While the format of the Chase for the Sprint Cup is new this season, the final results could remain quite familiar.
Or maybe not.
This season’s 10-race playoff will open with Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, and on the surface at least, the race and the Chase appear to be shaping up as a duel between Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske.
That should come as no surprise.
Penske’s Brad Keselowski won the 2012 series title and Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson won his sixth last season.
Keselowski enters this season’s Chase as the No. 1 seed, but his Penske teammate, Joey Logano, and Hendrick drivers Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are just three points behind.
Also consider that Penske and Hendrick drivers have combined to win all six races this season on 1.5-mile tracks like Chicagoland Speedway.
“Yes, when I go through my favorites and pick out my top four or five cars, they are Hendrick vehicles and Penske vehicles,” Johnson said Friday when asked about the rivalry between the organizations.
He also knows past performance doesn’t guarantee success in the championship run.
“Just like any other sport when the playoffs start, everything starts over on a clean sheet of paper,” he said.
“I’ve had it work either way where the regular season was beneficial and momentum was on my side and I’ve had it where the regular season wasn’t so good and momentum was against me.”
Keselowski is coming off the most dominating victory of his Cup career, leading all but 17 of the 400 laps last weekend at Richmond, Va.
That performance, he believes more than anything else, is an indicator of Penske’s potential in competing for the championship.
“The only thing that makes me feel good is when our team performs,” he said. “I don’t take any confidence away from other teams that are struggling because I know that can be repaired at any time.”
Friday’s practice session is a good case in point.
When qualifying was rained out, the speeds from Friday’s lone practice were used to set the starting lineup for Sunday.
Starting among the top five are four drivers who qualified for the Chase – Kyle Busch (first), Ryan Newman (second), Carl Edwards (third) and Matt Kenseth (fifth) – and none come from the Penske or Hendrick camp.
“I hope it is a sign of what is to come,” Edwards said. “This is the Chase and it is time to step it up. I think you are going to see the best out of everyone.
“We talked a lot about it (Friday) and the day before with all the media, but nobody really knows how this will play out. Somehow, someway people find a way to get a little extra speed once the pressure is on.”
Whether that will be enough to level the playing field depends on the competition.
“We know our level isn’t high enough and we know there’s room to grow because of what we’re getting beat by each and every single week,” Busch said. Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Gordon – “they are your favorites. So how much more can they pick up?
“I don’t know, they might have been running at 100 percent already and if we can just get to their level and compete with them, then a driver may prevail a little more.”
With the new elimination format of the Chase – where the bottom four drivers in points are eliminated after the third, sixth and ninth race in the 10-race playoff – there will be little time to improve along the way.
The pressure will only build toward the season finale at Homestead, Fla.
“The first bracket is going to demand consistency. The second bracket we have seen Kansas and Talladega (Ala.) both be wreck-fests, so that will demand survival,” Keselowski explained.
“The third bracket will take you from eight to four and that bracket will demand performance and then the fourth bracket at Homestead will be about staying cool under pressure.”
Easier said then done.