Tony Stewart (R) and former crew chierf Darian Grubb, after winning the Chicago 400 to open the 2011 championship chase
By Mike Mulhern
Sizing up NASCAR championship playoffs, on the eve of Round One:
Up till last week the smart money was on Jimmie Johnson.
Not just because he's won five of the last six, but because he's been hot ever since mid-May, and there was no sign at all of that usual August slump.
Now however the dynamic appears to have changed, as NASCAR championship playoffs kick off here this weekend.
Maybe, maybe not.
It's still hard to bet against Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus and the Rick Hendrick juggernaut. Whenever they look down, they typically get back up fighting twice as hard to get back in the game. And when it comes to closing a race, there is none better.
But whatever rear-end device NASCAR officials told Johnson and Knaus to stop using, well, rivals say that should make this chase a whole new ball game. NASCAR hasn't laid out that device for viewing, so it's unclear just what the sanctioning body has banned. But rivals say the move should take away the edge that Johnson and his teammates have shown in the corners, especially on big tracks, like Chicagoland Speedway.
If so, and assuming the wily Knaus doesn't have more tricks in his bag, then instead of another Chevrolet Sprint Cup title run, this Las Vegas post-season banquet could well be celebrating Toyota's first NASCAR Cup championship.
Denny Hamlin, hot these past few weeks, is the logical choice. He's won four races, more than anyone else, and if the title comes down to the biggest winner in the playoffs, only four men have shown an edge at winning in bunches: Johnson, Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart.
Stewart, last fall's big hitter, has been cold lately, and now he's looking for some big new sponsors to support his three-car operation in 2013.
Keselowski, despite car owner Roger Penske's pending leap from Dodge to Ford for next season, has shown no signs of slowing down. (NASCAR's 2013 models are to be tested in the coming weeks at Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and Charlotte, but it's unclear how Keselowski and Penske may handle that.)
While Hamlin may be the leader for Team Toyota, now that teammate Kyle Busch has missed the playoffs, Toyota drivers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. bear watching. Bowyer and Truex give long-struggling team owner Michael Waltrip two heavy-hitters in the playoffs.
Bowyer, winner last weekend in Richmond, and surprise winner in June at Sonoma, has been strong all season, and that may be giving former team owner Richard Childress heartburn at letting him get away.
Childress also let competition director Scott Miller get away too, and Miller has been key to the successful reorganization at Waltrip's.
Truex, who just signed a new three-year contract, along with sponsor NAPA, is sitting fat-city.
However Truex, though one of the season's steadiest, still hasn't won.
Truex and several others in the chase have to guard against leaving their game in Richmond.
Just as Daytona 500 winners sometimes leave their games in Daytona, and struggle through the spring, so do many playoff 'winners' fade quickly after making the chase. Indeed just making the 12-man chase has become a significant sponsorship marketing point in this sport....probably just as well, since winning the title is typically far out of reach for most.
If you're one of the 31 drivers and teams that didn't make the playoffs, well, it may be a long, lonely fall, 10 weeks of 'who cares?' Getting any TV time at all may be a major chore.
Richard Petty and his two teams, with drivers Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola, are one story that may beat the trend, though. They need sponsorship and a manufacturer's deal for next season.
Petty and his two financial backers hung their hopes on landing a Dodge deal, with Penske leaving. However Dodge execs decided to leave the sport entirely instead.
So mending fences with Ford, well, that doesn't appear to be going that well. In fact the latest pitch on this battlefront appears to be Petty talking with Chevy's Richard Childress about some deal.
Childress, though, has plenty of troubles of his own to deal with. Only one of his three drivers made the playoffs, Kevin Harvick, and he's been struggling so much that he asked for another crew chief change; Gil Martin, the man Harvick dumped at the end of last season, is back atop the box, and he appears to be righting things, but it's not clear if the team will be able to mount any serious charge at the title.
Childress' other two, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard, are winless. Burton hasn't seen victory lane since 2008. Menard has only one tour win in his career, and crew chief Slugger Labbe and several key engineers are on six-week suspension.
Also upping the odds against Petty wrangling a Chevy deal -- the numbers. Chevy already has 12 fully backed Cup teams, including seven under the Rich Hendrick engineering banner. Ford will have nine fully backed teams next season, not counting Petty's two. Toyota has at least seven fully backed teams. It would seem unlikely that General Motors officials would be interested in adding two more Cup operations, even with the Petty name.
Petty is mounting a marketing effort to make the pitch, spending Thursday at Iowa Speedway in a media shindig.
Sizing up this 12-man field seems pretty easy: Johnson, Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Keselowski look to have a sizeable edge over rivals in most areas. The champion should be one of those five.
Johnson and Kenseth are the only two who have already won championships. Hamlin and Biffle have both experienced very tight championship battles, Hamlin in 2010, Biffle in 2005. Keselowski, who won the Nationwide championship in 2010 with Penske, is the wild card.
Who has the best career record at these tracks?
Chicagoland: Jeff Gordon (followed by Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer).
New Hampshire: Denny Hamlin (Johnson, Gordon and Stewart).
Dover: Carl Edwards (Johnson, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth).
Talladega: Brad Keselowski (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Stewart).
Charlotte: Jimmie Johnson (Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Stewart).
Kansas: Greg Biffle (Johnson, Keselowski, Gordon).
Martinsville: Jimmie Johnson (Hamlin, Gordon, Earnhardt)
Texas: Matt Kenseth (Hamlin, Johnson, Stewart).
Phoenix: Johnson (Gordon, Stewart, Hamlin).
Homestead: Carl Edwards (Harvick, Hamlin, Johnson).
These 12 men may be worn down pretty hard over the next few weeks, as NASCAR's marketing machine puts them through the wringer, which began here Wednesday in a mass PR attack.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., having his best season since 2004, and, now 37, finally has a great shot at the title.
"Everyone talks about him, but I don't feel they put Dale Jr. in the 'serious contender' category," Matt Kenseth says.
"But in my mind he's one of the favorites. He's been real quiet -- almost sneaky consistent. I feel like this could be a good shot for him."
Biffle, who has had a chip on his shoulder most of the season, feeling he's underrated in this chase too, particularly since he's been atop the standings on and off all year.
"I believe he has a better chance than ever to win it," Biffle adds. "He comes here running strong... and came in second in (regular season) points behind me.
"We're two guys who were overlooked win the title. I think people realize both of us are capable of it."
Johnson has never won at this track, but he's got one of the best finishing records here, and he's run many of the fastest race laps. Over the season's first 26 events, Johnson has led more laps (1,033) than anyone else, though Hamlin (899) is close.
Tony Stewart (red) and Matt Kenseth in 2011 Chicago 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)