NASCAR At Chicagoland: Brad Keselowski Wins 2012 Chase Opener

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NASCAR Chicago Results 2012: How Each Chase Driver Fared In GEICO 400

Here's a look back at the results of Sunday's GEICO 400 – NASCAR's Chase-opening race at Chicagoland Speedway – and how each of the playoff drivers performed in the race:

Brad Keselowski

Finish: 1st

What happened: Used a faster green-flag pit stop than Jimmie Johnson to take over the first position, then pulled away late to win the race and lead the NASCAR point standings for the first time in his career.

Quote: "It feels like Round 1 of a heavyweight title bout. Week 1 is done and we won the round, but we didn't by any means knock them out. We've got a lot of racing left to go." (Full story)

Jimmie Johnson

Finish: 2nd

What happened: Led 172 laps to dominate the race, but lost the lead to Keselowski on the final green-flag pit stop.

Quote: "We had a very, very solid day. Of course we could have loved to have won the race, but we'll take second and go on. This is a fantastic way to start the Chase."

Kasey Kahne

Finish: 3rd

What happened: Had a strong car all day, but wasn't quite as good enough to lead a lap or run down Johnson and Keselowski.

Quote: "We had a great run. The team did a really nice job. The pit stops were perfect throughout the whole race. The car was good. ... They were just better than I was throughout that race."

Tony Stewart

Finish: 6th

What happened: Started 29th and rallied into the top 10, but dropped to 28th after a vibration caused him to pit twice during a caution. Later, he drove back up into the top 10 again

Quote: "We probably passed more cars than anybody today, so not exactly what we were looking for. ... But if we can be a little bit off and end up with a top-10, then we are in good shape." (Full story)

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Finish: 8th

What happened: After starting in the back due to an engine change, Earnhardt Jr. worked his way into the top 10 thanks to a good car and pit strategy. But the team never made the car much better than it started, and he settled for eighth. (Full story)

Quote: "Eighth is alright, but I know Brad is going to run well and the 48 is obviously going to be tough. You can't run eighth every week and win the championship."

Martin Truex Jr.

Finish: 9th

What happened: The team missed the setup, and Truex was mired in the teens and 20s for much of the day before somehow rallying back to get a top-10.

Quote: "It wasn't looking pretty there for awhile, but just fought hard. ... Just picked them off one at a time. It wasn't easy, but we got it done."

Clint Bowyer

Finish: 10th

What happened: Bowyer and his team never got the car handling like it needed to, and Bowyer grew increasingly frustrated toward the end of the race.

Quote: "It just wasn't a good day. I don't know whether it was strategy or pit stops or what, but it seemed like we lost spots on pit road all day and it just cost us. You ain't going to win a championship with decent days – you have to have good days."

Kevin Harvick

Finish: 12th

What happened: Despite a two-tire strategy call for track position early in the race, Harvick struggled for most of the day and managed a 12th-place finish.

Quote: N/A

Greg Biffle

Finish: 13th

What happened: Biffle was steadily working his way toward the front, but things went south after the final pit stop of the day.

Quote: "We were driving up through there and the car was getting better and better and it never fails – the last stop of the day, we put our tires on and it went bad."

Denny Hamlin

Finish: 16th

What happened: Hamlin's gas man didn't get the car full of fuel on the final stop, and Hamlin ran out of gas on the last lap despite driving conservatively toward the end of the race. (Full story)

Quote: "You can't have self-induced problems, and this isn't luck or anything like that. This was just us making a big mistake with our fuel again. It's tough, but we're strong enough and fast enough in the Chase that we can make up 15 points easily."

Matt Kenseth

Finish: 18th

What happened: A broken shock (which actually fell off the car) doomed Kenseth's chances of running well at Chicagoland.

Quote: "(We) thought we could maybe sneak out a top-10, which isn't nearly good enough but it would still keep you in the game. When we had that (shock) problem, we got so far behind (but) thankfully we were able to stay on the lead lap. I was in the back and couldn't go anywhere. My car just wasn't fast enough."

Jeff Gordon

Finish: 35th

What happened: A potential top-five run was ruined when Gordon's throttle partially stuck open and caused him to slam the wall at full speed, ending his day. (Full story)

Quote: "I don't know if we had anything to win the race, but we certainly were giving it everything we had. That's very disappointing."

