Chevrolet SS finished in fourth place and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS finished in fifth place Sunday, September 21, 2014 in the Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. Johnson is in the Chase which continues in next week`s Challenger 16 race. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Designate A Driver Chevrolet SS finished in third place Sunday, September 21, 2014 in the Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. Harvick is in the Chase which continues in next week`s Challenger 16 race. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet SS finished in 2nd place and Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS finished in 26th place Sunday, September 21, 2014 in the Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. Gordon is in the Chase which continues in next week`s Challenger 16 race. (Photo by Christa L Thomas/HHP for Chevy Racing)
David Ragan, driver of the #34 Taco Bell Ford, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, are seen on the track after crashing during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 21, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, loses control of the car after making contact with Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 21, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Will Schneekloth/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, leads the field at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 21, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo Credit: Sarah Glenn/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet SS qualified for eleventh position September 19, 2014 for Sunday`s Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. Earnhardt, Jr. is in the Chase which continues with the Challenger 16 for this and next week`s race. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS qualified for sixth position September 19, 2014 for Sunday`s Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. Johnson is in the Chase which continues with the Challenger 16 for this and next week`s race. (Photo by Christa L Thomas/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Designate A Driver Chevrolet SS qualified for third position September 19, 2014 for Sunday`s Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. Harvick is in the Chase which continues with the Challenger 16 for this and next week`s race. (Photo by Christa L Thomas/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 Belkin/Wemo Chevrolet SS qualified for second position September 19, 2014 for Sunday`s Chase Challenger 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates setting the pole position during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 19, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s Toyota, smiles at Clint Bowyer, driver of the #15 5-hour Energy Toyota, during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 19, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 19, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)

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