The 2013 championship Chase in the Sprint Cup Series starts this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, but along with it comes a cloud of controversy following the end of last Saturday's race at Richmond.
Two days after Richmond, Martin Truex Jr. was bounced out of the Chase and Ryan Newman placed in it after NASCAR handed down severe penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing for manipulating the outcome of the race. As part of the team's penalties, Truex was docked 50 points, which dropped him to 17th in the point standings. Truex had clinched the last wild card prior to the penalties. Newman, who won at Indianapolis in July, replaced him in that position.
NASCAR is now investigating another possible manipulation at Richmond. The sanctioning body is reviewing the radio communication between Joey Logano's No. 22 Penske Racing team and David Gilliland's No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team to determine if a deal was made to have Gilliland let Logano pass him after the final restart with three laps to go. Logano finished 22nd, and Gilliland was 23rd. Logano secured the final top-10 points spot in the Chase, beating Jeff Gordon by only one point.
Despite the controversy, the 10-race battle for the Sprint Cup championship is on. Matt Kenseth, who starts the Chase in the top seed, is seeking his first title in 10 years. Jimmie Johnson is attempting to claim his sixth championship in the series, but Johnson has lost a lot of momentum within the past month.
One thing is for sure. There will be a new champion this season. Brad Keselowski failed to qualify for the Chase after winning his first series title last year.
Here's a look at the 12-driver field based on their seed and points total adjusted to start the Chase:
1. Matt Kenseth (2,015 points)
Kenseth has had a terrific first season driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. This will be the ninth appearance in the Chase for the 41-year- old driver and 2003 Cup champion. He has the most wins this season with five -- Las Vegas, Kansas, Darlington, Kentucky and Bristol.
"I'm proud of my team for putting us here," Kenseth said. "I'm ready for the Chase to start, excited about the stuff we got going for Chicago."
This will be the third consecutive season that Chicagoland kicks off the Chase. Tony Stewart won there and then went on to capture the championship in 2011. Keselowski accomplished the same feat last year. Can Kenseth be the next one to win both the race at Chicagoland and the series title?
"I'm as confident going into Chicago this weekend as anywhere else," Kenseth said. "Each point in every race is equally important, and you don't want to have any bad races throughout the Chase. Certainly, you don't want to have a bad first one, but you don't want to have any bad ones. You want to start strong and finish strong."
Kenseth's best points finish in the Chase is second, which occurred in 2006. This is the first time he clinched the top seed in the playoffs.
2. Jimmie Johnson (2,012)
One month ago, it looked as though Johnson would be the clear favorite to win the Chase. The Hendrick Motorsports driver held a 75-point lead following the Aug. 11 race at Watkins Glen. But Johnson has struggled in the four races since then, finishing 28th or worse. He ended the regular season one point behind Carl Edwards, who won at Richmond.
Johnson is not overly concerned about his recent finishes. He had lost momentum before the start of the Chase in the past but bounced back nicely to win the championship.
"Without a doubt, you want to enter the Chase with momentum," Johnson said. "I think every team falls back on past history. We have won championships without momentum going into the first race. So we're going to fall on our experience and also the experience of knowing the Chase is so different than anything else. You're only racing 12 guys, not 43. So things change a lot."
Johnson grabbed the second seed by virtue of his four wins this season -- both Daytona races, Martinsville and Pocono. He is the only driver who has qualified for the Chase each season since the inception of NASCAR's playoff format in 2004. Johnson also holds the record for most Chase wins with 22.
3. Kyle Busch (2,012)
Busch's 2013 season has been a turnaround from last year when he failed to make it into the Chase by just three points. His victory earlier this month at Atlanta clinched him a spot in the playoffs for the sixth time. Prior to Atlanta, he had won at California, Texas and Watkins Glen.
"This year, there's certainly a greater satisfaction of being included in the Chase and knowing that you're locked in and knowing that you have a chance to race for the rest of the year to contend for a championship," Busch said.
Busch has finished no better than fifth in the Chase. In 2008, he earned the first seed with eight wins for the season. But Busch faltered in the first two races of the Chase that year, which quickly took him out of championship contention.
4. Kevin Harvick (2,006)
Harvick is in his last season with Richard Childress Racing before he moves over to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. But Harvick hasn't made this a lame-duck season with the No. 29 team.
There had been a lot of talk about this being a do-nothing year for Harvick, but he silenced his critics by winning in April at Richmond and then picking up another victory the following month at Charlotte. He is hopeful of ending his tenure with RCR on a high note.
"We are as good as we've ever been, and hopefully we can continue to get better over the next few weeks," Harvick said.
This is the fourth straight year that Harvick has made the Chase. He finished the 2010 and '11 seasons third in points. He ended last year in eighth.
5. Carl Edwards (2,006)
After missing the Chase last year, Edwards enters it with a lot of momentum following his victory at Richmond. His first win this season came in March at Phoenix.
Edwards has been in the top-10 in points since the third race of the season (Las Vegas). He ended the regular season atop the standings. The past few months had been a bit of a roller coaster for Edwards until his season got back on track last month at Bristol.
"I'd say a month or two ago, I wasn't so sure about our chances in the Chase," Edwards said. "(Crew chief) Jimmy (Fennig) and I had a meeting to talk about it, because it was not looking good. We turned things around. (Team owner) Jack (Roush) has done a great job with the cars. The pit crew is spectacular. Excited about going to run these 10 races."
Edwards ended the 2011 season in a points tie with Stewart, but Stewart won his third series championship by virtue of his five victories for the season compared to only one win for Edwards.
