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Confidence Overflowing For Top 12 Drivers As 'Chase' Starts At Chicagoland

So far this season, the “Legends of the Brickyard” have been involved in many races on the track and on the schedule. There was the “Race to the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard,” which highlighted the races leading into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series annual trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 powered by Jimmie Johnson went on to claim his fourth win at Indianapolis in decisive fashion.

After that, the “Legends of the Brickyard” were involved in the “Race to the Chase” – the races between the Brickyard and the Federated Auto Parts 400 on Sept. 8 at Richmond International Raceway. Four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon raced his way to second place to grab the final wild-card position and become one of the 12 drivers that will compete over the next 10 races to determine the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.

So let’s begin the next race, which is known as the “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.” It all begins Sunday, just a few hours from Indianapolis or a quick drive up Interstate 65 to I-80 West to Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.

This is where Indiana’s own Tony Stewart began his dramatic drive to his third Cup title as the two-time Brickyard winner Stewart won the first race of the Chase in 2011. He also won the following week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and by the time the 10-race Chase was over, Stewart won five times to end in a Chase tie with Carl Edwards but captured the championship on tie-breaker with his five wins to Edwards’ one.

Stewart earned his series-leading third race at Chicagoland in 2011 after stretching his fuel mileage over the final 52 laps to win the rain-postponed Geico 400. The 40th victory of Stewart’s Sprint Cup career sparked him to a third championship in NASCAR’s elite series.

Stewart has three wins, four top-twos, five top-threes and eight top-fives in 11 races at the 1.5-mile oval.

“I think I’ve always been good there,” said Stewart, from Columbus, Ind. “You look at the past, and we’ve had some weird events. On Fridays, I’ve had two events where I’ve crashed in practice. The first time (2004) Hermie Sadler blew a motor and, before the caution came out, I crashed in his oil and went to the hospital, and I missed the rest of the day. And then, the very next year, I blew a tire in practice, and J.J. Yeley had to qualify for me. It’s one of those places where, as long as I get through Friday, I feel like we’ve got a shot at it. But I don’t watch the stats very much. You just take it week to week.

“Technology in this sport changes so fast. What was good the last time you were there doesn’t mean it’s going to be good the second time around. You constantly have to work. You’ve got to keep pushing the envelope. It’s a place I like. This place is really getting racy as far as finally being able to move around and change lines and run anywhere from the bottom to the top. It’s a fun track because of that.”

Stewart’s charge to the championship last year was epic. Never in the history of the Chase did one driver race with such fearless abandon and drive than Stewart, especially in the final race of the season when at Homestead-Miami Speedway when he drove from the rear of the pack to the front twice to cap off his fifth victory and the championship.

“I hope that we can get five of them again, and I hope the ones that we don’t win, we can get a little bit better finishes than last year,” Stewart said. “It’s definitely a different year. It has a different feel to it than what we had last year. We have a lot of work ahead of us. It’s definitely not going to be a cakewalk. Everybody is on their game right now.

“Every year I say it, and every year I’m proven right – it’s just the most competitive Chase field we’ve seen. Who do you predict is going to win this thing? I don’t know how you could predict anything. I’m the last to predict anything after last year. I never even thought we deserved to be in it, let alone have a shot to win it. I’m definitely not going to be an odds’ maker in Vegas for sure, as far as going out there and helping them handicap all this.”

But can Stewart repeat what he did in last year’s dramatic drive to the title? That first step in answering that question will come Sunday at Chicagoland.

“The hard thing is that a year ago, I didn’t even think that we belonged in the Chase,” Stewart said. “To go from that mindset to winning five races and winning the championship, I mean, no matter how you feel sitting here today, you know it’s possible. I guess if anything, that’s why we feel a little bit better going into this Chase. I’m not sure that we’re exactly where we need to be, but it’s proof.”

Four-time Brickyard 400 winner Johnson is attempting to win his sixth career Cup title. He excels on the 1.5-mile ovals similar to Chicagoland Speedway but never has won at this track. He has no wins, five top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 10 starts. He was 10th last year.

“I always like going to Chicago,” Johnson said. “We’ve never won there, which is kind of frustrating, especially because we’ve been close so many times. It’s also (crew chief) Chad’s (Knaus) home track. We really want to give him a win there. We’ve won in California several times, and it’s time he gets to experience winning at home. I feel like we owe him one, and we’re going to do everything we can to give him that opportunity this weekend.”

Kevin Harvick, the 2003 Brickyard champion, is seeded ninth in the standings heading to Chicagoland – a track where he scored back-to-back victories in 2001 and 2002. Those are his only two victories and two of his six top-five and seventh top-10 finishes in 11 starts. He was second last year.

“Well, I feel like even though the year hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to, at the beginning we ran decent,” Harvick said. “We ran well at Dover (International Speedway) and decent at Loudon (New Hampshire Motor Speedway) and Charlotte (Motor Speedway). There are a lot of tracks in the Chase that we have a pretty good notebook for. Hopefully when we apply some of the things that we feel like we needed to do different over the last few weeks, everything will keep clicking and we’ll keep moving forward. Everybody’s confidence is up right now, and we know that things are getting back to the way they need to be.”

Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never won at the Brickyard, his father drove to victory in the 1995 Brickyard 400. Dale Jr. is one of the most popular drivers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and begins this year’s Chase seeded seventh. He drove to victory at Chicago in 2005 for his lone victory, one of his three top-five and four top-10 finishes in 11 starts. He was third last year.

“I feel we've got a good shot at it,” Earnhardt said of the championship. “We've been consistent all year long, and I think our chances are as good as they have ever been for me. I had a pretty good shot at it back in '04, but I think this year is a better opportunity. We've got the team, and we’re poised to make a run at it. You've got to put the guys that have won the championship at the top of the list as the favorites but we are in the conversation, and we're going to work hard to still be in that conversation at Homestead (Fla.).”

Kasey Kahne is another driver that has never won at the Brickyard but has strong connections to the Indianapolis area from his days in United States Auto Club (USAC) competition. Kahne is the first wild card and starts the Chase 11th.

He has no wins, one top-five and two top-10 finishes in eight starts. He was 12th last year.

“I enjoy going to Chicago,” Kahne said. “We haven’t always run our best there, but we’ve surprised ourselves with good finishes at some other tracks this year. It’s going to be important to come out of the gate strong in the first Chase race. We’re starting without bonus points, so we want to make up some ground this weekend.”

And former Indiana resident Jeff Gordon starts his “Drive for Five” as the final wild-card driver in 12th place in the standings heading into the race Sunday.

He has one win, six top-five and seventh top-10 finishes in 11 starts at Chicagoland. He was 24th last year.

“It was a great fight we had at Richmond, and I am so pumped heading into Chicago and the rest of the Chase,” Gordon said. “There were a number of times this year when we had strong performances but didn't have the results to go with it. We now have 10 races to pair good runs with good results.

“At Richmond, the determination that (crew chief) Alan Gustafson and this team showed was incredible. Anything is possible from this group, including a championship. We finally started putting together some results, but it still seemed like every time we had a great finish, something would happen that would break our momentum. We have three top-three finishes in a row that we're hoping to build on in Chicago.”

So this is what NASCAR’s 26-race regular season is all about – “The Chase for the Championship.” And with the 12-driver field dominated by “Brickyard Legends,” make no mistake about it that this elite group of drivers that have achieved success at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will have a major impact on which driver celebrates the championship after 10 weeks of racing.

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