Despite the controversy from last weekend's regular-season-ending event at Richmond, the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship gets underway on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
Right now, 15 points separate top-seed Matt Kenseth from 12th-place Ryan Newman, who moved into the Chase after Martin Truex Jr. was bumped out earlier this week. Truex received a loss of 50 points as part of NASCAR's penalties assessed to Michael Waltrip Racing for attempting to manipulate the outcome of the Richmond race.
Entering the Chase in the second seed, Jimmie Johnson is trying to win his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship. Johnson is the only driver who has qualified for the Chase each year since NASCAR began the playoff format for its premier series in 2004. He won five consecutive Sprint Cup titles from 2006-10.
Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team have been in a slump lately. His most recent finishes have been 40th (Michigan), 36th (Bristol), 28th (Atlanta) and 40th (Richmond). Prior to Michigan, he held a 75-point lead. His advantage evaporated quickly, as he concluded the regular season one point behind Carl Edwards, who won at Richmond.
"We all know that the last four or five weeks have been awfully hard on the 48," Johnson said. "When I look at Richmond and Bristol, and you can look at our stats in general, those aren't good tracks for us, so I don't read too much into those. Plus, there's no track like either one of those in the Chase.
"But when I look at Atlanta, we were competitive and got crunched up on a restart. I look at Michigan where we were way fast but had an engine failure, which is kind of rare."
Johnson has previously lost momentum either before the start of the Chase or in the first few races during the playoffs, but he rebounded nicely to win the championship.
Five of the final 10 races will be contested on 1.5-mile racetracks, beginning with Chicagoland. Kansas (Oct. 6), Charlotte (Oct. 12), Texas (Nov. 3) and Homestead (Nov. 17) are the other mile and a halfs that remain on the schedule.
"With the Chase having five mile-and-a-half style racetracks in it, I look at the speed that we've had, even though the finishes aren't there," Johnson said. "I feel very comfortable about where we are.
"I would love to have more momentum, without a doubt, coming into the Chase, but we don't. I think we're a strong enough team where that won't prevent us or hamper our ability to win the championship."
Johnson has scored 22 victories in 90 Chase races, which is 17 more wins than Kenseth and Kyle Busch's combined total. Busch starts the post season in the third seed.
This is the third year that Chicagoland has been on the Chase schedule. Tony Stewart won here and capture the Sprint Cup championship in 2011. Brad Keselowski scored the victory at this track and went on to claim his first series title last season.
Chicagoland is one of five racetracks where Johnson has yet to win a Sprint Cup race. Homestead, Kentucky, Michigan and Watkins Glen are the others. He has finished second at Chicagoland three times in 11 starts, including one here last year. His lone Nationwide win came at this track in 2001.
"I love this track," he said. "We tested here for Goodyear in a tire test a few months ago. Even in the test session with a few cars here, we had multiple lanes working and good speed in the tire and good speed in the cars. So I'm very optimistic coming in. It's been a good track for me."
Forty-three teams are on the entry list for the Geico 400.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, Sept. 15. Race: Geico 400. Site: Chicagoland Speedway. Track: 1.5-mile oval. Start time: 2 p.m. ET. Laps: 267. Miles: 400.5. 2012 Winner: Brad Keselowski. Television: ESPN. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.