The Inside Line: No clear favorite to win this year's Chase

After the conclusion of the regular- season-ending race this past weekend at Richmond, defending Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart had perhaps the best prediction of who will win this year's Chase.

"All 12 guys have a shot, and a good shot I think," he said.

Based on what he did last year, Stewart should know that any one of the 12- members in the Chase has a legitimate chance of winning the championship. With no race victories during the regular season in 2011, Stewart barely made it in to the Chase and wondered if he even deserved to be in it.

But Stewart went on a tear during the 10-race Chase, winning five of them, including the season-finale at Homestead, Fla., and finishing the year in a points tie with Carl Edwards. Stewart captured his third series championship by virtue of his five victories during the season compared to only one win for Edwards.

If Stewart was able to pull off a late-season rally last year, who's to say it can't be done again. We'll find out during these next 10 weeks, as the Chase begins on Sunday at Chicagoland.

Here's a look at the 12-driver field based on their seed and points total adjusted to start the Chase:

1. Denny Hamlin (2,012 points)

For the second time in his career, Hamlin will start the Chase with the top seed. He has a series-high four wins for the season, including two of the last three races. Hamlin has qualified for the Chase in each of his seven years in NASCAR's premier series.

Two years ago, Hamlin earned the first seed by winning six races during the regular season. He went on to score two victories during the 2010 Chase and held the points lead heading into last race of the year. But Jimmie Johnson's second-place finish coupled with a 14th-place run for Hamlin at Homestead allowed Johnson to claim his record-extending fifth straight Sprint Cup title by 39 points over Hamlin.

"What took us out of the championship in 2010 really were a lot of different circumstances," Hamlin said. "I won't treat it any differently about the way I drive, things like that. I think I'll be a little bit more aggressive on restarts and not give up those one or two points when they really count. That will change, but for the most part, I think I'll just be a lot more relaxed this time around. Obviously, our stuff is really good right now, as good as it was in 2010.

"What do you got to lose? We've never won a championship. We're going out there trying to win our first. I'm going to race week-to-week, not think about a championship until I get to Homestead."

Hamlin has had a remarkable turnaround this season after finishing ninth in points and winning only one race last year. Crew chief Darian Grubb has played a big part in Hamlin's rebound. After winning the championship with Stewart this past season, Grubb joined Joe Gibbs Racing to replace Mike Ford as crew chief for the No. 11 team.

Hamlin had been in a bit of a slump before winning at Bristol and Atlanta. He led the most laps at Richmond (202) but ended up finishing 18th.

Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, the top-seed driver has won the championship just twice -- Johnson in 2007 and Stewart in 2005.

2. Jimmie Johnson (2,009)

Johnson won the Sprint Cup championship consecutively from 2006-10 before Stewart denied him a sixth straight title last year. The 2011 season was indeed a disappointing one for Johnson, as he finished a career-worst sixth in points.

But Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are hoping they return to their winning ways in this year's Chase. Johnson is the only driver who has qualified for the post season all nine times, and he holds the record for most Chase wins with 20.

"Our chances are as good as anybody's," Johnson said. "When I look at the Chase, I look at eight of my best tracks are in the Chase. There are a lot of 1.5-mile tracks, which have been the bread and butter for the No. 48 team. You've got Martinsville, there is Talladega, and I haven't finished a plate race this year, but I'm bound to finish one before long. I'm excited for it. Each race we are going to have to take as it comes, and last year's Chase showed that this thing isn't over until the last lap at Homestead."

Johnson has three wins this season -- Darlington, Dover and Indianapolis. Since Indy, he has finished outside the top-10 in four of six races. He placed third at Watkins Glen, N.Y. and second at Bristol.

3. Tony Stewart (2,009)

With three victories to his credit, Stewart begins his title defense in the third seed. His wins at Las Vegas, California and the July race at Daytona earned him a total of nine bonus points to start the Chase. That's nine more than he had at this time last year.

Stewart certainly knows that every point will count from here on.

"Knowing that it came down to one point at the end of the year last year, those nine points are huge right now," Stewart said. "Nine points doesn't sound like a lot, three points doesn't, but when it came down to it, one point was the biggest you've ever seen in your life."

Stewart finished fourth at Richmond but had placed no better than 19th in the four previous races. He ended the regular season 10th in the point standings.

4. Brad Keselowski (2,009)

Keselowski also recorded three wins during the first 26 races this season -- Bristol (spring), Talladega and Kentucky. This will be his second straight appearance in the Chase. Last year, he earned a wild card and went on to finish fifth in points.

"I think we're slightly further ahead, and I felt like we had a great shot to win in last year," Keselowski said. "We still have the youth of 2011 and the enthusiasm that we had in that season, but I think we've got a little bit more experience. We're slightly ahead and in good position to make a strong run for it and have another shot at the championship."

Keselowski is one of the hottest drivers in the series right now. He has finished ninth or better in nine of the last 10 races, including second-place runs at Watkins Glen and Michigan.

5. Greg Biffle (2,006)

Biffle ended the regular season as the points leader but enters the Chase in the fifth seed based on his wins at Texas and the August race at Michigan.

Five of the 10 races in the Chase will be contested on 1.5-mile tracks, and Biffle has performed quite well on the mile and a halfs this year. He has won twice at both Homestead and Kansas during the Chase.

"I feel very, very good about our 1.5 mile program," Biffle said. "The five in the Chase we run very good at and are really excited about. We feel like we could win any or all of those five."

This will be Biffle's fourth time in the Chase. He did not qualify for last year's playoffs, as he finished the season 16th in points. Biffle's best performance in the Chase came in 2005 when he finished second in points.

