John Harrelson/Getty Images
Matt Kenseth enters the Chase as the No. 1 seed, trying for his second title.The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins Sunday at Chicago (2 ET on ESPN), with 13 drivers vying for the championship over the course of 10 events. Here’s a primer of the top storylines to get you ready:
1. This will be the 10th year of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. After the first 26 races of the season, the top 10 drivers in points, plus two Wild Cards (the two drivers with the most wins from 11th-20th in points) qualify for the Chase.
But in an unprecedented move, NASCAR added Jeff Gordon as a 13th driver in the Chase. NASCAR chairman Brian France said it was as a result of the "unfair" tactics by other teams that knocked Gordon out of contention late in the regular-season finale at Richmond.
All 13 drivers have their points totals reset to 2,000, and the top-10 drivers in points are given three bonus points per win (Wild Card drivers do not receive bonus points).
Matt Kenseth is the top seed entering the Chase this year, but that’s not where recent champions have started. Last year, Brad Keselowski entered in fourth, while the year prior, eventual champion Tony Stewart entered the Chase in ninth after the re-seed.
Chicago, however, could provide insight as to the eventual champion. Each of the past two seasons, the winner of the inaugural Chase event (2011 Tony Stewart, 2012 Keselowski) has gone on to win the title.
Won Chase Opener
And Championship in Same Season
2. But Kenseth arguably has a considerable edge over his competitors entering the Chase. Of his five victories this season, three have come on 1.5-mile tracks, which make up five of the 10 Chase venues (Chicago, Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Homestead). His three victories on 1.5-mile tracks are the most this season in the Sprint Cup Series, as are his 355 laps led.
In addition, Kyle Busch has two wins on 1.5-milers this season, meaning Joe Gibbs drivers have won all but one of the events on 1.5-milers this year.
Johnson3. While Kenseth is certainly among the frontrunners, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson enters as another strong contender. Although he has struggled down the stretch this season (36th-place average finish in his last four starts), he still has to be considered among the favorites heading into the Chase.
After all, he holds nearly all the major records associated with NASCAR’s postseason, including most wins (22), top 5s (49), top 10s (65) and average finish (9.2). Johnson is also the only driver to make all 10 Chases.
However, Johnson has finished 28th or worse in each of last four races, the first time in his Sprint Cup career that he’s done so.
4. Kyle Busch is one of five drivers in the Chase field this season that missed the Chase last year, and he could finally be a late-season threat for the title. Last year, no driver notched more top-five finishes during the Chase than Busch’s seven, and his strong running at 1.5-milers this season (as detailed above) could be an advantage for him this fall.
A championship run would certainly be a welcome change of pace for a driver who has yet to finish better than fifth in the Chase standings over the course of his career.