Entering last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Tony Stewart had eliminated himself from any championship discussion. The owner-driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy declared that he didn't have a prayer of winning his third title. He hadn't won all year and the performance of his Impalas and those of teammate Ryan Newman -- also in the Chase -- had been so inconsistent that there was no way they'd be able to challenge the likes of Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, and, of course, five-time reigning champ Jimmie Johnson.
We all know what happened next: Stewart won the playoff-opening Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, picked up four more victories over the final nine weeks of the season, and beat Edwards in a tie-breaker to claim his 12th national driving championship.
History might not repeat itself in terms of a Stewart-esque title run, but don't be surprised if someone other than the handful of favorites given attention by the media hoists the championship trophy come November in Miami. Perhaps more than any Chase in history, this year's field is wide open. Any of the 12 drivers in the Chase have the ability to put together the kind of 10-race stretch it's going to take to dethrone Stewart, or in his case, defend a crown against a stacked opposition.
Clearly, top-seed Denny Hamlin has to be the favorite at least entering Sunday. He should be riding a three-race winning streak, but he was felled by a long green flag run to complete Saturday's regular-season closer at Richmond that forced a late pit stop and an 18th-place finish. Given Hamlin's collapse over the final two races of 2010 that allowed Johnson to win his fifth-straight title, however, no one is going to concede anything to the Joe Gibbs Racing driver -- the lone member of the three-time Super Bowl-winning coach's team to make the playoff -- until the checkered flag waves at Homestead.
After Hamlin, it's hard to pick out which drivers and teams will be contenders and which ones will be pretenders. The field is so deep that it will likely be several weeks into the Chase -- perhaps Martinsville or Texas, as it was last year with Stewart and Edwards -- before it is clear which combatants will go for the title over the final few weeks. It could wind up being a repeat of the 2004 and 2006 Chases, where five teams entered the finale at Miami with a mathematical shot at the title.
The championship won't be won at Chicago on Sunday. Nine weeks -- one quarter of the 36-race schedule -- remain afterwards. A great run or even a victory, while a good way to kick off a potential title run, might not even play a role in the championship finale. Take Chase-opener victors Ryan Newman (2005), Clint Bowyer (2007 and 2010), and Greg Biffle (2008) for instance. They were eliminated from contention before the last race even got underway. Harvick (2006) and Mark Martin (2009) both made it to the last race with a mathematical shot, but they were so far back that it was unrealistic for either -- even though Martin was second in the standings -- to take the title.
While the championship also won't be lost in the Geico 400, the nails could start going in the coffin. It is easy to give away a ton of points in stock car racing, but it is very, very hard to get them back. Stewart ran out of gas coming to the white flag in that 2010 race, falling to 24th in the final rundown instead of scoring a win. He never came close to getting back in the hunt the rest of the way.
With a field as packed as this one, it is imperative to get off to a good start. One bad race not only puts you behind from the get-go, but now you have to almost have nine problem-free weeks with strong finishes to claw back into the hunt. The mental blow a team takes, starting in the hole, can almost take them out of the title hunt before the hunt really even gets going.
That is what will make Sunday's race so intriguing. Not only do you have everyone looking to fire the early victory shot or to put themselves in a good position to get things started, but anything can go wrong on any of the 267 laps. To prove that point, Kenseth and Johnson ran out of gas on the last lap a year ago. That story will be the same throughout the rest of the Chase. The roller coaster of emotions for the 12 teams competing for the title -- and their fans -- are about to set off on is as riveting in all of sports.
Buckle up, it's going to be a wild ride.