While the football season is just shifting into gear, NASCAR's playoff time is here: The Championship Chase begins next weekend with 12 drivers in a virtual dead heat for the title.
Just 12 points separate leaders/top seeds Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick from 10th through 12th seeds Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.
With many of the usual suspects in the Chase field, along with a couple of underdogs, some intriguing storylines are emerging and will be worth watching:
Jimmy Johnson's quest for a six pack: Is it possible for one driver to win six straight Cup titles? It seems inconceivable for a team to avoid pitfalls like in-fighting, slumps, crashes, break-downs and DNF's for more than half a decade. But one thing we've learned from the 48 crew is you can't count 'em out. Somehow Johnson finds a way to save the best for last and win the ones that count the most. So while a sixth straight title for Johnson would be record-breaking and phenomenal, it would not be particularly surprising.
Champion mentalities: Johnson isn't the only past champion in this year's chase. Four-time winner Jeff Gordon brings his title experience back into the Chase along with two-time champ Tony Stewart, the only driver to win the Cup before and after the Chase format was implemented. Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch each own one Cup trophy.
Wild cards: Young guns Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin are the wild-card entries into the revamped Chase. Hamlin finished as Johnson's runner-up last year, while Keselowski is in the Chase for the first time but is one of the winningest drivers of the season with three victories.
The Earnhardt factor: NASCAR's most popular driver was breathing a sigh of relief Saturday night following a hard-fought comeback from a crashed car to squeak into the Chase. After missing the 2010 Chase, Earnhardt was under incredible pressure to make the playoffs, but he's one of only two drivers in the Chase without a win this season. (Stewart is the other.) Undoubtedly, the huge Earnhardt fan base is riding high with its boy back in championship contention, and Earnhardt should know he can't settle for just being there. His fans sure won't.
Cooler heads may not prevail: Some of the Chase drivers head into NASCAR's playoffs with well-documented feuds with one another. Notably, former champions Johnson and Kurt Busch have gone at it, most recently last Saturday night; Kyle Busch and Harvick traded paint and harsh words earlier in the season. Whether or not these spats will spill over into the Chase remains to be seen.
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Kellie@BedfordCountyChamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.