The Wizard: the best crew chief in NASCAR history? Chad Knaus can make a good case. What's up his sleeves this weekend? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
So is Sunday the day...that everyone sees if Jimmie Johnson and the Rick Hendrick guys have really been put back a step by NASCAR's new rules change barring that trick rear end bushing that helped them win eight of 11 tour events over the summer?
Or will the Chicago 400 be the stage for the debut of crew chief Chad Knaus' next championship move, whatever that might be?
While the outcome of this fall's Sprint Cup playoffs may again be a Jimmie Johnson title, at least the dynamic of the chase appears to have changed a bit. Rivals are thinking they've got a more level playing field; whether they do or not, well, we'll see. Remember Johnson didn't win all those championships on sheer talent alone.
This 'chase' playoff system for the NASCAR title was first used in 2004, partly in response to Matt Kenseth's runaway in 2003, partly to shore up the sport each fall against the National Football League and other rivals for attention, partly to give NBC something to consider when renegotiating that big TV contract with NASCAR.
NBC, however, dropped NASCAR and returned to the NFL.
Kurt Busch's 2004 title was just the kind of drama that everyone wanted to see.
However after that things didn't go quite the same.
And the chase itself has always been controversial because it essentially makes the first 26 races of the 36-race season all but meaningless. With 12 teams making the playoffs, powerful operations like Hendrick's and Jack Roush's can almost lope into the chase. Winning regular season races does give a three-point bonus in the playoffs, and the fact that Stewart and Carl Edwards actually went to a tie-breaker for last year's title provide argument that wins do make a difference....however perhaps not really that much.
Hard to bet against this guy, rules changes or not. But then just how many NASCAR championships would Jimmie Johnson have won under the traditional points system? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Stewart has won his three championship in three different ways; in 2002 under the old system, in 2005 under the new system but without winning a race, and in 2011 by winning five of the last 10.
"There isn't really a set way of doing anything anymore," Stewart says.
"Probably the one thing everybody is more focused on, after last year, is that every single point is going to be a big deal. Whether it's leading a lap to get a point -- you know if you stay out on a caution just to lead a lap, and if you are not running well you might…or if you get in a crash, you get that thing fixed and fight for every spot you can get just to get that one extra point."
Until this playoff format, the sport's champion was based on how well he performed in every single race over the full season.
Under that long traditional format, the NASCAR championship picture these last eight years would look much different:
-- Jeff Gordon would have won the 2004 championship, not Kurt Busch.
-- Tony Stewart would have won 2005 either way.
-- Jimmie Johnson would have won 2006 either way.
-- Jeff Gordon would have won 2007, not Johnson.
-- Carl Edwards would have won 2008, not Johnson.
-- Johnson would have won 2009 either way.
-- Kevin Harvick would have won 2010, not Johnson.
-- And Edwards would have won 2011, not Stewart.
Pause for a moment and consider that.
Five times in the eight years of the chase, the man and team with the best overall full-season record did not get the championship trophy.
Fair or unfair? You decide.
True champions, or gimmicky winners? You decide.
But then the rules are the same for all....
Denny Hamlin may be on a roll, but Chicagoland Speedway hasn't been a great track for him over the years (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
When it comes to playing NASCAR in the fall, one man is head-and-shoulders above the rest. Jimmie Johnson.
Maybe he just conserves energy for these final 10 weeks of the 10-month season...but Johnson has won 20 of the 80 chase races.
That alone makes him again this fall's favorite. He and Knaus know how to play this particular game.
Top 10 playoff winners since 2004
1. Jimmie Johnson 20 wins
2. Tony Stewart 11
3. Carl Edwards 8 (*)
4. Greg Biffle 7
5. (tie) Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer 4
7. (tie) Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch (*) 3
9. (tie) Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin (*), Jeff Burton (*), Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman (*) 2
* Not in this year's chase
Clint Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie: is that one of those new Ipads? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One more thing to consider this fall is that men in the chase tend to dominant the last 10 races, and men not in the chase don't usually win many of the playoff events. Kyle Busch this fall could be an exception, if he's fired up. And maybe Carl Edwards too. And of course Mark Martin, though running just a limited schedule, has been quite strong at most of his races.
Still, the men in the playoffs are expected to dominant in the playoffs....or at least four or five of those drivers.
The numbers, the history at this 1-1/2-mile track that is, say that Johnson, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth are the strongest runners here just southwest of Chicago, not just in wins but laps led, passing under green, average speed under green, those things.
If career finishing averages here are any indication of what to expect this time around, Stewart, Johnson, Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth will be the men battling for victory lane.....while on the rest of the title contenders -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski -- struggle.
That should make it easy to see how the dynamics might have changed: if any of the strong runners don't have a good day...and if any of the men expected to struggle do better than expected.
Stewart is, once again, a question. He came from out of nowhere last year to win the title, and that five-win charge in the last 10 races still has rivals scratching their heads. Could that happen again this fall, with someone coming from behind to win? Not likely.
But this is where Stewart really launched his charge one year ago....
However Stewart isn't very happy with the state of things within his team, after a series of poor runs at Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol and Atlanta. Was that fourth last weekend at Richmond an anomaly or the start of something more?
Now a three-time champion like Stewart always bears watching, because he can strike and strike hard. But in these playoffs over the years a number of drivers and teams have simply left their championship game in Richmond, content it would seem just to have made the chase, needing little more to keep sponsors happy.
Who will that be this time around?
Kasey Kahne may not have the numbers on his side, but he's lightning in a bottle. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Another basic fact to keep an eye on: lap leaders. You've got to lead laps to win races, and you've got to win races to win the championship.
Earnhardt may be on the contrarian point of view on this, banking on consistency -- just like this sport once did when considering title hopefuls -- to carry the day, more than just racking up victories in these last 10.
When it comes to leading laps this season, three chase contenders stand out. Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle. To make the point, Johnson has led three times as many laps as teammate Earnhardt.
And when it comes to leading laps here?
Three men stand out: Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.
While this track, which hosts only one tour event each season, has yet to develop any decisive personality, it can provide some interesting, if not memorable, racing.
Stewart: "That is what is fun about this track, that the groove will move around. You might move to a certain spot at the beginning of a run, you might move to another spot for the middle of the run, and you may stay there at the end of the run or you may move back down to another spot.
"It's fun because you've got the seams you can play with.
"You can stay in a particular lane, and depending on how your car is driving, you have that ability as a driver to move around and help yourself out.
"This place is so fast and so round and momentum driven. There is literally no straightaway on this track.
"You are constantly trying to get yourself in clean air. But the good thing is this track is wide enough that you can do that. You can move around and find that spot."
Chicagoland Speedway: a NASCAR enigma. Great market here, nice track, though still rough around the edges even 11 years on. Drivers like the layout. But the track still has no personality, no buzz. And the town? Does Chicago pay much attention? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)