Strap in: NASCAR's Chase usually produces temper tantrums
JOLIET, Ill. (AP) Based on history, the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship will produce pushing and shoving, ruined cars and a whole lot of yelling and finger-pointing.
The third year of NASCAR's elimination-style, 10-race dash for the series title begins Sunday with the 400-mile race at Chicagoland Speedway. Drivers, start your aggression.
''I just know for us, it's kind of a one-way street,'' Kevin Harvick, the 2014 champion, said of his approach. ''You do what you have to do for your team, whatever that may be, and worry about the consequences later.''
In last year's Chase opener at the 1.5-mile oval, Harvick shoved Jimmie Johnson after a contentious race. It was similar to Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski brawling in 2014 at Charlotte and Jeff Gordon and Keselowski exchanging blows at Texas.
Last year there was bad blood between Joey Logano and Kenseth that ended with Logano's car rammed into the wall at Martinsville.
''This is a mental game,'' Logano said. ''It is all about what is up in your head.''
There have already been clashes over this championship race. Ryan Newman's faint Chase hopes were dashed when Tony Stewart intentionally wrecked him in last weekend's final qualifying race at Richmond. Newman ripped Stewart, saying he was ''bipolar'' and ''should be retired the way he drives.'' The two were called to a meeting Friday with NASCAR executives.
''They're trying to make sure they don't have a scenario like what they had last year with Joey and Matt,'' Stewart said.
That feud last year started at Kansas when Logano wrecked Kenseth. Then at Martinsville, with Kenseth out of the running to advance and nine laps down, he wrecked Logano to end his chances to move on.
Kenseth was suspended two races, but Logano's season was over despite a dominating stretch when he won three straight Chase races.
Kyle Busch, the 2015 champ, has led the most laps this season and is the top-seed in the 16-driver field. He'll also start Sunday's race from the pole after Friday's qualifying was washed out.
There will be three rounds of eliminations before four drivers are left to contend for the title at the finale on Nov. 20 at Homestead.
The format has led to high tension and unpredictability since its 2014 debut. Jimmie Johnson, a six-time series champion, has yet to be in contention going into the final race.
''It is shocking we haven't made it past the second round,'' he said.
Johnson, the No. 8 seed, is the highest-ranked Hendrick Motorsports driver with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota dominating the first 26 races. Practice times at Chicagoland seemed to show the gap is still there
Busch is joined by JGR teammates Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth in the Chase. And Martin Truex Jr., whose team is aligned with Gibbs, is considered a contender.
Team Penske, led by No. 2 seed and 2012 champ Brad Keselowski, and Logano, are back in the Chase, too.
''No, we aren't going to crash each other,'' Logano said of his teammate. ''If that is the answer you are looking for, it isn't what you are going to get. We would race each other hard. I don't think it will get dirty for no reason at all. I wouldn't want to do that to anybody. I want to win the right way.''
While NASCAR may wink at the arguments and rough racing, the sanctioning body has vowed to crack down on cheating in the garage. Penalties for cars that fail inspection could cost a driver the title.
But many drivers are too focused on their own work.
''I got the email and I hit `delete' because it didn't pertain to anything with driving the car,'' Harvick said. ''Really just trying to focus on what I need to do.�I think everybody else is really focused on their jobs as well.''
Here are some other things to watch at Chicagoland:
STEWART'S FINALE: Retiring at the end of the season, Stewart will try to depart with his fourth title and first since 2011. ''You're not going to win the championship in this first segment, but you can sure take yourself out of an opportunity to win it,'' he said.
JOHNSON: He begins his quest for a record-tying seventh title at a track where he's never won and in a format he's yet to master. ''I guess it's 10 years since my first championship, so there's only four years I've missed,'' he said.�''I don't think that's too bad of a stat.''
YOUNGINS: The Chase includes two rookies for the first time. Chris Buescher is seeded 13th and Chase Elliott 14th.
THREE FINGERS: Others making Chase debuts include Kyle Larson, who had the fastest car in Saturday's practice, and Austin Dillon, who has the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet in the playoffs for the first time.
BABY ALERT: Regan Smith, who is not in the Chase, returned to North Carolina with his wife in labor. Ty Dillon will replace him in the No 7 if he doesn't get back in time.