6. Joey Logano (2,003)
Despite the controversy surrounding him following the Richmond race, Logano is in the Chase for the first time. This is Logano's fifth year in Sprint Cup but his first season as driver of the No. 22 car for Penske. He drove for Joe Gibbs Racing from 2009-12.
Prior to Richmond, Logano had been on a roll, scoring six straight top-10 finishes. He sat 18th in points two months ago when he finished 40th at New Hampshire. His Michigan win last month was a big help in him getting into the Chase.
"We deserve to be in the Chase," Logano said during Thursday's Chase Media Day in Chicago. "If you look at our numbers, there's no reason why we shouldn't be here."
Richmond was one of several times this season that Logano has been in some sort of a conflict. His run-ins with Denny Hamlin at Bristol and then Tony Stewart at California earlier in the season put him in the spotlight.
"I've been a focal point about something all year, so I'm used to it at this point," Logano jokingly said. "I just go with it. I go with the flow. I guess I've learned a lot and experienced a lot this year. It just makes you stronger. They say it's character-building. I'm a hell of a character now."
Nonetheless, Logano is optimistic about his chances of winning the title in his maiden Chase appearance.
"It is a dream come true to be in the Chase, and it would be even more of a dream come true to win this thing," he said. "I feel like we can do it this year. We have a good shot at it."
7. Greg Biffle (2,003)
Struggling to maintain a top-10 spot in points the last two months, Biffle squeaked his way into the Chase. He grabbed the seventh seed due to his win in June at Michigan. Biffle has shown improvement within the past four races, finishing no worse than 15th.
"We feel good," Biffle said. "We are right where we need to be. I am happy about that."
This will be Biffle's fifth time in the Chase. He finished second in points in 2005.
8. Clint Bowyer (2,000)
Bowyer has spent more time this week answering questions about his spin in the closing laps at Richmond than he has in his preparations for the Chase. How this controversy will affect him throughout the Chase remains to be seen.
"I went to ESPN on Tuesday and talked about all of this and gave interviews I think for seven hours on national television, and the one thing I can tell you is that I'm tired of talking about it," Bowyer said.
Bowyer won two races during the regular season last year, but has yet to score a victory this season. He finished the 2012 Chase second in points.
"I'm excited about the Chase, and I've been excited about the Chase for months," Bowyer said. "We've had a great season, but I haven't won a race. My teammates (Truex and Brian Vickers) have won. We've got to get down to the biggest part of our sport, and that's the championship at the end of the year.
"I've had a rough couple of days, no question about that. But I've got that behind me, and focused on getting that helmet on and getting the most out of my race car this weekend."
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2,000)
For Earnhardt Jr. to win the championship would be a hugely popular one, to say the least. But he'll need to perform much stronger in the post season than he did in the first 26 races this year.
Earnhardt, who is NASCAR's most popular driver, has been winless since June 2012 at Michigan. He held the points lead earlier this year but only after the California race. Earnhardt sat no lower than seventh in points during the regular season.
"I feel we've got a good shot at it," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We've been consistent all year long. We just hope we can keep that up. I think it's going to take a couple wins to win a championship outright."
Earnhardt Jr.'s best finish in the Chase is fifth, which occurred in 2004 and '06.
10. Kurt Busch (2,000)
Busch making it into the Chase with a single-car team has been one of the feel good stories in NASCAR this year. He is driving for Furniture Row Racing this season before he moves over to Stewart-Haas next year. Busch has yet to win a race this year but has scored eight top-five finishes and 13 top-10s. He's also started on the front row in eight races.
"We have some muscle left in us," Busch said. "We have a great 10 weeks ahead of us. We have a test session we've saved. I think we can make a run through this Chase."
Busch won the inaugural Chase in 2004 when he drove for Roush Racing. He is making his seventh appearance in the playoffs.
11. Kasey Kahne (2,000)
Kahne made it into the Chase with a wild card for the second year in a row. He will join his Hendrick teammates Johnson and Earnhardt in the championship battle. Kahne's two wins this season -- Bristol and Pocono -- helped him clinch the first wild card.
"I would say the majority of the season we've had as much speed as anybody, and if we can put that together for nine or 10 of these next 10 (races), we'll definitely have a shot."
This is the fourth time Kahne has made the Chase. He finished a career-best fourth in points last year, his first season with Hendrick.
12. Ryan Newman (2,000)
What a week it's been for Newman. Despite a third-place finish at Richmond, he had lost out on the final card due to a points tiebreaker with Truex, who placed eighth. Newman led the way when Bowyer spun out but gave up the top spot when he had a slow pit stop during the caution.
On Monday, RCR announced that Newman had signed with the team to drive the No. 31 car, starting next year. He is replacing Jeff Burton, who is leaving Childress' team at season's end. Hours after the announcement, Newman learned that he was in the Chase as a result of the penalties assessed to MWR.
"It's bittersweet for me, because Martin Truex and I are good friends," Newman said. "To see and know and kind of watch him be the by-product of what happened, that's tough. I kind of know how he felt Sunday and Monday."
Truex publicly commented on the penalties for the first time when he posted a message on his Twitter account on Wednesday.
"I was very excited for my team when I learned that we clinched a wild card spot (Saturday) night in Richmond," he tweeted. "I drove the hardest race of my life that night and was unaware of any other circumstances other than needing to finish as high as I could to have a chance. This has been a very difficult situation for everyone involved. I hope we can all move on. I'm looking forward to Chicago."
Newman is making his fifth appearance in the Chase. He did not qualify for it last year. His best finish in points is sixth, which came in 2005 when he drove for Penske.
"Obviously, it's great to be in the Chase, and it's great to say that we have a chance to win a championship," he said.
After Chicagoland, the Chase moves on to New Hampshire, Dover, Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega, Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix before it concludes on Nov. 17 at Homestead.