October 30, 2010

Throughout this year's Chase season, SI.com will feature guest Q&As from athletes both within and outside the sport to give their take on how this year's Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship is shaping up. Our third guest Q&A comes courtesy of IndyCar driver J.R. Hildebrand.

SI.com: How did you first get interested in NASCAR?

J.R. Hildebrand: I first started watching NASCAR races when I was a little kid because my pops was into racing. He had a vintage Trans Am car, a '68 Camaro, that he raced for fun, so I was at the track all the time. Growing up in the Bay Area in Northern California, Infineon Raceway was naturally an easy destination, so we went to the NASCAR race there each year and would follow it for the rest of the season along with CART and Indy Car. We were big Dale Earnhardt fans and always will be.

SI.com: How long have you been a fan?

Hildebrand: I mean, since before I can really remember. My grandma made me a Dale Earnhardt racing suit and my dad made me a wooden/cardboard racecar to put over myself for Halloween when I was in like second or third grade. ... But that was using a plastic helmet from when I was even smaller! It's been a while.

SI.com: How do you like to watch races? In the comfort of your home or trackside?

Hildebrand: I think just about any real race fan would rather watch a race in person, but I rarely catch a NASCAR race. I got to Phoenix at the end of the year last year and, while those big cars are definitely slower than what I'm used to, they definitely looked like a handful.

SI.com: How do you think this Chase season is shaking out so far?

Hildebrand: Well it's obviously early in the Chase right now, so it's a little hard to say. RCR has gotten it together this season but took a big hit when Clint got penalized in the first race, Hamlin's on top form, and the 48 has made it clear that they haven't gone anywhere. It's a little bit of a surprise to me that Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart haven't been winning more races, maybe that will change.

SI.com: Who is your title favorite and why? Hildebrand: To be honest, as much as I'd rather pick someone else at this point, it's hard to root against Jimmie Johnson and the 48 crew. Hamlin and Harvick have a good shot at it if they can get out there and win races while being mistake-free, but if I had to pick someone to bet my life savings on it would be Johnson.

SI.com: Who is your dark-horse favorite and why?

Hildebrand: I'd say Tony Stewart is my dark horse. He's run pretty strong, but only won one race this year. So I think that makes him easy to count out, but the guy knows what it takes to win a championship.

SI.com: If you were driving in the Chase, what sort of approach would you take? Conservative and consistent or daring and going for the win?

Hildebrand: I'd go for the gold. Nobody really cares who comes in second or third unless it comes right down to the wire, time to pull out the stops and let it fly.

SI.com: Do you think a Chase format could ever work in IndyCar?

Hildebrand: I think it's possible, but the IndyCar Series also doesn't get as spread out as NASCAR seems to from a points perspective at the end of the year. I think for the last five years straight there's been at least two, if not three or four guys seriously in contention for the championship all the way down to the wire. So, from that perspective, a Chase format would just be to reset some other guys that have maybe improved during the year.

SI.com: Which of the remaining races do you think is going to be most exciting to watch?

Hildebrand: I think Talladega is going to be the one to watch because anything could happen. Major Chase contenders have been taken out there before and changed the outlook of the championship, there's no reason why that couldn't happen again.

SI.com: Which NASCAR feud do you think will flare up again before the Homestead finale?

Hildebrand: That's a tough one for sure, I guess it all depends. Edwards and Keselowski is still pretty fresh as is Hamlin's feuding, tempers can always be high in the Hendrick pits if Jimmie and Jeff are battling it out for the championship, Kyle Busch versus pretty much anybody ... Who knows?

SI.com: Who do you think is most likely to get caught up in a "Big One" at Talladega this year?

Hildebrand: Jimmie's had some tough runs on the big tracks at times, that could be a game-changer without a doubt. I mean, basically anybody could get caught in the big one at 'Dega. Whether it takes out five or six cars or it takes out 12 or 13, the congestion there is bound to reach critical mass at some point.

SI.com: Any other Chase thoughts?

Hildebrand: They should have a road course in the Chase I think. That's about all!

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