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Saturday, September 15, 2012
Updated: September 16, 1:12 PM ET
Magic in the air at Chicagoland

By David Newton
ESPN.com

JOLIET, Ill. -- If you're like the 12 drivers competing for the Sprint Cup championship, you'll wake up feeling different on Sunday than on any other morning of the season thus far.

You'll feel more energy in the air.

More excitement.

You'll know what happened in the first 26 races means nothing for your favorite driver, that -- as Tony Stewart did a year ago -- you can go from the outhouse to the penthouse in the time it takes to run 400 miles at Chicagoland Speedway (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN).

You'll feel more pressure, but, like the driver you love, there's pressure because that's what going for championships is all about, whether it's the Super Bowl, the World Series or the Chase for the Cup.

"I have to imagine that every guy that woke up this morning felt a little different when they realized it was Chicago," five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said as he anticipated the Chase opener before he went out and qualified on the pole.

Don't believe it? Ask those not in the Chase. Ask Carl Edwards, who was one better position in any of the 10 playoff races last season from being crowned champion.

"I wouldn't call it an emptiness, but it definitely feels like a piece of the puzzle is missing," said Edwards, who, along with Kyle Busch, was among the favorites who didn't make the Chase. "This is when it all ramps up. … Everything I've done this season has been geared toward these 10 races.

"Now I'm as physically fit as I can be. I'm mentally fit. I'm prepared. I'm ready to go. There's still victories out there, but there's not that huge goal. That's tough. I don't know how to put it into words."

Well, he does. He's just too polite to use them.

But for those in the Chase, this is what they've been waiting for all season, maybe now more than in any previous Chase. Stewart winning five races in the Chase and the title a year ago after winning no races in the regular season, after saying he was wasting a spot in the Chase before it began, gives everyone hope that this truly is wide open.

"If you had sat here one year ago today and said Tony Stewart was going to win five of these races, everybody would have said, 'What are you smoking? That's insane,'" Edwards said. "That wasn't reality.

Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson may be the favorite to win the Sprint Cup trophy this season, but last year proved anything's possible.

"And they did it. That's why it's so painful for Kyle and I to be on the outside, because we know anything can happen."

The Chase is unlike playoffs in most sports because it is so unpredictable. A football team with a potent passing attack typically doesn't forget how to complete passes. A baseball team with a strong pitching staff doesn't typically start surrendering a ton of runs.

Those teams have a formula that worked in the regular season that typically sustains them through the playoffs.

In NASCAR, there is no one proven formula. Stewart won the title in 2005 without winning a race. He won it last season in a tiebreaker by winning five.

Johnson won the 2006 title despite being eighth in points with six races to go. He never fell below second over the final eight races in 2007 and led the standings all but one race in 2008.

And entering the Chase with momentum typically means nothing. The playoff driver with the best average finish in the five races before the Chase has finished no better than fourth the past four years.

Johnson had the worst average finish in that span in 2009 and won the Chase by a whopping 141 points under the old points system. Denny Hamlin finished second in 2010 -- and should have won had it not been for a late collapse -- having limped into the playoffs.

This Chase is so wide open that we're seriously talking about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s chances, which hasn't happened before.

And it has nothing to do with Earnhardt's personal life being more stable than ever.

"I ran pretty good in 2004, and I was anything but stable off the track," Earnhardt said with a laugh.

He'll have to start Sunday's race from the back of the field after an engine change Saturday afternoon. He had qualified fourth. But, yes, even Earnhardt believes.

"This is the best chance I have ever had," he said. "I think even more than 2004."

That's what Stewart's improbable run did for the Chase. He raised the excitement level for the start of this year's playoff to a new high because you can picture Clint Bowyer winning it just as easily as you can Johnson.

And nobody is higher in excitement than Jeff Gordon, who pulled off the comeback of the year to take the final Chase spot from Busch with last weekend's second-place finish at Richmond.

He's so jacked that he's growing back that god-awful mustache he had entering the sport in the early '90s.

"I feel the only way that you don't hear from us in the Chase is some of the same things that bit us earlier in the year bite us again," said Gordon, who had a string of bad luck that had him 22nd in points 13 races ago.

"What I love about the Chase is that it's all about timing. If you pull it together and improve those things in areas that you're weak in at the right time and make your way into it … anything is possible."

Tony Stewart I would have lost my house, everything, because I would have bet totally against what happened. I didn't have the confidence that was even feasible for our team. It just shows you can sit here today and feel confident and it not work or you can be feeling like you're going to run dead last and win five races. You just don't know.

-- Tony Stewart

Stewart proved that, and now everyone is reaping the benefits; everyone is on a high for the Chase opener like never before.

"The hard part, though, is that was a year ago," said Stewart, who won the first two Chase races at Chicagoland and New Hampshire to turn his 2011 season around. "I've got to worry about what I've got to do to do it again this year. I can't spend that much time thinking about what we did last year."

If Stewart did, he would remember he had promised to call himself a "total bumbling idiot" if he won it all.

"I would have lost my house, everything, because I would have bet totally against what happened," Stewart said. "I didn't have the confidence that was even feasible for our team.

"It just shows you can sit here today and feel confident and it not work or you can be feeling like you're going to run dead last and win five races. You just don't know."

We don't know whether Hendrick Motorsports having four cars in the Chase is going to be a competitive advantage or whether NASCAR putting limits on how far teams can push the rear-end suspensions will take away HMS' midseason advantage.

"They have good speed in their cars," said rival owner Jack Roush, whose drivers Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth made the Chase. "Hopefully, they have shown everything they've got because we haven't. We have our best cars saved, and we think we've got our best performance in front of us.

"If the Hendrick organization has not been saving something, I think we'll have the measure of them down the stretch."

Hope. That's what this Chase is about. You might think you have an idea which driver will win, but there's really no way to know who is going to have a flat tire, get a pit road speeding penalty or have an engine failure that derails his chances.

"It's going to come down to who has the best luck, who is able to make the right calls, how things fall their way," said Edwards, playing the role of analyst. "I'd have to pick Jimmie just because he's shown he can win all these championships, but there are so many guys right now that are tough.

"I can't pick a favorite."

Neither can Stewart, whether it's in this race or Formula One.

"If I could do that, I would be sitting on my ass in a leather chair in Las Vegas," Stewart said. "I would be making a lot more money sitting in the air conditioning getting free drinks from cocktail waitresses that are hot.

"So no, I can't do that. I wish I could do that in all forms of auto racing, but I can't. That's what makes this sport cool is because it's really hard to predict."

Last year, more than any in recent history, proved that.

And that's why you'll wake up with a different feeling Sunday than any other morning of the season thus far.