Start those engines and let the Chase begin

Like all playoffs, the eventual champion of the 2011 NACAR Sprint Cup season may not be the driver with the best performance all season. It may well be the driver that gets on a hot streak and performs at an unconscious level throughout the 10-race Chase.

Jimmie Johnson, the winner of an unprecedented five consecutive championships, has set the standard so high with his performance in the Chase that it’s a case study for how to win in modern NASCAR. What Johnson has shown is that a driver and team have to average finishing sixth or better over the last 10 races, a feat that has proven virtually impossible for all other drivers.

“You’re going to have to be in the top-10 every week,” said Jeff Gordon, himself a four-time NASCAR champ but never under the newer Chase format. “And you are going to have to win races.”

Kevin Harvick, who has been in the points lead for much of the year and won Saturday night’s regular-season finale -- his fourth win this season -- said the ability to make lemonade out of lemons is also a key to winning the title.

“It’s going to be who makes the least amount of mistakes and capitalizes on the day that you are off,” Harvick said.

While Harvick is right, this weekend’s race in Chicago is the first in the Chase. But you can’t automatically count out any Chase drivers that perform poorly there. In 2006 Johnson finished 39th in the first race of the Chase at New Hampshire but zoomed back to win his first title. And Clint Bowyer won last year’s Chase opener at New Hampshire but wound up finishing 10th in the final standings.

The point is that you may get away with a poor finish here or there, but it only raises the stakes for the team in the rest of the Chase races. The later the race, the more important to your championship dreams.

Johnson, who is in town Wednesday to promote the Nov. 6 AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, said that seven or eight drivers have the momentum to win the 2011 title. With a new point system, teams tightly bunched, momentum carrying into the Chase for so many drivers and with more emotion than seen in years, it appears this year’s Chase could be a classic.

Let the Chase begin.