CHICAGO -- One small, very young fan asked NASCAR president Mike Helton on Wednesday what he would be doing if he didn't have his current job.
The brave question came during the NASCAR Contenders Live news conference at the House of Blues, and was met with chuckles from the crowd. But Helton took it seriously enough, and answered that he'd probably be "automotive-related" and that he'd be buying NASCAR tickets, too, to watch what he considers the greatest sport in the world.
It was an honest answer. Through it all -- and there undoubtedly have been some trying times through the years -- Helton remains a NASCAR fan at heart, and he was obviously fired up Wednesday to help kick off the start of the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup that will determine this season's champion in NASCAR's premier national touring series.
The 10-race Chase gets under way with this Sunday's race at Chicagoland Speedway.
Speaking with moderator Chris Myers of FOX television and taking questions from fans in the audience and off the Internet, Helton provided answers for about 20 minutes before turning Wednesday's Contenders Live program over to the 12 Chase drivers.
"The Chase provides us with a little bit of everything. It starts off with the season beginning and the all the strategies involving the teams with their drivers and their crew chiefs -- and all the crew members -- to try to get to the Chase because they know it's kind of a clean sheet of paper," Helton said. "The incentives along the way are to win races, obviously. But we're excited about after having 60-some years of championships, the last nine years we've had the element of the Chase, with the anticipation building and the changing of the strategy around all year long to make each race interesting and important."
Helton went on to say the Chase "provides a bit of a playoff" and then addressed a number of issues. He said he considers 12 the right number for Chase participants; that he likes the current tracks that host Chase races and it isn't likely a road course will be added anytime soon; and that last season's Chase duel between eventual champion Tony Stewart and runner-up Carl Edwards has been his favorite battle so far.
"I don't know how you top last year's [Chase]. ... As it got down to it, it was a matter of having to do everything perfectly to come out as champion," Helton said as the crowd cheered and several fans yelled out, "Tony!"
Helton also praised the level of competition that has been exhibited throughout this season to date.
"I think just the drama of getting here through the first 26 races, who was going to make it in and who was not going to make it, has been good," Helton said. "That's predominant in sports. There are winners and losers.
"We got through the 26 races and now we're here with the Chase field. It's a great field. Everybody knows who they are. There is a great variety of driving styles and strategies and chemistry with their teams. It's a great representation of the entire garage area."
The 12 Chase drivers include defending champion Stewart, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champ Jeff Gordon and top seed Denny Hamlin (by virtue of his four race wins over the first 26 events), as well as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne.
NASCAR driver and TV personality Kenny Wallace also announced and introduced Toyota contest winner Marilyn Dowd, one of more than 200,000 fans across the country who entered a drawing to win, among other things, a new Toyota Camry and $500 cash in addition to VIP passes to Wednesday's event at the House of Blues and all other events this coming weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
"I'm real happy to see all the fans here. This is a great turnout," Helton told the packed house at the sold-out event. "Thank you for being here on a Wednesday afternoon to help us celebrate our sport and the start of the Chase."
- Mike Helton