The 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup kicks off on Sunday with the running of the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. With the points reset to start the Chase, only 12 points separate points leader Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, from those at the bottom of the Chase standings.
After witnessing Tony Stewart drive his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to five wins in the 10 Chase races last year before being declared champion by virtue of a tie breaker between himself and Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, with that tie breaker being his win tally, Hamlin realizes that race wins are of utmost importance in NASCAR's postseason.
You constantly have to work. You’ve got to keep pushing the envelope.
"It's going to take wins," Hamlin said recently. "That's going to be the most important thing."
The first chance for a Chase race win comes Sunday at Chicagoland. It's a race that Stewart, last year's champion, claimed victory in a year ago. It was Stewart's first win of the 2011 season. Stewart is the lone driver in the Chase who has career wins at all 10 upcoming race tracks that decide this year's title holder.
Stewart's 2011 win at Chicagoland wasn't his first win at the track, either. Actually, it was his third. Among the 12 Chase drivers, he's the winingest driver at Chicagoland Speedway. Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, is the only other Chase competitor with multiple Chicagoland victories with two.
“I think I’ve always been good there," Stewart said.
After claiming his three season-to-date victories earlier this season, Stewart fell into a racing slump. That slump slid him from the upper rungs of the points standings a few months ago to 10th in points before the standings readjustment following last weekend's race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. He even headed into that race in danger of falling out of the top-10 in points and getting into the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a wild card, giving up his bonus points for his three previous season race wins.
Stewart did manage to hang on inside the top-10 to take nine bonus points into the Chase to start the postseason in a three-way tie for second, and Chicagoland Speedway looks to be the perfect opportunity for the reigning series champion to get back on track.
"It’s one of those places where, as long as I get through Friday, I feel like we’ve got a shot at it," Stewart said. "But I don’t watch the stats very much."
Needless to say, Stewart doesn't expect a win to come easy on Sunday.
"Technology in this sport changes so fast," Stewart said. "What was good the last time you were there doesn’t mean it’s going to be good the second time around. You constantly have to work. You’ve got to keep pushing the envelope."
Whether or not past statistics are any indication, 12 drivers are vying for that coveted Sprint Cup, and it all starts Sunday when the green flag waves on the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup at Chicagoland Speedway.
Amanda Vincent, NASCAR Correspondent