"You hear drivers say this every year, but now it's more true than ever: any of the 12 drivers in the Chase can win the championship," Greg Biffle said with a toothpick dangling from his lips as he sat in the House of Blues in Chicago on Wednesday. "But I like my chances. I really do. I think we're going to be very fast on Sunday."
Why is Biffle, the regular season points champion, so confident heading into NASCAR's 10-race playoff, even though he's only won two races this season? Simple: Biffle's specialty -- or, as he calls it, "my bread and butter" -- is racing on 1.5-mile tracks. Luckily for him five of the 10 races in the Chase are run on these intermediate-length venues, beginning with the playoff opener on Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway. So far this season, on the five 1.5-mile tracks that the Cup circuit has visited, Biffle has the second highest average finish in the series (6.8). Only Jimmie Johnson has been better (average finish: 4.8).
"To win the championship you have to run well on the 1.5-mile tracks, simple as that," said Johnson, who has won five of the last six Sprint Cup titles. "I like our program at those tracks, but there are several guys who are right there with us."
Biffle, clearly, is one of them. If you polled the garage on who is the most underappreciated, Biffle would win in a landslide. Though the 42-year-old cuts a low profile nationally -- you won't see him in many TV commercials -- he is widely regarded among his peers to be one of the elite drivers in the Cup series; next season he'll be the most tenured driver at Roush-Fenway Racing after Matt Kenseth moves to Joe Gibbs Racing. In the final standings over the last five years he's only finished outside the top 10 once. And this season both of his victories (at Texas in the spring and at Michigan in the summer) occurred on -- you guessed it -- intermediate-length tracks.
"It's hard to describe, but for whatever reason the mile-and-half tracks just suit my driving style and suit my team," Biffle said. "That gives us a ton of confidence heading into the Chase. Even though we finished the regular season on top of the points, we genuinely feel like the best is yet to come for us."
I agree. And so it says here that on Sunday at Chicagoland, where Biffle has a 5.5 average finish in his last two starts, the driver of the No. 16 Ford will begin the Chase by taking the checkers. The first race in the Chase usually serves a statement-maker -- Tony Stewart began his run to the title last season with a win in Chicago -- and I think Biffle will be the one turning heads late on Sunday afternoon on that wide, fast track located 50 miles outside of the Windy City in the Illinois countryside.
Here are four other drivers to watch once the green flag waves:
1. Jimmie Johnson
I've covered NASCAR for SI for over a decade, and I can't remember a season in which one driver has been as overwhelmingly a favorite to win the title as Johnson is right now; this is saying something given that Johnson is a five-time Cup champion.
Of course, there's a simple reason for this: speed. If you've watched the Cup series closely since the July race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- where Johnson led 99 of the 160 laps en route to the most thoroughly dominating victory of the season -- Johnson has consistently had the fastest car. One stat really tells it all: Johnson has led a series-high 1,033 laps this season (Biffle, with 899, is second).
One other reason you have to like Johnson's title chances is the schedule. Unlike every other driver in the Chase, Johnson doesn't have a weak track in the playoffs. That's why, early on in the Chase, you can expect Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to be conservative with their pit strategy. They'll happily take a top-five on Sunday, because they know they'll have ample opportunity to go hard for wins over the last nine races.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
I've spent a lot of time with Earnhardt over the last month, first for a five-page piece that's in the magazine this week and then on Wednesday in Chicago for an upcoming SI/NBC story that will air on NBC on Oct. 13. Without question, the confidence of Earnhardt, who finished second in the regular season points standings, is at an all-time high, and every driver in the garage will tell you confidence is the ultimate X-factor in the sport.
If there is a path to the championship for Earnhardt, I think it will be carved out by top-five finishes, not wins. He has only one victory this season -- and, for that matter, only one victory in the last four years -- but he's tallied 10 top-five finishes in 2012. If he can, say, rip off seven top-fives in the Chase and not suffer any 20th or worse finishes, I firmly believe Earnhardt can win the title without winning a race.
For the record, he came in third at Chicago last year, which is right around where I anticipate him to finish on Sunday.
3. Denny Hamlin
Who is the most valuable person in NASCAR over the last 15 months? That's easy: Darien Grubb.
Grubb, you may recall, was Stewart's crew chief last season. He guided Stewart to a record five wins in the Chase -- and subsequently, the championship -- and then was rewarded by being canned. Grubb moved to Joe Gibbs Racing to team with Hamlin, and the two have combined to win more races (four) than any other driver-crew chief combo.
Make no mistake: Hamlin and Grubb will be a factor in the title hunt all the way to the season-finale at Homestead. Yet on Sunday the duo would be happy with merely a top-10 run, because traditionally Chicago is one of Hamlin's weaker tracks. In six starts here, his average finish is only 19.2.
4. Jeff Gordon
Gordon was the final driver to earn a spot in the Chase, but he believes he's a legit title contender -- and so does virtually everyone else in the garage.
Though he endured a bout of horrendous racing luck early in the season, Gordon has flashed impressive speed throughout 2012. His last three finishes: third at Bristol, second at Atlanta and second at Richmond. This is what you call a driver peaking at the perfect time.
In two of his last three starts at Chicago, Gordon has finished third or better. On Sunday I think he'll be in the lead pack as the laps wind down -- right alongside Biffle, Johnson and Junior -- but my crystal ball says that Round 1 of the Chase goes to Biffle.