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NASCAR Chicago Results 2012: Denny Hamlin Runs Out Of Fuel On Final Lap

Running short on fuel is a particularly sensitive topic for Denny Hamlin – especially since he basically lost the 2010 NASCAR championship that way – and the gas mileage monster bit the driver again on Sunday.

While other Chase competitors raced hard at the end of the GEICO 400, Hamlin was having to slow down to try and save fuel. The reason? His gas man didn't get all the fuel in the tank on the final pit stop.

Even worse, Hamlin ran out of gas on the final lap and coasted to a painful 16th-place finish when he could have had a potential top-five result. Hamlin later tweeted that his gas man, Scott Wood, apologized for the mistake after the race.

"You can't have self-induced problems, and this isn't luck or anything like that," Hamlin said. "This was just us making a big mistake with our fuel again. It's tough."

On the other hand, Hamlin vowed to win next week's race at New Hampshire and said his team was "strong enough and fast enough" to overcome the setback. Hamlin is fourth in the point standings after Chicagoland.

"We're only 15 (points) back – we can make that up easily," Hamlin said. "We're fast enough to do that. The bad thing is that I felt like we could have run to third right there; just was having to run so slow to keep from running out of fuel and we still ran out."

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NASCAR Chicago Results 2012: Jeff Gordon Crashes and Finishes 35th

Jeff Gordon entered NASCAR's Chase thinking he had an excellent chance to finally win his fifth Sprint Cup Series title.

But those hopes took a severe hit on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway when a broken return spring sent the Hendrick driver hard into the Turn 1 wall and placed him 35th in the final rundown – his worst finish since May.

"We were having a good day, coming from 19th to be up there in the top five," Gordon said. "I don't know if we had anything to win the race, but we certainly were giving it everything we had and that's very disappointing."

On Friday, Gordon vowed to go all-out and worry only about winning races. He was no longer going to concern himself with accumulating points – in contrast to last year when the 24 team was "too conservative" and was never a factor in the Chase.

And as promised, that attitude was on full display throughout afternoon, as Gordon clawed his way through traffic and at times raced three-wide in order to get to the front.

But now, after posting his worst result since Darlington (also 35th) and facing a steep climb up the standings (he sits 12th, 47 points behind leader Brad Keselowski) Gordon knows he needs to ratchet up the intensity even moreso in the remaining nine Chase races.

"After Richmond, we know how hard we have to fight for every position," Gordon said. "When the car is there and underneath you, you can drive it hard like that and that makes it a lot of fun for me."

"We'll be driving hard now, I can tell you that."

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dissatisfied With Top-10 Result Despite Rally In NASCAR Chase Opener

Considering Dale Earnhardt Jr. was forced to start Sunday's NASCAR Chase opener in the rear of the field due to an engine change, an eighth-place finish wasn't all that bad.

But Earnhardt Jr. knows rattling off top-10 results aren't going to be enough to become a Sprint Cup Series champion in November, and said he needs to be great – not just good. So in that sense, the Hendrick Motorsports driver said he was "not getting real excited" about his rally from the back at Chicagoland Speedway.

"We need to be in the media center after all these races (where the top three finishers go for interviews) as much as possible," Earnhardt Jr. said after the race. "...You can't run eighth every week and win the championship."

Earnhardt Jr. said he was "disappointed" with himself for making a mistake and over-revving the engine after his qualifying lap on Saturday while trying to bump it out of gear. The over-revving resulted in what he described as the valves and the piston having "a little party and they all ended up with a hangover."

Having to start so deep in the field was a difference between a top-five and a top-10, he said. The team was never able to gain everything back and overcome the initial setback, he said, "and I take full responsibility for that."

Despite some adjustments, Earnhardt Jr. said the team made the car "ordinary" and had a "mundane run" in the second half of the race.

"We really didn't have great speed, but we didn't have a terrible car, either," he said. "It was just kind of like wherever you were on the race track is where you ran.

"I'm not that disappointed in the car. It was actually a pretty good car. I just know we need to be great and I really believe we've got a shot at winning the championship – and we've got to be great."

Earnhardt Jr. left Chicago exactly where he started – in seventh place – but is now 17 points behind points leader Brad Keselowski.

