Excluding the season finale in Homestead, Fla., the single most significant NASCAR event of 2013 takes place on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, the first of the 10 Chase races. Chicago is the tone-setter for the playoffs, a flat, multi-grooved 1.5-mile oval that's the first of five intermediate-length tracks in the Chase. If a driver performs well at Chicago -- the 2012 champ, Brad Keselowski, took the checkered flag here last year and the 2011 champion, Tony Stewart, did the same two years ago -- it typically means he'll be a factor in the title hunt for the rest of the fall.
"This is a very important race. In my eyes, it's one of the most important," says Clint Bowyer, who is at the center of the raging controversy he sparked by spinning out at Richmond in order to help teammate Martin Truex Jr. secure a Chase berth. "Obviously, Homestead to win a championship is the most important, but getting that -- to get the Chase started off right is so important to get that momentum rolling for you and your race team, that confidence is a big thing and I think this race track has really come into its own of being a good track to start that."
Adds Carl Edwards, the regular season points winner, "Starting in Chicago is good and I think that for a couple of reasons. It is a mile-and-a-half racetrack, which there are a lot of. You get a real measure of how the field will stack up. It is a track where you can do well on your own merit and you can pass here. You aren't going to get mired back because of a bad pit stop like you might at other places. It is a fast racetrack and it showcases what we do. We go fast and it is two or three-wide racing."
Yet as the Chase revs up, questions remain over what exactly transpired at Richmond International Speedway last Saturday night. The Associated Press reported that the teams of Joey Logano and David Gilliland may have cut a deal during the race to allow Logano to pass Gilliland; NASCAR said on Wednesday it was investigating the matter. I don't think any action will be taken against Logano, who is a legitimate title threat, but Jeff Gordon was reinstated to the field by chairman Brian France, who felt too much chicanery had gone on and that the integrity of the sport had to be maintained.
My pick to win at Chicagoland is Jimmie Johnson. He's one of five drivers to watch once the green flag drops on the 2013 playoffs on Sunday.
1. Jimmie Johnson
He's struggled in recent weeks. He's made uncharacteristic mistakes behind the wheel. He's been undone by lethargic pit stops and mechanical failures, and endured a horrendous string of bad luck. He's had four straight finishes of 28th or worse, which caused him to drop from first to second place in the standings at the end of the regular season.
Still, Mr. Five Time remains the man to beat in the Chase. He doesn't have a weak track on the schedule and he's been particularly good at Chicago. Last year he won the pole here, led a race-high 172 laps, and finished second behind Keselowski. The juggernaut of Hendrick Motorsports has been preparing for this race for months, and it says here Johnson will motor away from the field on Sunday.
2. Matt Kenseth
Based on his series-high five regular season wins, Kenseth enters the Chase as the No. 1 seed. But he's been an all-or-nothing, boom-or-bust driver this entire year, reaching Victory Lane one week and finishing 33rd the next. Consistency is key in the Chase; so far, he hasn't displayed this characteristic.
Kenseth usually flourishes on intermediate-length tracks such as Chicagoland. He's won at two 1.5-mile venues this season (Las Vegas and Kentucky). "A lot of things have to go right in 10 races," he says. "Ten races is a lot of racing and you can't have problems. A lot of things have to go right to have a shot at a championship, but I feel good about where we're at. I like being seeded number one."
3. Joey Logano
Over the last seven races, no driver has scored more points than Logano. If I were to pick a dark horse to win the championship, it would be him. In the Chase he'll lean heavily on his Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski, the reigning champ who failed to qualify for the playoffs. Logano in '13 reminds me of Keselowski in '12: it appears that Logano, like Keselowski last year, has a slight mechanical edge over most of the field as the Chase starts. Technology evolves quickly in the garage, so Logano may not have this advantage for long.
"I feel like the mile-and-a-half and two-mile race tracks our motor has run really well at those tracks and I feel like our bodies have been there and setups have been right where we need to be on that stuff," says Logano, who finished seventh in Chicago last year. "I look at it as kind of a miniature California and we had a really good run there."
4. Kyle Busch
Busch, who has four wins in 2013, begins the Chase as the No. 3 seed behind Kenseth and Johnson. He clearly has benefited this season from the addition of Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing. The mild-mannered, easy-going Kenseth has had a steadying, calming influence on the notoriously hot-tempered Busch, who hasn't had any meltdowns of significance this year.
Busch has traditionally flopped in the Chase. He hasn't finished higher than 10th in the standings during the last five years, but that could change this fall. He flashed impressive speed over the final 10 races last season, though he wasn't in the Chase.
"I haven't proven it to everybody that I can get the job done yet," says Busch, who finished fourth at Chicago last fall. "I would like to say that we're ready because we did do a good job last year. We weren't in the Chase and we didn't have the pressures of the Chase -- yeah all of that is true -- but we proved we could run well. We proved we could run with the top Chase guys each week barring an engine failure we had at Loudon (New Hampshire Motor Speedway) and a crash we had at Kansas, we would've been first or second in points at the end of the year for a team that wasn't in the Chase."
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Winless in 2013, Earnhardt is the No. 9 seed. But he should be fast on Sunday. In March, he finished second at Fontana, which has similar characteristics to Chicago.
If Earnhardt could mount a serious run at the title, there's no question it would be a ratings boon to NASCAR and inject the Chase with more national buzz. His path to the championship, in my estimation, is for him to string together 10 top-10 finishes sprinkled in with five top-fives. He needs to run well on the tracks that he's had success at in the past, and Chicago is one of them. He won here in 2005 and came in third in '11.
Still, I like the No. 48 Chevy on Sunday. After all, Johnson has a long, rich history of performing his best when it matters most.