By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- From NASCAR President Mike Helton's perspective, the first decade of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has passed just about as quickly as a record-setting qualifying run.
Two days away from the 10th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship to be decided under the 10-race Chase format, Helton fielded questions from reporters Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"I don't know what's happened the last 10 years that moved us along so fast, but [we're] celebrating the 10th Chase, and I would tell you that from NASCAR's perspective the Chase has delivered on what we had hoped it would do," Helton said. "I think we could sustain an argument that it's one of the most challenging championships in all of sports."
Should Jimmie Johnson's 28-point lead hold up in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400, Johnson will have won six of the 10 Chase championships. And he will have done so in three distinct types of race cars, the latest of which is the Gen-6 introduced this year.
"On the Cup side, obviously the most visible element in 2013 was the Gen-6 race car," Helton said, "And we're very pleased with its roll-out early in '13, but we're also very pleased with the results on the race track, as it's evolved throughout the season, and of course HomesteadSunday being the final event of its inaugural year.
"The in-race passing elevated. We [have] had 16 different winners. Many were winners that you would expect to win like the 48 (Jimmie Johnson), the 20 (Matt Kenseth) and the 29 (Kevin Harvick), but I think we also had some moments that we were all pretty proud of with the (34, David Ragan) in Talladega and the 55 (Brian Vickers) winning in New Hampshire. So we're very pleased with the roll-out of the Gen-6."
WELCOME TO THE CLUB
Though Jimmie Johnson's sixth championship isn't a sure thing, and a potential seventh is still at least a year away, Richard Petty believes Johnson is poised to join the exclusive club in which only he and Dale Earnhardt currently are members, as seven-time champions.
And Petty doesn't expect the domination of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team to end any time soon.
"Right now, it's seven and seven -- then it will be seven, seven, seven -- and he's liable to go to 10 [titles]," Petty said Friday after a "Fresh from Florida" sponsor announcement for Richard Petty Motorsports.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is partnering with RPM to run the No. 43 Ford driven by Aric Almirola under the aegis of the "Fresh from Florida" campaign, an initiative designed to build awareness and sales of fresh seafood, produce and other Florida products.
"Fresh from Florida" will sponsor Almirola at Darlington next year, as well as three NASCAR Nationwide Series races with a driver still to be chosen. Michael Annett, who drives the No. 43 RPM Ford in the NNS this year, is vacating the ride to drive for Tommy Baldwin Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series next year.
Petty joked about carrying a sign that reads "Will work for food."
"That's what we're doing on this deal," he said.
Jimmie Johnson got a ringing endorsement from car owner Richard Childress, who fielded the No. 3 Chevrolets in which Dale Earnhardt won six of his seven championships.
"I think he'll go down in history as one of the greatest, if not the greatest," Childress said in Friday's media session that included fellow owners Rick Hendrick and Joe Gibbs. "He's got many good years ahead of him. I think he'll set a lot of records before he decides to hang it up."
Asked when he planned to announce 2014 plans for his grandson, Austin Dillon, Childress turned coy.
"We'll probably announce something here in the next few weeks," Childress said, declining to confirm rampant speculation that Dillon would drive the No. 3 RCR Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
"Everybody is just speculating right now. I guess that's the right word."