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."

Because of having made it in on a wildcard, Kahne will start at the back of the standings and not get any points credit for this two wins - which puts him at a disadvantage to the likes of Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski from the get-go. But Kahne knows that a charge from the back can happen - just ask reigning champion Stewart about 2011.

"I'm excited to be in. I'm relieved and happy that we made it," he said. "I feel good. I feel like our team has gotten better each race. I feel like tonight our pit stops were as strong as anyone's. I feel like I gained every time I was on pit road. The calls, the preparation of the car and things, I feel like we're in a really good spot."

With Hendrick cars taking up a full third of Chase slots, the odds favour one of the quartet emerging with the Cup title at Homestead in November. And surely the safest bet among the four had to be Jimmie Johnson, the five-time champion whose record-breaking run of titles was brought to a shuddering end in 2011 but looks on track to resume business as usual again in 2012.

"We have been very fast over the last few months and I'm looking forward to the Chase," said a slightly reserved Johnson after the race in Richmond, stressing the team performance before his individual aspirations. "I'm glad that we got all four Hendrick cars into the Chase that was the goal of Mr. Hendrick put up for us to accomplish."

He added modestly: "Our chances are as good as anybody's. When I look at the Chase I look at eight of my best tracks are in the Chase," he said, pointing to the one-and-a-half mile tracks that have rewarded him with so much success over the years. "There is Talladega and I haven't finished a plate race this year, but I'm bound to finish one before long.

"I'm excited for it. Each race we are going to have to take as it comes and last year's Chase showed that this thing isn't over until the last lap at Homestead."

Double success for Roush - but no Edwards

Getting two out of three of their drivers into the Chase should be cause for celebration at Roush Fenway, especially with Greg Biffle claiming the honour of finishing the regular season in first place. But there's no disguising the team's disappointment that Carl Edwards failed to get in, after his epic run in the Chase last year that saw him tied in points with eventual champion Tony Stewart after the final race at Homestead. Instead, the second Roush car is Matt Kenseth, who is leaving the squad for Joe Gibbs Racing a the end of the year. Will he walk away taking the 2012 Cup championship with him?

"I think the team is good in shape," said Kenseth. "We've had a couple decent weeks. I can't wait to go to Chicago and race there. We definitely know we need to win some races to have a shot at this thing so hopefully we can have a shot next week."

Despite having won two races during the 2012 season so far and topping the points, Biffle is still often overlooked as a possible Cup champion. "I like flying below the radar a little bit," he said, adding: "I totally think we can win the championship."

He's not wasting any time: Biffle's setting some immediate big expectations on the team heading into next weekend's race at Chicagoland Speedway.

"I'll be disappointed if we don't come out of Chicago with, I'm going to say, nearly a trophy. If we're not first, second or third coming out of Chicago, I'm going to be disappointed," he stated frankly. "That should be one of our wins in the Chase; I think that's the best opportunity we have looking at the Chase lineup. That's a strong place for us and hopefully we can make a statement with a solid run."

If he can - and admittedly, it's a big if - then Biffle and his Roush crew will have well and truly thrown down the gauntlet for Hendrick and the rest of the teams in the Chase to pick up.

"We don't need any emphasis on winning," the driver added. "We try to win everything there is to win all the time."

Hamlin starts on top - but has no backup

Thanks to claiming his fourth win at Atlanta a fortnight ago, Denny Hamlin goes into the Chase in first place once the wins bonuses have been applied. He's been in top form this year, after a bit of a slump in 2011 which followed a near-miss for the Cup title the year before. But within the team there's disappointment that none of the other Joe Gibbs Racing drivers made it through, with Kyle Busch particularly gutted to fail to claim a "most wins" wildcard because of a fumbled pit stop strategy at Richmond on top of a season which saw too many technical failures.

"I wish it just could be experience beats all and that's how you win a championship," said Hamlin, recalling his 2010 Chase near-miss. "But nowadays it's about having an awesome pit crew, a guy on the box that makes great calls and fast cars. Other than that, the driver's got to stay focused and obviously give good feedback.

"The biggest lesson I would just say is, I can only worry about what I can control," he added, saying that in the past, "I would have been on the radio just about every lap wondering, 'What in the hell are we doing? What's going on with the strategy?' But, you know, I just do what I'm told.

"I think I handle things a lot better, the adversity that we have faced," he added. "You know, I think it's adversity I've gotten better at overcoming."

Stewart starts stronger this year than he did in 2011

Last year, Tony Stewart just made it into the Chase despite a winless regular season, but said from the outset that he felt he was just taking up a slot from someone with a real hope of making a run for the title. In the end, Stewart went on a winning rampage that saw him clinch the title based on total number of race victories in the year over Carl Edwards whom he tied on points. He starts from a much stronger position this year, his three wins in 2012 putting him on an equal footing with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski from the outset, and just 3pts before initial leader Denny Hamlin. Can he pull off a second consecutive title from here?

"After last year, you realize this next week is really the start of the second half of the season, so I'm glad to get that going," said Stewart. "We have a long way to go, we'll see what happens and do the best we can."

