For 16 Sprint Cup drivers, the time is here: ready, set, Chase


JOLIET, Ill. — If Sunday’s 400 plays out the way folks in the garage were talking Sunday morning, there’s going to be at least a few surprises both in the course of the race and potentially in the outcome in the opening event of the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup:

* Paul Menard, who was atop the speed charts in one of two Saturday practice sessions, could be a darkhorse to win at Chicagoland. He’s never won there, but he and teammates Ryan Newman (who starts on the outside pole) and Austin Dillon have shown speed all weekend.

* Kyle Busch is going for a second straight win, having taken the checkered flag in Saturday night’s Camping World Truck Series. It’ll be interesting to see if Busch will still carry a chip on his shoulders from failing to win yesterday’s Nationwide Series race after dominating the majority of it. Busch was hoping to win all three weekend races, a feat that has only been done once before in NASCAR history — in August 2010 at Bristol by, who else, Kyle Busch.

* Jeff Gordon, who led the points standings for most of the first 26 weeks, appears to be the sentimental favorite not only today but also for the overall Chase. Gordon has been chasing his fifth career Sprint Cup title since his fourth and last one in 2001, but his “Drive For Five” this year seems to be as close as he’s ever been to finally realizing that goal.

* Jimmie Johnson is looking for a strong start in his own bid to win the championship. Johnson is both the defending Sprint Cup champ, having won last year’s title, as well as a six-time Cup champ. If he wins the title this year, Johnson will tie NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most championships by a driver (seven).

* Much attention will be focused on the three drivers who made the Chase, yet failed to earn a win in the first 26 races: Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle.

* Carl Edwards hopes to finish what he started in 2011, when he tied for the championship, only to lose it on the first tie-breaker to Tony Stewart based on wins (five wins for Stewart to just one for Edwards). Edwards also has added incentive in that he’d like to win his first Cup championship in his final season at Roush Fenway Racing, and to reward team owner Jack Roush for discovering Edwards and bringing him to the Sprint Cup Series.

* Crew chief Darian Grubb returns to the top of the pit box for Denny Hamlin. Grubb has missed the last six races after being suspended by NASCAR following the Brickyard 400 for rules violations.

* Tony Stewart is still seeking his first win of the season. Many of his fans are wondering if he can do in this year’s Chase what he did the last time he missed the Chase in 2006: He won three of the 10 Chase events.

* Is Joey Logano finally ready to win the championship that so many — including team owner Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs, and former NASCAR driver Mark Martin — have long predicted of Logano?

* How will drivers who earned a berth in the Chase but have had only fair seasons otherwise fare, including Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger?

* How will Danica Patrick fare? She surprised a lot of people by being fifth-fastest in Saturday’s final Sprint Cup practice?

* Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. be able to realize his season-long goal of not only winning his first career Sprint Cup championship, but also winning it for crew chief Steve Letarte, who has also never won a Cup crown? Earnhardt has great incentive: not only is he turning 40 on Oct. 10, Letarte will be leaving at season’s end to join NBC Sports as an analyst on 2015 NASCAR telecasts. This is arguably Earnhardt’s best chance for a championship in his career.

There’s lots of different scenarios that may potentially play out Sunday, some good and some bad. Let’s get this show on the road.

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