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NASCAR: The Chase begins

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Here we go. Despite a rash of controversies that dominated the discussion for much of the week, NASCAR is in Chicago for the beginning of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup. No matter whether additional penalties are announced before we get going, and chances are there won’t be, drivers will take to the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway Sunday afternoon for the first event of the 10 race sprint to the championship.

We’ve entered into a strange twilight zone of sorts this year. Last year’s champion, Brad Keselowski, has no chance of repeating by virtue of a terrible year that saw him miss the playoffs; Tony Stewart isn’t competing, since he’s still rehabbing a broken leg he suffered in a vicious sprint car accident; fan favorite Jeff Gordon missed the playoffs, but still has the slimmest chances of making it in should NASCAR decide to level additional penalties. But perhaps strangest of all, because of Clint Bowyer’s actions at Richmond, he received more boos at the Chase Contenders Live event held Thursday afternoon at the Navy Pier than Kyle Busch. My lord, what’s happening?

But when the green flag drops on the Geico 400 Sunday, there won’t be anything left to do but race. We haven’t seen the end of the madness that Michael Waltrip Racing created Saturday night, but it’ll be a glorious moment when drivers fire up their cars and get back on the track.

There are a few things to be on the lookout for when the Geico 400 goes green.

Retribution

Jeff Gordon said that immediately following the race at Richmond, he was disappointed in himself for not being more aggressive on the final restart and gaining more positions that would have put him in the Chase. He said he could have knocked people out of the way, but felt it would have gone over the personal line he has for how he races others. However, when he heard what had happened to keep him out of the Chase, he was livid. There is history between Gordon and Bowyer, as Gordon felt Bowyer had raced him disrespectfully for the majority of 2012, and in the Chase race at Phoenix, Gordon waited for Bowyer coming out of turn four and intentionally crashed him, sparking a brawl between pit crews. There’s no doubt Gordon probably feels once again like he owes Bowyer another shot, so it’ll be interesting to see if he exacts any revenge.

The other guys

Along those same lines, it’s easy to overlook drivers that aren’t in the Chase when the playoffs roll around, because they aren’t battling for the championship. NASCAR is a unique sport in that the non-eligible teams for the title still compete in the final events of the season. These drivers have literally nothing to lose and can afford to be more aggressive with their strategy. The question is whether or not that aggressive strategy will affect any of the 12 drivers who are racing for the title. All it takes is one crash, even if it’s not your fault, to knock you out of contention.

Momentum

I talked a lot about momentum in my preview of the drivers in the Chase, and while it is a very real thing, the Chase constitutes a reset for all of the drivers and gives them a chance to take that momentum back. One team that should be primed and ready to do this is that of Jimmie Johnson. He’s had an abysmal four races, but in the nine years the Chase has existed, Johnson has been the master of the format, winning the title a record five times in a row from 2006-2010. The #48 crew knows how to get it done in the playoffs, and that shouldn’t be any different this time around. The only deviation is that Johnson doesn’t come in as an overwhelming favorite in 2013, and has some stiff competition.

Reliability

Matt Kenseth is the number one seed, with five regular season wins. Kyle Busch is poised to break out and pose a serious threat to earn his first ever Sprint Cup championship. But the Toyota drivers have to be on edge, considering the reliability issues Toyota Racing Development has had this season. Toyota drivers have experienced numerous mechanical failures as the manufacturer has tried to balance power and reliability, with mixed results. If the engines hold up, the Toyotas will be a huge threat to the title. If they don’t, they could see their chances literally go up in smoke Sunday.

The Chase begins Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. EST on ESPN.