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NASCAR Chicago Results 2012: Tony Stewart Salvages Top-10 Finish

Tony Stewart was hoping for a repeat of last year, when a Chase-opening victory propelled him to his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

But in Sunday's Chicagoland Speedway race, which had few cautions and meant track position was everything, it wasn't to be. Instead, Stewart was forced to settle for a hard-fought sixth-place finish.

"We got caught a lap down there once and never caught a break," Stewart said. "We just never got the track position we needed to get going."

If Stewart had gotten that track position, it appeared he had a car capable of running with the leaders. After all, it took him just 50 laps to work his way into the top 10 despite qualifying 29th. But a vibration with one of his tires during the first yellow flag necessitated a second pit stop – and Stewart had to restart 28th.

Stewart then got back into the top 10 by lap 100, but he got trapped a lap down when the caution came out as he was making a pit stop. That bad break forced Stewart to take the wave-around to get his lap back, which made him restart towards the back.

"We probably passed more cars than anybody today," Stewart said.

The good news for him is despite all the setbacks, he was still able to post a respectable finish – and that had him feeling a bit optimistic afterwards. Stewart is third in the point standings, eight points behind leader Brad Keselowski.

"Not exactly what we were looking for, but we were just a little bit off," Stewart said. "If we can end up with a top 10 being a little bit off, we're going to be in good shape."

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NASCAR Standings 2012: Brad Keselowski Leads Sprint Cup Points After Chicagoland

There's a new face atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings.

For the first time in his career, Brad Keselowski is leading the standings – a feat he accomplished after winning Sunday's GEICO 400 race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Keselowski leads Jimmie Johnson by three points, with defending champion Tony Stewart eight points behind.

Kasey Kahne was the biggest gainer on Sunday, moving up six positions to fifth in the points. Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth all fell three spots apiece.

Jeff Gordon's collision with the wall ended his race early and cost him dearly in the points; he's 47 behind Keselowski.

Here are the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings after Chicago:

  1. Brad Keselowski
  2. Jimmie Johnson -3
  3. Tony Stewart -8
  4. Denny Hamlin -15
  5. Kasey Kahne -15
  6. Clint Bowyer -15
  7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -17
  8. Greg Biffle -19
  9. Martin Truex Jr. -21
  10. Kevin Harvick -24
  11. Matt Kenseth -26
  12. Jeff Gordon -47
(Note: Kyle Busch is 13th in points, 41 ahead of Ryan Newman and 42 ahead of Carl Edwards).

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NASCAR Chicago Results 2012: Brad Keselowski Out-Duels Jimmie Johnson

With a pass for the lead certain to stir controversy in the Hendrick Motorsports camp, Brad Keselowski won Sunday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, the first race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Keselowski took the lead over polesitter and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson after an exchange of green-flag pit stops, with Keselowski reentering the track one lap later than Johnson, on Lap 231, and pulling up in front of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet off Turn 2.

Keselowski pulled away to win by 3.171 seconds over Johnson, who led a race-high 171 laps but couldn't catch Keselowski during the last green-flag run.

The victory was Keselowski's fourth of the season, his first at Chicagoland and the eighth of his career. Kasey Kahne ran third, followed by Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman, as Keselowski took a three-point lead over second-place Johnson with nine races left in the Chase.

During the race, NASCAR looked at videotape of Keselowski's return to the track in front of Johnson and decided no action was warranted.

A caution for Casey Mears' crash into the Turn 2 wall brought out the third caution of the race on Lap 149 and interrupted a cycle of green-flag pit stops. Johnson, Keselowski and Kahne had not pitted before the caution, and that trio remained out front for a restart on Lap 158.

Johnson quickly opened a gap of one second on Keselowski, with Kahne trailing the leader by more than four seconds as the green-flag run progressed. When Jeff Gordon passed Ryan Newman for fourth on Lap 174, Hendrick Motorsports had three of the top four cars in the running order.

Matt Kenseth dropped back drastically during the run, and his team prepared to change a right front shock absorber, but Gordon became the first major casualty of the Chase on Lap 188, when the throttle of the No. 24 Chevrolet stuck as he entered Turn 1 and the car slammed the outside wall.

"I just let off the throttle, and it just didn't come all the way back," Gordon said as his crew tried to repair the car. "It was probably about half-throttle, which is still enough to do a lot of damage. We're looking at what the issue is right now, what could have caused it.

"We'll get back out, but in this deal you can't afford to have issues like that."

