This weekend marks the final race of the 2010 NASCAR season, and for the first time in years, three drivers come to Homestead, Fla., with a chance to take the championship. Who's in line to win? What do they have to do? What's up with this whole "Chase" in the first place? Read on, friends, and we'll bring you up to speed -- 200 miles per hour, that is. Strap in.
OK, so: the Chase for the Sprint Cup. What's the deal?
The NASCAR season is 36 races long. The first 26 are the equivalent of the regular season in other sports, with each driver piling up points race after race. (First place gets 185 points, second place gets 170, third gets 165, and on down. Bonus points are added for leading a lap or leading the most laps in a race.) At the end of the "regular season," the top 12 drivers are in the Chase, meaning they're the only ones to compete for the championship. Their points are reset, and they have 10 races to compile as many points as they can.
So if the other drivers on the track are finished for the season, why bother racing?
A few reasons. First off, there's still prize money to be awarded, and sponsors who wouldn't be pleased to see a full-season investment stop 10 races early. Plus, having a race with only 12 cars spread out all over the track would be about as much fun as watching a desert highway.
Why even have a Chase at all, then? Why not have one long season?
This is a common complaint among many old-line NASCAR fans. The simple truth is that NASCAR wanted a way to inject some excitement into the end of what's admittedly a long season, the longest in professional sports. Without a Chase, Kevin Harvick, currently up by 300 points under the old system, would have effectively clinched the Cup months ago.
Also, in 2003, Matt Kenseth found a way to game the system, hoarding points by running consistently but not exceptionally. He won the Cup while winning only a single race. The next year, NASCAR rolled out the Chase.
The Chase is here, then. Who's in it, and how will we know their cars?
Here's the list of drivers, along with their number and primary sponsor:
Denny Hamlin, #11 FedEx Toyota
Jimmie Johnson, #48 Lowe's Chevrolet
Kevin Harvick, #29 Shell Chevrolet
Carl Edwards, #99 Aflac Ford
Matt Kenseth, #17 Crown Royal Ford
Jeff Gordon, #24 Dupont Chevrolet
Kyle Busch, #18 M&M's Toyota
Greg Biffle, #16 3M Ford
Tony Stewart, #14 Office Depot Chevrolet
Kurt Busch, #2 Miller Lite Dodge
Clint Bowyer, #33 Cheerios Chevrolet
Jeff Burton, #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet
Where's Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
Not in the Chase. Aside from a second-place finish at the season-opening Daytona 500, it's been a forgettable year for the son of the late Intimidator. But that's a story for another day.
Why's NASCAR a sport? I can drive fast and turn left!
When you can do it at 200 mph in a 130-degree car with no power steering while other cars are inches from you in all directions on a track so banked you feel like you're being thrown up in the air, give NASCAR a call. Till then, pipe down.
Back to the Chase. Who's still in the hunt?
Coming into this weekend's final race, Denny Hamlin is in first place, leading Jimmie Johnson by 15 points and Kevin Harvick by 46 points. Everyone else is mathematically eliminated.
Give us the details on each one.
Johnson is the four-time defending champion, a guy whose absolute mastery of the Chase has usually put the rest of the field in his rear-view mirror by now. He and crew chief Chad Knaus are the perfect tandem, planning strategy both before the race and on the fly to put them in the hunt every single week.
Hamlin is the fastest-rising young star in the sport, a guy who's had the best car almost every single week. But he's still new to the championship hunt, and the questions of whether he can handle the pressure still remain unanswered.
Harvick was the regular-season winner, and did so by a combination of crafty driving and wise strategy, staying in the mix week after week and making his move when he needed to. He's a ways back, but not so far that he can't make up ground and take the Cup.
So who's the favorite?
Until someone knocks him off, you've got to stick with Johnson. While he doesn't have the invulnerability he had in the past, he's still got the psychological edge, and he's got Knaus in the pit box making wise decisions. A gutsy call not to come in for fuel at the end of last week's Phoenix race kept Johnson in the hunt; Knaus was risking Johnson running out of gas and ending his Chase hopes. But, like the full-crew switch he made earlier in the week, it paid off. And now the 48 team has the psychological edge on the 11.
Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford have made some questionable calls in the late-season heat -- calling out the 48 team publicly, for instance, and taking a late-race stop for gas last weekend in Phoenix that cost them a chance to land a knockout blow on the field. Still, Hamlin has the points lead, and he runs historically well at Homestead.
Harvick has complained about being "disrespected," but he'd be better served to put his energies to work on the track. He's got some ground to make up, but as he's proven time after time, he's capable of running sneaky-strong, and any miscues by his rivals open the door for him.
What are the scenarios for each driver to win?
There are too many to run through here -- we did so in more detail right here -- but basically, if Hamlin wins the race, the Cup is his. If Johnson wins, Hamlin has to be the next-best driver in the race to win. If Harvick wins, both Johnson and Hamlin have to finish in the lower reaches of the top 10 or worse.
Beyond that, it gets a bit tricky, but basically, Hamlin has to finish within three spots of Johnson and within nine spots of Harvick to hold onto his lead and win.
What should we watch for from each driver?
For Johnson, observe how well he's able to work his way methodically up through the field. If he's not able to get to the front quickly, he may be having a rough day. Hamlin has a tendency to get to the front and break away from the pack. If he's able to do that on a regular basis, look out. Harvick needs to stay top five all race long to give himself the faintest chance.
For all three drivers, watch their pit stops in relation to one another. Tenths of a second matter here. Also pay attention to their teammates (Johnson's teammate in the Chase is Gordon, Hamlin's is Kyle Busch, Harvick's are Burton and Bowyer). Teammates can have a dramatic effect on how opposing drivers run, making passing difficult and generally making life miserable for a guy trying to gain track position.
Also, observe how fast each driver is able to get out of the middle of the pack. That's where wrecks generally occur, and at this stage, even a slight dent can cost one of the Big Three a chance at the Cup.
There's absolutely no margin for error now. The team that's able to execute perfectly, on the track and in the pits, is the team that will walk away with the championship.
When's the race start?
At 1:15 ET this Sunday on ESPN. Turn on your TV, and fire up your computer as well. We'll be here running a live chat all race. You can also follow us on Twitter at @YahooNASCAR and @jaybusbee, and on Facebook right here, for constant updates.
So there you go. It's the closest Chase in history, and one of the closest regular seasons in NASCAR history. Don't miss it!