NASCAR's championship chase begins this weekend with what should be a flurry of excitement and anticipation as Sprint Cup's top drivers begin to do battle for the coveted crown. Richmond was drivers last chance to make the playoffs, and proved to be exciting and controversial, with NASCAR levying Chase-altering penalties Monday evening.
Michael Waltrip Racing took a hit in points on multiple fronts after NASCAR determined that the team worked to alter the outcome of the race. Clint Bowyer remains in the Chase despite the penalty although it was his late-race spin which originally seemed to cost Ryan Newman a playoff spot.
Now that the penalty dust has settled, Newman is in the Chase in the final wildcard spot while Martin Truex, Jr. drops out of the playoffs and down to 17th in the standings following the penalties.
Former champion Jeff Gordon still just misses the Chase, while defending champion Brad Keselowski also finds himself on the outside looking in, guaranteeing a new title-holder in 2013.
So for 12 drivers, Cup hopes are still alive, with some of the usual suspects once again in contention. Hendrick Motorsports may be the team(s) to beat, with five-time champion Jimmy Johnson in second place, in spite of four-straight finishes of 28th or worse. Johnson, though, riding the wrong kind of momentum into the Chase, can never be counted out; he's joined by fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne in the Chase field.?That's the most for any owner.
Rousch-Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing each have two drivers in the Chase, with Gibbs' Matt Kenseth a good bet for the title; he's leading the field and boasts championship experience having won the crown in 2003. Teammate Kyle Busch has been a favorite to win a championship for several seasons, for his racing talent if not his temperament; he's in third place.
Kurt Busch is the other former champion (2004) in the field; he'll leave Furniture Row racing after this season for greener pastures at Stewart-Hass. The elder Busch brother surprised many by making the Chase with a team of far fewer resources than many of his competitors. Kurt has been working to re-invent himself after nearly self-destructing two seasons ago. So this Chase opportunity, regardless of the final standings, is a boost to his current underdog team and likely a nice springboard into his future life back among NASCAR's mainstream.
It may be hard to get too fired up about NASCAR's playoffs, with football underway again and the Pirates looking at extending their season; but take a short list of talented Chase drivers, add some interesting back stories, rivalries and an infusion of controversy heading into the playoffs, and the next 10 weeks of racing should be pretty fast and furious.
Goodman Shaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.