Commentary

Is this Chase all but over?

Updated: September 24, 2012, 9:37 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

LOUDON, N.H. -- Brad Keselowski or Jimmie Johnson will win the 2012 Chase.

Do you believe it? Does that make any sense to you with only one of 10 Chase races in the books?

It sounds crazy, and it probably is. Why pick one of the top two guys in the standings after one Chase race?

Tony Stewart, the defending champion, is only eight points back in third place in the standings. That's just eight positions in one race.

Denny Hamlin, who predicted he will win Sunday's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET, ESPN), is only 15 points behind Keselowski for the top spot.

Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer also are 15 points back. Kahne won at New Hampshire in July and Bowyer has two victories on the 1-mile, paper clip-shaped oval.

All 12 Chase drivers still are within the number of points a competitor can make up in one race, including 12th-place Jeff Gordon. He's 47 points behind; the maximum amount one driver can gain on another driver in one event.

So why say Keselowski and Johnson will win this thing? Not that I believe it, but it is a justifiable conclusion when you take a closer look at things heading into Chase race No. 2.

In the eight previous Chase seasons, only one driver went on to win the championship when he ranked worse than second in the standings after the first playoff race.

[+] EnlargeBrad Keselowski
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesBrad Keselowski likes being in first place, but figures it doesn't mean a lot with nine races to go.

That was Jimmie Johnson, and he did it twice -- 2006 when he was ninth after the Chase opener and 2010 when he was sixth. So it can be done. That's one way to look at it.

But Johnson is the only man to accomplish the feat, and he ranks second after the first Chase race. Keselowski, who won the opener at Chicagoland Speedway, is on top.

So, logically speaking, one could deduce Keselowski or Johnson will likely win the title.

No one in the Chase is buying that logic.

"The points lead is nice," Keselowski said. "But I refuse to let it sink in because there is so much work left to be done. We need to keep our eyes looking forward. It would be a disservice to [last weekend's victory] if we allow our focus to get away from our workload."

Few people would have picked Stewart to win the championship (including Stewart) when they 2011 Chase started, but he won at Chicagoland and New Hampshire to start the playoffs.

Stewart was second last year after his win at Chicagoland, seven points behind leader Kevin Harvick. So he's only one point and one spot worse off than a year ago at this juncture.

"We're pretty much in the same position where we were," said Stewart, who finished sixth last week. "It's a decent start. You look at the problems Jeff Gordon had and Denny Hamlin had [at Chicagoland]. I'm pretty sure they would trade us, so we didn't have that bad of a day. We have a long way to go.''

Gordon finished 35th last weekend after a stuck throttle caused him to hit the wall. Hamlin ran out of gas at the end and finished 16th. But Hamlin tweeted earlier this week that he will win Sunday.

"I understand the comment," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday of Hamlin's boast. "It doesn't surprise me."

Every Chaser is worrying about himself. Greg Biffle believes this Chase will be closer than any other because no driver stands out.

"I think there will probably be more guys in it for a longer period of time," Biffle said. "Three Chase guys had big problems last week -- Gordon, Hamlin, Matt [Kenseth] with the shock breaking. That's probably going to carry through the next nine races for other guys. You're probably going to see guys have a little bit of trouble here and there.

Tony Stewart If we don't win, then we try to get second. If we can't get second, then we try to get third. The higher you finish, the more points you get. It's a pretty simple theory.

-- Tony Stewart

"Now, if those same guys continue to have trouble, that might start eliminating a few guys. But people are going to be climbing back in this game because other guys may have trouble or may have a mediocre race."

As the theory goes, each playoff driver can have one miserable finish and still come back to win the title. But Johnson and Keselowski aren't so sure that's true now.

"It's possible, but you need the other Chasers to have a problem, too," Johnson said. "In 2006, we had two DNFs, but others made mistakes and let us back in it. But at this point, everybody is really afraid of a poor finish."

"There's a lot of parity in Cup now." Keselowski said Friday. "I think you can't have a bad finish and win the championship, but you can have bad finish and end up in the top two or three. I think it's important not to over think it and just do it."

A finish of 30th or lower is a bigger problem to overcome in the new points system that started last season. It's more difficult to make up ground on the other Chasers when each position is worth only one point.

And that makes it even more likely that one of the guys starting near the top will finish on top.

Stewart doesn't care. It doesn't change his strategy.

"My approach to the Chase is the same way it's been any other time I've been in a point race," Stewart said. "You go out there, you lead laps, you try to win races, and the points take care of themselves.

"If we don't win, then we try to get second. If we can't get second, then we try to get third. The higher you finish, the more points you get. It's a pretty simple theory. You just go out and finish as high as you can each week and let the points fall where they may. The reason we got to this point is by following that theory. Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel."

But someone will need to reinvent the formula, or do something no one except Johnson has done before, if anyone other than Keselowski or Johnson is going to win the 2012 Chase.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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