Gordon, the last driver in the Chase as the second wild card, finished 35th and, in all likelihood, fell out of the championship conversation.

Here are the full race results from today's Chicagoland Speedway race (Chase drivers in bold):

  1. Brad Keselowski
  2. Jimmie Johnson
  3. Kasey Kahne
  4. Kyle Busch
  5. Ryan Newman
  6. Tony Stewart
  7. Joey Logano
  8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  9. Martin Truex Jr.
  10. Clint Bowyer
  11. Sam Hornish Jr.
  12. Kevin Harvick
  13. Greg Biffle
  14. Mark Martin
  15. Paul Menard
  16. Denny Hamlin
  17. Aric Almirola
  18. Matt Kenseth
  19. Carl Edwards
  20. Trevor Bayne
  21. Jamie McMurray
  22. David Ragan
  23. Juan Pablo Montoya
  24. Jeff Burton
  25. Danica Patrick
  26. Bobby Labonte
  27. Marcos Ambrose
  28. David Gilliland
  29. Landon Cassill
  30. TJ Bell
  31. Travis Kvapil
  32. Kurt Busch
  33. Dave Blaney
  34. Regan Smith
  35. Jeff Gordon
  36. Casey Mears
  37. Cole Whitt
  38. Josh Wise
  39. David Stremme
  40. Joe Nemechek
  41. Scott Speed
  42. Mike Bliss
  43. Michael McDowell

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NASCAR At Chicagoland 2012: Start Time, Lineup, TV/Radio Schedule, Live Streaming Info And More

It's NASCAR race day at Chicagoland Speedway, and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts about today's GEICO 400 for you below.

What time does the race start today? First of all, you'll note a later start time than normal Sunday races due to the Chase: Most Sunday races in the final 10 weeks will begin at 2 p.m., and the last few races will start at 3 p.m. As for today's race, a GEICO executive will tell the drivers to start their engines at 2:09 p.m. Eastern. The exact start time of the Chicagoland race is 2:18 p.m. ET (1:18 local).

Race name/distance: Today's race is the GEICO 400. It's 267 laps around the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway for a total of 400 miles.

TV, radio and live streaming: Today's race can be seen on ESPN. Every race for the rest of the year will be on ESPN except for Charlotte (which is on ABC). There IS live streaming of the race today, which can be found at NASCAR.com's "RaceBuddy" site and on the "Watch ESPN" app. If you'll be away from your computer and TV, check the Motor Racing Network's web site for a list of affiliate radio stations in your area.

*** NOTE: If you're out and about today and can't watch the race, make sure to follow me (@jeff_gluck) on Twitter. I'll be tweeting updates about the event. ***

National anthem: Country music singer Luke Bryan will sing the national anthem today. Earlier in the morning, he'll perform a 45-minute pre-race concert for fans.

Tickets: The race is not a sellout, so you should be good to go if you're planning to make a last-minute trip on race day.

Weather: The unofficial NASCAR weatherman, Brian Neudorff, says today's weather in Joliet should be quite pleasant – sunny with temperatures in the 70s – with no chance of rain (a relief after last year's Chicagoland race, which was postponed to Monday due to weather).

Last time: Tony Stewart snatched a surprising victory last season after barely making the Chase – and it turned out to be one of an astounding five wins he got en route to winning the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

Here's the starting lineup for today's NASCAR race at Chicagoland Speedway (Chase drivers in bold):

  1. Jimmie Johnson
  2. Aric Almirola
  3. Matt Kenseth
  4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (will have to start at the back due to an engine change)
  5. Carl Edwards
  6. Kasey Kahne
  7. Regan Smith
  8. Denny Hamlin
  9. Clint Bowyer
  10. Joey Logano
  11. Paul Menard
  12. Jamie McMurray
  13. Brad Keselowski
  14. Trevor Bayne
  15. Mark Martin
  16. Sam Hornish Jr.
  17. Marcos Ambrose
  18. Martin Truex Jr.
  19. Jeff Gordon
  20. Ryan Newman
  21. Kyle Busch
  22. Greg Biffle
  23. Bobby Labonte
  24. Michael McDowell
  25. Scott Speed
  26. Landon Cassill
  27. Casey Mears
  28. Juan Pablo Montoya
  29. Tony Stewart
  30. Kurt Busch
  31. David Stremme
  32. Jeff Burton
  33. Joe Nemechek
  34. Mike Bliss
  35. Kevin Harvick
  36. Cole Whitt
  37. David Ragan
  38. Travis Kvapil
  39. T.J. Bell
  40. David Gilliland
  41. Danica Patrick
  42. Dave Blaney
  43. Josh Wise

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Danica Patrick Finishes 12th In NASCAR Nationwide Series Race At Chicagoland

In front of her hometown fans at Chicagoland Speedway, Danica Patrick entered Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race expecting to finish somewhere in the top 10.