6. Clint Bowyer (2,006)

Bowyer is entering the Chase with a whole lot of momentum after winning at Richmond. In his inaugural season with Michael Waltrip Racing, Bowyer has already posted two wins, with his first coming in June on the road course in Sonoma, Calif.

After spending the past six years with Richard Childress Racing in Sprint Cup, Bowyer has had a superb season with Michael Waltrip's team. He and teammate Martin Truex Jr. put MWR in the Chase for the first time.

"I'm thankful to have the opportunity with a new home, new sponsor, new manufacturer with Toyota," Bowyer said. "With everything new, I never would have dreamed in a million years all this would have happened this quickly. Obviously, it's the goal to win races and be in the Chase. Realistically, I knew what we were up against. Just pleasantly surprised."

Bowyer has been on a roll lately. He has finished eighth or better in five of the last six races. Bowyer is also the winner of the Talladega fall race the past two years. Talladega is scheduled for Oct. 7

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2,003)

For Earnhardt Jr. to win the championship would be a hugely popular one, to say the least. And this might be the year that he does it for the first time.

Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, ended a four-year winless streak in June at Michigan. He also held the lead in the point standings for the first time since Sept. 2004. Earnhardt Jr. sat no lower than sixth 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. He finished seventh in points last year.

8. Matt Kenseth (2,003)

Kenseth will make his eighth appearance in the Chase but his last one with Roush Fenway Racing. In June, Kenseth revealed that he is leaving RFR at season's end. The 2003 series champion will be heading to Joe Gibbs Racing to replace Joey Logano in the No. 20 car, starting next year. Logano is moving over to Penske Racing to drive the No. 22.

Kenseth, who has been with Jack Roush's Cup team since 2000, started this season on a high note by winning the Daytona 500, a race delayed one day due to rain. He ended the regular season third in points.

"I don't think it is going to make any difference at all to what we are trying to do this year," Kenseth said. "My team has known that I was going somewhere else for a few months. I don't think that is going to change things. All your incentives are to try to do good no matter what your plans are for the following year. All our incentives are to win races and try to win the championship."

Kenseth finished fourth in the Chase last year and fifth in 2010.

9. Kevin Harvick (2,000)

Harvick and Truex are the only drivers in the Chase that have yet to win a race this season. You could say both of those drivers are starting off this year's playoffs the same way Stewart did last season.

Who knows. Harvick and Truex might be saving their best for the Chase.

"It's all about momentum," Harvick said. "In this sport we've seen it, and in other sports we've seen it. We saw it with Tony last year. We just don't know. We don't know how it's all going to turn out. We've got to go race some races, and I know I feel a lot better about where we are the last few weeks than I did three months ago."

Harvick has been consistent enough to hang around in the top-10 in points throughout the season. He has finished either third or fourth in his last three Chase appearances. He did not qualify in 2009. Harvick has not won a Sprint Cup race since Sept. 2011 at Richmond.

10. Martin Truex Jr. (2,000)

Like Harvick, Truex earned a spot in the Chase with consistency. Truex ended the regular season sixth in points. He has not won a race since June 2007, when he drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc., but came very close in April at Kansas. He led 173 of 267 laps but gave up the top spot to Hamlin in the closing laps. Hamlin went on to win, while Truex settled for second.

Truex had finished 11th or better in seven consecutive races before placing 21st at Richmond.

"We've got the speed, that's for sure," Truex said. "Our strong suit is going fast, but we need to work on pit strategy."

This will be Truex's second time in the Chase. He finished 11th in '07.

11. Kasey Kahne (2,000)

In his first year with Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne earned his way into the Chase with a wild card. His two wins this season -- Charlotte and Pocono (June) -- helped him secure the first of two wild cards.

Kahne overcame adversity to make the Chase. After finishing 34th or worse in three of the first six races this season, he sat 31st in points. But Kahne steadily progressed in the standings and moved into the 11th spot following last month's race at Pocono.

Kahne is making his third appearance in the Chase but his first since 2009 when he drove for Richard Petty Motorsports. He finished 10th in points that year. Kahne placed eighth in his first Chase in 2006.

"I made it before and enjoyed being in it," Kahne said. "This year, I have pretty good speed. Each week we're kind of in the mix. If we can do things right, I feel like we can pass those guys for sure and see how far we can get."

All four Hendrick drivers -- Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Kahne and Jeff Gordon -- are in this year's Chase.

12. Jeff Gordon (2,000)

Gordon has been the comeback story of the 2012 Sprint Cup season. Sitting outside the top-20 in points three months ago, it looked as though his chances of making the Chase were slim. Thanks to Mother Nature, the four-time series champion picked up a much-needed win last month at Pocono. Gordon grabbed the lead just before a caution and held it when a severe thunderstorm moved over the area, forcing NASCAR to call the race 62 laps short of its 160-lap, 400- mile distance.

A third-place run at Bristol and then back-to-back second-place finishes at Atlanta and Richmond helped Gordon win the final wild card spot by just three points over Kyle Busch.

"It was a great fight we had at Richmond, and I am so pumped heading into Chicago and the rest of the Chase," Gordon said. "There were a number of times this year when we had strong performances but didn't have the results to go with it. We now have 10 races to pair good runs with good results."

Gordon has made the Chase each year except 2005, when he finished 11th in points. The playoff field back then consisted of just the top-10 in points. His best Chase finish is second, which came in 2007. He ended the season 77 points behind champion and teammate Johnson.

After Chicagoland, the Chase moves on to New Hampshire, Dover, Talladega, Charlotte, Kansas, Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix before it concludes on Nov. 18 at Homestead.