The 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup kicks off Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Here are 10 questions heading into the Chase:
1. Is Jimmie Johnson really vulnerable?
It's no secret that the 10 Chase tracks set up well for Johnson. He's made his living on the intermediate tracks, which are defined as 1.5 to 2 miles in length. They make up 50 percent of the Chase schedule, and Johnson has used that to his advantage in each of his four title runs. This season, however, Johnson's intermediate-track program hasn't been as strong, something he readily acknowledged on Friday.
"I'm not sure that we're as strong as we've been there in the past on those style of tracks, but we do have some time yet to kind of sort things out,” Johnson said.
2. Is No. 1 seed Denny Hamlin the favorite going in?
No, Johnson still is, though Hamlin is extremely confident.
I asked him if the blown engine he sustained at Atlanta worries him. His response was surprising.
"That was the most confident race that I had had, besides Richmond, by far," Hamlin said.
It should be noted that he led 74 of the first 140 laps before his engine expired.
"You put Atlanta side by side with Richmond and say, 'What gives you more confidence?' Atlanta, by far, because most of those racetracks are in the Chase and I've never really been that great at Atlanta, and that car was just unbelievably fast. I think the speed of the car made up for any kind of worry I would have. We're going to go back similar to where we were on our reliability side of stuff on the engines. That's lasted all year up until that point. We get that back and give me that car, we should be good."
3. Does Kevin Harvick need to improve to win the Chase?
He doesn't think so.
"I think if we do what we did in the regular season, I don't think we need to be any better," Harvick said Friday.
He may be right. Take away his 35th-place finish at Martinsville, where he led 57 laps before sustaining a mechanical failure, and Harvick's average finish this season at seven of the 10 Chase tracks is 6.6.
4. Is Kyle Busch mentally ready to win a title?
Yes, and not just because he showed poise in the closing laps of last week's race at Richmond when he didn't dive-bomb teammate Denny Hamlin in an attempt to win.
The knock on Busch's championship chances has been his inability to settle for a top-10 finish when a win simply isn't in the cards. That hasn't been the case this season. Busch has almost as many top 10s (six) as he does top fives (eight), which may be a sign of maturity.
If you ask him, he'll tell you racing for the Nationwide title two years ago taught him how to win a championship.
"In order to win a championship, you have to run consistent. You have to be able to be there every single week, fighting for that top-five, fighting for that top-10," Busch said.
"It's like last week, when I was running second trying to pass for the win, I wasn't going to do anything stupid," he added. "You take that finish and go on to the next week and maybe karma will reward you back a little bit and give you a better finish a couple weeks down the road."
5. How many of the 12 Chase drivers are legit title contenders?
6. Who is the dark horse?
Though he hasn't won a race this season – actually, he hasn't won a race since 2008 – no one was better than Edwards in the 10 races leading up to the Chase. In fact, no one was even close.
Edwards averaged a 7.5 finish over that span. The next best was Tony Stewart's 10.0.
"I think that we have proven over the last 10 weeks that we can score more points than anyone in the series, and that is what it is going to take," Edwards said. "Jimmie did a good job last week of explaining that you have to have something to hang your hat on going into this thing. You either have to have wins or you have to have been very consistent. You have to have some sort of thing to build your team around. That is what we are building our hopes on – the fact that we have shown over an extended period that we can score better average finishes than everyone else."
7. What is the most crucial of the 10 races?
What, not Talladega? Nope, it's Kansas, and here's why:
Johnson's short-track program has been stellar this season. He won at New Hampshire (Race No. 1 in the Chase) earlier this year and led 225 of 400 laps at Dover (Race No. 2) in May. Those numbers suggest that he'll get off to a quick start in the Chase.
If he does and then runs well at Kansas, the pressure will be squarely on the competition to try to make up ground or at least keep pace. That could lead to taking some risks, and once that happens, the competition is no longer playing their game.
"The bottom line is you don't want to be behind after these first few races," Edwards said.
8. Will a non-Chase driver exact any revenge on a Chase driver?
There has been a lot of talk of Brad Keselowski paying back Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch for incidents earlier this season. Or Joey Logano getting back at Kevin Harvick for their run-in at Pocono. It's not going to happen.
For starters, Keselowski is on probation – meaning he faces severe punishment if NASCAR deems any of his actions to be intentional. On top of this, deliberately taking a driver out in the Chase would put a permanent bull's-eye on any driver who does it.
"There's no one dumb enough to do that; there's no way," Hamlin said. "Why would someone risk their reputation for something that happened [awhile] ago? There's no frickin' way."
9. Will this be the tightest Chase to date?
Yes, but we say that every year, don't we?
Hamlin and Kyle Busch are poised to win a title. Harvick has never been better. Edwards has emerged out of nowhere as a legitimate contender. And Jimmie Johnson is Jimmie Johnson.
More challengers increase the probability of a tighter race, and this year there are more legit contenders than in the previous four.
10. Who is going to win?
I picked him prior to the season and I'm sticking with it.
Yes, his margin of error is smaller this season because he doesn't have the clear advantage on the intermediate tracks that he had in the past. That said, his short-track program is better than everyone else's; he showed at Atlanta he can run up front on the 1.5-mile tracks; and, oh yeah, last time I checked he was still the four-time defending champ.