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NASCAR At Chicago: Meet The 2012 Championship Hopefuls

The green flag in today's Geico 400 at the Chicagoland Speedway - and the start of the fight for this year's Sprint Cup crown - is less than one hour away. Here is a mini-profile for all 12 of the drivers making a run at the title.

Denny Hamlin is the Chase's No. 1 seed, having won four races in the opening 26 races. The Virginia short track ace first really came into national prominence when, in an televised interview where he was asked to define "underrated," Dale Earnhardt Jr. responded with Hamlin. He then became a Sprint Cup star with Joe Gibbs Racing. He led the points entering the final race at Miami in 2010, but an early spin left him second when everything was said and done. After a disappointing 2011, Hamlin has had a solid year led by crew chief Darian Grubb, who won last year's title at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Jimmie Johnson is our sport's only five-time consecutive Sprint Cup champion. The Californian grew up wanting to follow in the footsteps of IndyCar legend Rick Mears, but his career path led him to stock cars. A protege of Jeff Gordon, Johnson had not finished outside the top-five in the final standings in his Sprint Cup career until last season, when he wound up sixth. Johnson is on the pole for today's race, and his dominant performances earlier at points in the regular season along with his team's motivation after losing last season has many pegging the Chad Knaus-led No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team for another title run.

Tony Stewart is arguably the greatest race car driver of his generation, the only driver to win championships in USAC, IndyCar, and NASCAR. That kind of versatility conjures up images of Stewart's hero A.J. Foyt, the inspiration for the No. 14 on the doors of Chevrolets he co-owns and drives. His five-for-ten run to win last year's Sprint Cup crown after going winless during the regular season - and declaring with three weeks left that his team didn't deserve to make the Chase - has changed the way folks perceive the 10-race playoff. In short, any one of his 11 rivals could dethrone Stewart, while his Steve-Addington led team could help the Hoosier become the first repeat champion not named Jimmie Johnson since Gordon in 1997-98.

Bad Brad Keselowski is regarded - sometimes warmly, sometimes not - as the antithesis to the polished, politically correct young star that is the prototype for today's race car driver. Blunt and barring no holds, the Michigan native has enjoyed his second-straight three-win regular season. Unlike 2011, however, he's in the Chase on points rather than a wild card, meaning he gets the benefit of those nine bonus points. Paul Wolfe - a former racer himself - leads Keselowski's No. 2 team and hopes to deliver Roger Penske's first Sprint Cup title.

Greg Biffle is seeking to make history with a Sprint Cup crown. The title would allow him to become the first driver to win championships in all three of NASCAR's national divisions, following triumphs in the Camping World Truck Series (2000) and Nationwide Series (2002). The only driver to even win a Nationwide crown and then win a championship in Sprint Cup is Bobby Labonte. Biffle's Matt Puccia-led No. 16 Roush-Fenway Racing team won twice in leading the regular season points.

Clint Bowyer is the popular, affable, and downright funny as heck Kansan. He spent his Sprint Cup career with Richard Childress Racing up until this year, when he joined Michael Waltrip Racing as driver of its No. 15 Toyota. Bowyer - who got his start racing dirt bikes and was working in a body shop in his Kansas hometown when he caught the eye of Childress - has won twice this season with crew chief Brian Pattie including the regular season finale at Richmond last weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been the undisputed king of NASCAR's most popular driver award, winning it every year since 2003. This season, he has looked the part of a Sprint Cup champion, enjoying the most consistent season of any of the Chasers and breaking a four-year winless drought in June at Michigan. Earnhardt has looked like a new man while racing with crew chief Steve Letarte, and the racer has admitted that the crew change that put Letarte atop his pit box has been a career - and life -changing experience for the North Carolina racer.

Matt Kenseth is looking to break the perception that a "lame duck" driver can't win a championship. It's never been done in NASCAR's modern era, a driver winning a championship with himself and the rest of the world knowing he'd be racing elsewhere the next season. Kenseth's tenure with Jack Roush brought the legendary owner his first championship (2003) and his only two Daytona 500 wins (2009 and 2012). The Wisconsinite possesses the driest sense of humor in the garage and a Silver Fox-esque - that's David Pearson, for you NASCAR neophytes - ability to save his equipment until it's time to go racing, popping up near the end to challenge for a win or a top spot.

Kevin Harvick might be the driver primed to repeat Stewart's feat in 2012. Winless through the opening 26 races, the Bakersfield native changed crew chiefs with three races left and the performance of his No. 29 Chevy improved. Harvick and his wife Delana have had a life-changing 2012 season, becoming first-time parents (a son, Keelan) and ceasing ownership of a race team that competed in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series for years. Having long shed his label as "the driver who took over for Dale Earnhardt" after the legendary racer's death in 2001, Harvick is his own man and could join Labonte as the only champion of NASCAR's top-two divisions.

Martin Truex Jr. has come tantalizingly close to ending his five-year winless streak in 2012. Whether or not he challenges for the title, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver should almost certainly end that drought with his second-career win at some point during the Chase. Truex, who made New Jersey cool long before those reality show buffoons made it the laughing stock of, well, the world, was once a protege of Dale Earnhardt Jr. He won two championships in the Nationwide Series for Earnhardt's team in 2004 and 2005.

Kasey Kahne, regarded as "The Quiet One," is NASCAR's most popular driver - when it comes to teenage girls. He has plenty of fans among longtime fans who appreciate his raw ability to drive a race car. The Washington native opened his first season with Hendrick Motorsports with a miserable stretch of accidents before turning things around with a searing summer that nearly allowed him to make the Chase via points, which would have let him use his bonus points for his wins in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and Loudon in July. Kahne is a former USAC champion cut from the same mold as Stewart and the 12th and final Chase driver.

That, of course, is Jeff Gordon. The four-time Sprint Cup champion's improbable comeback to make the Chase - first after a dismal first half of 2012, then after being a lap down early at Richmond - brought emotion out of Gordon not often seen even after many of his 86 race wins. Long despised among fans in the south as the antithesis to Dale Earnhardt, Gordon has become one of the sport's most beloved competitors - thanks in large part to Johnson's emergence as the new "villain." Gordon has just one win in 2012, but his Alan Gustafson-led team has been in contention many times over the season. If they can shed the bad luck that plagued them early, Gordon's 11-year-long Drive for Five could finally bear fruit.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.