Stewart pointed out that while the 9pts he gets this year for his wins to date might not seem like much, even one could prove crucial down the line as his experience at Homestead in 2011 showed.

"Knowing it came down to one point at the end of the year last year, those nine points are huge right now," said Stewart. "When it came down to that last night, one point was the biggest number you've ever seen in your life"

"I think it just shows you can't really write anyone off in the Chase," said Denny Hamlin of Stewart's 2011 title success from the back. "Tony kind of has that bulldog effect, he's probably the most intimidating of anyone when you see him racing around you," he added."

Breakthrough year on the cards for Michael Waltrip Racing?

Last year, Michael Waltrip Racing was far away from getting any of its drivers through to the Chase, forcing the team to take stock and some drastic action in order to find success. They dropped David Reutimann, poached Clint Bowyer from Richard Childress Racing and paired him with new crew chief Brian Pattie from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, brought in veteran racer Mark Martin to lend invaluable experience by running a partial season in the #55 with Brian Vickers filling in for the rest of the races, and the result has been a phenomenal boost: Bowyer joins Martin Truex Jr. in the Chase, and both have to be counted as genuine contenders for the title.

"Over the last year, just the addition of Clint, the addition of Brian, this team, Mark Martin - the job he's done for us - everybody's just rallied together," said team co-owner Michael Waltrip. "It's just a really great working atmosphere. I'm thankful."

Bowyer finished the regular season with a flourish to win at Richmond - his second victory of 2012 - to bolster his position in the initial Chase standings - and moreover, to send them into the title shoot-out with the best possible team momentum.

"We're bound to make some mistakes, but I'm telling you, as we go on and I look inside this Chase, I think the mistakes are behind us," insisted Bowyer. "We're bound to make some mistakes, but I'm telling you, as we go on and I look inside this Chase, I think the mistakes are behind us.

"I'm pretty confident, I guess, with where we're at and moving forward with the Chase and where we can be at the end," he added.

And his team mate Truex Jr. was also just as upbeat, despite not having himself made any visits to victory lane in 2012 so far, putting him among the foursome who will have to overcome a 12pt deficit to initial leader Denny Hamlin going in to the Chase.

"I really felt like this was our year and hopefully over the next 10 weeks we can go out and take advantage of the hard work we put in this winter," said Truex. "These final 10 races are going to be a huge challenge. Any of the 12 drivers could get hot at any time. Look at Tony last year - he won five races and won the championship."

Keselowski happy with 'legitimate' Chase spot

Last year Brad Keselowski surged into the Chase thanks to a string of late-season race victories that clinched him one of the "most wins" wildcard slots, and he's said that he's happy to have qualified "legitimately" this year by finishing in the top ten. It's not surprising that he doesn't have any team back-up in the Chase, as Keselowski has been one of the few bright spots in a torrid 12 months for Penske Racing which has seen them get through three different drivers in the squad's other car thanks to breaking up with Kurt Busch over the winter and then replacement AJ Allmendinger failing a drugs test. Sam Hornish Jr. has been a good stand-in since that trauma but the team will be looking forward to some stability in 2013 with new regular driver Joey Logano moving over from Joe Gibbs Racing.

"It's a great feeling to make the Chase," Keselowski said. "The consistency and strength that we've shown over the last 10 races with the Miller Lite Dodge has been unparalleled. We've got 10 more that we need to repeat those last 10. We need to have that great average finish with some wins and laps led and I feel like my team is capable of it. I'm really, really excited.

"You're going to have to win, you're going to have to be consistent, you're going to have to minimize bad days," he added when asked what the winning strategy for the Chase looked like. "Throw out every clich? you've got and you're going to have to do it."

Asked for what he'd learned from his d?but in the Chase in 2011, he quipped: "You need to score the most points to win the Chase. I didn't know that beforehand and now I do - and I think that's going to be the key!"

Harvick is sole Childress representative

No one should ever risk underestimating Kevin Harvick when it comes down to the Chase - he's made it in six times in the last seven years. But the fact remains that despite qualifying for the Chase comfortably on points in 2012, the lack of any race wins so far this year and the absence of any of his Richard Childress Racing stablemates (Jeff Burton and Paul Menard) speaks volumes about the comparative weakness of the RCR offering overall in 2012. That's even more surprising when the team's strength in the Nationwide Series with Elliott Sadler and Austin Dillon is taken into account.

"We don't have anything to lose - the last few years we've been expected to race for a championship. This year the expectations are low going in because of the mediocre year we've had," he admitted. "Even though we've had a mediocre year, we're still here talking about being in the Chase and racing for a championship so I think that says a lot about the team and the organisation, and just getting in there and making the most out of our days.

"It's all about momentum. In this sport we've seen it and in other sports we've seen it. We saw it with Tony last year. We just don't know," he insisted. "We don't know how it's all going to turn out. We've got to go race some races and I know I feel a lot better about where we are the last few weeks than I did three months ago."



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