But a constantly loose-handling race car was too much to overcome and she was forced to settle for 12th. Patrick had hoped for better, considering she had many friends and family members in town for the race.

"The results are just the egotistical measure," Patrick said. "You always want to finish well. And for your fans and the people supporting you – they want to see you to do well result-wise, too. I want to give it them and do well for Go Daddy and people like that."

The day wasn't completely uneventful for Patrick. In the closing laps, some hard racing between her and Brad Sweet (a lapped car) led to Patrick demanding her team find Sweet's spotter to tell him to let her by.

Afterward, Patrick downplayed the incident and said it was simply a byproduct of Sweet being a lap down while Patrick was trying to maintain her position.

"I had about made it by and he sort of hung between (Turns) 3 and 4, and I was just frustrated that the 44 (Mike Bliss) was catching," Patrick said. "If the 44 wasn't catching, fine – there was nothing really to gain or lose. But I was just getting concerned with him catching up.

"It was getting down to those last 10, 20 laps and you just want to run hard for position."

With just seven races left in the season, Patrick is hoping to use the remainder of the year as a way to hone her skills before she moves up to a full Sprint Cup Series schedule in 2013.

"We're getting towards the end of the year," Patrick said. "And we've seen throughout the year, there is a heck of a lot of good drivers out there and that's what makes the Nationwide Series such a good training ground for Cup."

After qualifying 41st, Patrick will make her sixth Cup start of the year on Sunday.

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Elliott Sadler, Richard Childress Racing Still On Good Terms Despite Curious Radio Chatter

During Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland, ESPN played a clip of someone telling Austin Dillon: "You do not help the 2 car."

To viewers, it sounded a bit suspicious. With Sadler – the aforementioned 2 car – leaving Richard Childress Racing at the end of the season, some fans jumped to conclusions that RCR was trying to make Sadler's championship quest more difficult.

But after the race, all of the parties involved said that wasn't the case at all.

Sadler seemed taken aback when told of the message to Dillon and said, "I don't know what that means." The driver said he did not feel like he was on an island at RCR.

"We share really good notes and we always have, so I don't know," Sadler said.

The one who radioed the message to Dillon turned out to be crew chief Danny Stockman – not Richard Childress – who also seemed surprised about the uproar.

Stockman said he's committed to working with RCR's other two teams and added, "We're just one big happy family."

The radio chatter apparently happened when Sadler was pushing another car down the frontstretch instead of Dillon. Stockman, a competitive type who tends to get fired up, then told his driver not to do anything to help Sadler because they're both contending for the championship and it looked like it was every man for himself.

"It's just racing hard for the championship right there," Dillon said. "The 2 went with the other guy when we could have used a push. Everybody is worked up about it...we didn't help each other at all today. It's just racing hard. I don't know what else to say. It's just part of the game, I guess."

As for Sadler, the driver lost the championship points lead when he finished eighth while now-leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the race. Sadler trails Stenhouse Jr. by nine points (Dillon is 34 points back).

Sadler was done in by a tire he said came "de-laminated" during a run. The team made adjustments because it didn't realize the tire was the problem and by the time Sadler's crew figured it out, the changes had already been made.

"Then we were trying to play catch-up there at the end and we were just way too loose," he said. "It put us in a hole and you only get a few times to adjust on it. We definitely lost some valuable points today."

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NASCAR Nationwide Series Results: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Wins At Chicagoland

It was a statement victory for defending NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won Saturday's Dollar General 300 Powered by Coca-Cola at Chicagoland Speedway and simultaneously wrested the series lead from Elliott Sadler.

The victory was Stenhouse's fifth of the season and the seventh of his career. He crossed the finish line 2.402 seconds ahead of Kyle Busch, who fell one spot short of posting his first victory in the Nationwide car he owns.

