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Chicago! Bears Country....and NASCAR's big, big gamble....

   Chicagoland Speedway....a big, big test for NASCAR, as the opening race in the championship playoffs (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   JOLIET, Ill.
   Here's the key piece to the NASCAR championship puzzle here this week – this is Chicago Bears Country, this is Big League Baseball country (even if the White Sox are in trouble), the PGA is in town, college football is in town and everywhere…and NASCAR executives, in stock car racing's playoff opening 400, are going head-to-head-to-head with everything Chicago has to offer.
   Call it NASCAR's Big Gamble.

   This is the third-biggest market in the United States, and even after playing here at Chicagoland Speedway for 10 years NASCAR still has something to prove.
   Make that NASCAR has a lot to prove here.
   Will opening the championship playoffs here be the charm?
   Remember this track seats just 75,000, rather modest, compared to, say, Bristol's 160,000. And last summer here, even in the height of vacation season, with little hot competition, NASCAR drew an announced crowd of just 67,500.
   Ticket sales this time around?
   A full house is "within reach," is the word.
   (Don't even bring up the 70 percent threat of Sunday rain….)
   At least the Bears aren't playing downtown Sunday; they're playing New Orleans in the SuperDome. But the Sox are at home.
   Certainly not everyone thinks this is really such a great idea…and not just because it's going down to the 40s at night this time of the year.
   Granted, opening the playoffs in Loudon, N.H., the past several years hasn't exactly lit fires, even though that's really the Boston market (just an hour south of that track).
   Bruton Smith, the owner there, says the chase never helped his ticket sales.
   But maybe that was more a factor of NASCAR opening the playoffs in the middle of September, when the rest of Sports America is catching football fever, high school, college and the NFL, or considering Baseball's own playoffs looming. Plus, school is back in session, and families have finished vacations….
   Chicago as the NASCAR leadoff?
   Maybe it should be the leadoff question in what to do about the chase itself.
   Smith says the chase has run its course, such as it was, and it may be time to just junk it.
   Jimmie Johnson has won five in a row, and finding a number two in this sport hasn't been easy:
   Can you name the men who finished second to Johnson the last five seasons?
   Last season, for example, was it Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick? Or Carl Edwards?
   And so it goes….

   If last weekend's driver meltdowns at Richmond, Va., are any indication of what to expect when the NASCAR championship playoffs open here this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, just down I-55 from the Miracle Mile/Lake Shore Drive and the Sears Tower, Sunday's Chicago 400 could be a doozy.
   Kurt Busch has apologized for his post-race outburst, after another series of run-ins with Jimmie Johnson. Tony Stewart, well, probably not. The two have been on the chip lately, and that's not a good sign for the opening event of the 10-race chase.
   However this race, as the opener, is probably going to be a pretty conservative game, and next week's at Loudon, N.H. The goal for title contenders these first few weeks is almost certainly to avoid any early-chase calamity.

    At least Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the chase. Wonder what his drawing power will be in Chicago? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   NASCAR has reracked the points, essentially re-zeroed the top 12 (and those few bonus points for winning regular season races don't really seem to be much of a factor). But, as Carl Edwards showed, just a few weeks ago, one mistake and a 36th place finish can cost a man dearly – it cost Edwards 39 points at Michigan.
   This is the first year using this new point system in the playoffs, and it appears to penalize bad Sundays even more than the venerable Bob Latford system used for some 30 years.
    Head games? Johnson has already warned new playoff contender Brad Keselowski "these final 10 races, it's its own world. It's a whole new season."
   And if you didn't make the playoffs, you might as well stay home and plot for next season. Why? Well, consider this – over the past four years only three non-championship contenders won chase races: Jamie McMurray at Charlotte last fall, McMurray at Talladega two years ago, and Greg Biffle at Kansas four years ago.
   However, this fall a number of big-name drivers are still looking for rides for next season, or shore up their current deals, and that could wreck havoc in the chase. Among the men to keep a wary eye on: Brian Vickers, David Ragan, Clint Bowyer….
   And what to make of Trevor Bayne? He won the Daytona 500, spent several weeks on the sidelines with some strange illness, made a comeback but hasn't really been heard from much since.
   Chicagoland Speedway, one of the sport's new state-of-the-art facilities, has been on the tour now for 10 years. Yet, oddly, it still has developed no unique personality.
   The track itself is on farmland on the south side of Joliet, a small town at the end of the line, an hour or so from The Loop. No big shopping centers like the France family has built at carbon-copy Kansas Speedway, 500 miles southwest of here. Some riverboat casinos, but little that really makes a statement.
    But this is Chicago…sort of. The third-largest market in the U.S.
    Can NASCAR makes some waves here? That may be this week's biggest question.
    NASCAR moved this race from vacation-July to the leadoff for the chase…and that's a hotly questioned move. Harvick says the chase leadoff should rotate from track to track each season. At the least perhaps NASCAR should wait to see how this Sunday's 400 goes before committing to it here again next September.
   At least it's a full weekend here: Trucks Friday night (8 pmET), Nationwide Saturday afternoon (330 pmET), and Cup Sunday afternoon (2 pm ET). And the weather is expected to be quite cool, in the 40s at night, and a high barely breaking 70.

