Let the games begin.
The 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup is scheduled to begin Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway with some of the usual suspects in the spotlight. The GEICO 400 is scheduled for a 2 p.m. (ET) start.
To the surprise of almost no one, Jimmie Johnson, winner of five of the past six championships, is the man of the moment. He won the pole Saturday, his team has the best pit stall and he’ll be shooting for a strong start to a series of championship races that stretch virtually across the country.
Johnson is the second seed opening the Chase. He won three races during the 26-race regular season and thus starts the playoffs three points behind top seed Denny Hamlin, who won four.
Behind the first two in the standings are Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon.
Johnson has a weird history at Chicagoland. He’s never won a Sprint Cup race at the track, but he has run very well in practically every start. His one and only Nationwide Series win was scored at the track in 2001.
“This is a track I’ve always enjoyed,” Johnson said. “I smile when I know I’m coming up here. I love the area and the track.”
Johnson has been successful this season at 1.5-mile tracks similar to Chicagoland.
“The 1.5 miles have a general setup that works with them, and we’ve been strong on those tracks this year,” he said. “And I’ve been so close before.”
Five of the 12 Chase drivers will start in the top 10 – Johnson first, Kenseth third, Kahne sixth, Hamlin eighth and Bowyer ninth.
A sixth Chaser, Earnhardt Jr. qualified fourth, but a gear shift at the end of his time-trial lap resulted in a bent engine valve. Earnhardt Jr.’s team changed the engine in the car, and that automatically sends Junior to the rear of the field for the start of the race.
Other Chaser positions in the starting lineup are Keselowski (13th), Truex Jr. (18th), Gordon (19th), Biffle (22nd), Stewart (29th) and Harvick (35th).
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.