   Another storyline here, as Johnson launches what could be a record-breaking sixth straight Sprint Cup championship – could be Kevin Harvick, suddenly rejuvenated after a a lackluster, anger-filled summer.
   During a miserable night at Bristol only three weeks ago, Harvick lamented that he hadn't had a decent run on the stock car tour in four months.
   That, plus similarly unsettling performances by his other three teams, prompted car owner Richard Childress to hold a rare Sunday 'come to Jesus' meeting.
   And things quickly changed. Harvick had a good run at Atlanta, then won Richmond.
   And it was an emotional weekend for Harvick at Richmond: first, announcing he was shutting down his own 140-man racing operation at the end of the season, apparently because the hassles of running a multi-car Nationwide and Truck company were just getting to be too much; then winning Saturday night's Richmond 400, in a furious finish over Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.
   Before Harvick's win, five others were figured to have an edge over the rest in the playoffs: Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon.
   Has Harvick and team finally regrouped? That may be their test here this weekend, to prove they're back in the hunt. They do have four tour wins now, but that long summer drought is still fresh in mind. Harvick has won twice at this 1-1/2-mile track, but that was some 10 years ago. Last year he finished 36th.

   Another storyline: Kurt Busch, with another meltdown.
   Moments after the Richmond race, as the media was interviewing the 12 title contenders, Kurt Busch blew up at a reporter asking the rather innocent, and obvious, question about what's up with this Busch-Johnson thing. For a moment it appeared Busch would come to blows with a reporter, only being restrained by his crew.
    Then on TV Busch crowed he was 'getting in Johnson's head.' When questioned a few minutes later about that comment Busch angrily denied saying it, and then when shown the TV transcript, tore it up and left the interview.
    Busch a couple days later apologized for his antics. But in this championship game of heads-man-ship, Busch appears already 0-for-1. If that's all it takes to rattle his cage,  Busch may be in for quite a few jibes these next few weeks.
    Johnson, on the other hand, seated post-race on the same dais as Busch, managed to hold his composure. That Johnson even made an obvious dive at Busch in the race to spin him out (after their earlier run-in) was curiously out of character for a guy who, in his nearly 10 years on the tour, has shown an almost awe-inspiring ability to let frustration and gripes simply slide off his shoulders.
    But then when Kurt Busch's teammate, the surprising Brad Keselowski, himself in the playoffs after a hot summer run, made sly reference to knowing Johnson's weak spots – 'Even Superman has Kryptonite' – maybe Keselowski was referring to Busch.

   Certainly rivals have tried, in vain, to get inside Johnson's head during these championship battles the last few years.
   When asked last fall why drivers didn't just try to rough up Johnson in the chase to get him off his game, Edwards just sighed, as if that were somehow
'politically incorrect.'
   Perhaps no more.
   But then Johnson was 'vulnerable' last season in the playoffs, all but beaten going into the final miles of the penultimate race at Phoenix….and he still rallied to win the NASCAR title.
   Indeed that comeback, his rivals concede was his best championship performance yet.
   And this season Johnson, still with only one tour win, at Talladega back in the spring, has not been as dominant as in past seasons. Kurt Busch says that means that Johnson no longer has superior equipment and has to race….adding, snidely, that Johnson 'needs to learn how to race.'
   Perhaps the philosophy 'let sleeping dogs lie' would better suit this situation.
   Clearly Johnson is fired up.
   Let's briefly consider Johnson's previous runs in the chase:
   -- He's the only man to make the playoffs all eight years.
   -- He's won 19 chase races (of the 70 so far), more than the second-best and third-best drivers combined.
   -- He's logged 40 top-fives (54 top-10s), an amazingly strong history. In doing that he's led 3,423 chase laps; and his average finishing position over the 70 chase events is a sizzling 9.9.
   Now let's consider Johnson's performance overall this season:
   -- On the plus side, though he's only won once, he's finished top-10 17 times in the 26 regular season races; only once did he come into the chase with stronger top-10 record, 18 in 2006.
   -- On the minus side, he's not led many laps. In fact Johnson has led only 368 laps so far, and that's the first time in five years he hasn't gone into the chase having led at least 900 laps in the regular season.

  Of course it's hard to say anyone has dominated this season, not with 15 winners. (Even Edwards, who started the season as top dog, has only one win, that at Las Vegas back in March.) And five of those winners were first-timers (none made the playoffs).
   So, have Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin (whose birthday is Saturday) fought their way back into title contention? Or was Richmond must a blip on the radar?
    Harvick, who will warm up for Sunday's 400 by racing in Friday night's Truck race, says winning Richmond "definitely helps. We had a rough summer, got a little off our game. I think a lot of that came from winning so many races early – we were able to try things…and most of them didn't work.
    "We struggled a little bit here last year, but we feel we've done some things to head in the right direction."
   Now it's time to show it.
  The TV schedule for the playoffs: Chicago, New Hampshire, Dover, Kansas, Talladega and Martinsville are all scheduled for 2 pmET starts; Charlotte (Oct.  15), 730 pmET;  and the final three, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami, at 3 pmET.  All are to be on ESPN, except Charlotte's Bank of America, set for a Saturday night 730 pmET kickoff. Er, start.



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