Austin Dillon ran third, followed by Brad Keselowski and Paul Menard. Sadler finished eighth and fell from the top spot in the standings after holding it for 20 consecutive weeks. With seven races left, Stenhouse leads Sadler by nine points.

Ninth-place finisher and polesitter Joey Logano regained the lead under caution on Lap 124 for Benny Gordon's accident in Turn 3. Logano beat Dillon off pit road by six inches and led the field to a restart.

Stenhouse lost seven spots when his car stalled in the pits and took the green flag in the 11th position but gradually worked his way back through the field. By the time the race reached Lap 150, Stenhouse had passed Sadler for the third position.

Busch grabbed the top spot shortly after the restart on lap 130 and pulled away to a lead of 1.5 seconds as Logano faded. Busch, Dillon and Stenhouse staged a three-car breakaway during that green-flag run, but a caution for Jason Bowles' spin in Turn 3 on Lap 167 shuffled the running order.

With a 12.5-second stop for four tires and fuel, Sadler was first off pit road on Lap 168 and led Busch to a restart on Lap 172. Busch quickly reassumed the lead while Sadler dropped back to sixth by Lap 177.

Stenhouse, however, moved past Busch on Lap 180 and quickly established an advantage of more than a second.

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NASCAR At Chicago: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Changes Engines, Will Start At Rear Of Field

Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't known as a stellar qualifier, so a fourth-place starting spot for Sunday's NASCAR Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway was going to be great for the No. 88 team.

But as Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line at the end of his qualifying lap, he accidentally over-revved his engine while knocking it out of gear (which most drivers do when they finish qualifying) and bent a valve, which necessitated a motor change on Saturday afternoon.

NASCAR rules will now require Earnhardt Jr. to start at the rear of the field instead of in fourth place when the green flag waves on Sunday.

"We go across the finish line after our laps are over with and we bump it out of gear," Earnhardt Jr. said outside his hauler on Saturday. "Do it a million times. Do it every (week) for 10 years. It slipped into third gear and over-revved it just for a split second."

That resulted in the bent valve, he said, which didn't destroy anything but wasn't worth chancing a blown engine during the race.

"We're not too worried," Earnhardt Jr. said, still appearing upbeat. "We feel like we've got real good car. Had a good car in practice yesterday, real happy with the way I qualified."

Crew chief Steve Letarte said the team was not "super concerned." Chicagoland is a track where teams usually have multiple pit strategies and there will be opportunities to get back to the front that way.

Similarly, Earnhardt Jr. said the bad starting spot "gives us options" – especially if cautions fall early and he can pit for fuel and tires while other cars try to keep their track position. Plus, he said, the good pit stall earned via qualifying will also have benefits.

"It's a long race," he said. "I think the car is good enough. It's definitely not the way we wanted it to go. If the car wasn't very good, I think we'd be really worried right now, but I think the car is pretty good."

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NASCAR Chicago Starting Lineup: Jimmie Johnson Leads Qualifying Results For 2012 Chase Opener

Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson started the 2012 Chase exactly the way he wanted: With a pole at Chicagoland Speedway.

Johnson will lead the starting lineup for Sunday's GEICO 400, with Aric Almirola, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards rounding out the top five.

The pole was Johnson's second from the season and comes a year after he had no No. 1 starting positions for the first time in his career – and also happened to miss out on his sixth straight Sprint Cup Series title.

"It's too early in the Chase to be over-the-top excited...but qualifying (well) makes the race so much easier for you," Johnson said. "Your pit stall is going to be right and your track position is going to be in your favor."

Johnson said he was certain a Chase driver would win a pole today and that's how it would be throughout the Chase.

So how did the others do? The rest of the field included Kasey Kahne (sixth), Denny Hamlin (eighth), Clint Bowyer (ninth), Brad Keselowski (13th), Martin Truex Jr. (18th), Jeff Gordon (19th), Greg Biffle (22nd), Tony Stewart (29th) and Kevin Harvick (35th).

Danica Patrick had the 46th-fastest time of 47 drivers but made the race due to a locked-in spot.

Scott Riggs, Reed Sorenson, JJ Yeley and Jason Leffler failed to qualify for the race.

Here's the starting lineup for Sunday's GEICO 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway (Chase drivers in bold):

  1. Jimmie Johnson
  2. Aric Almirola
  3. Matt Kenseth
  4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (will start at rear due to engine change)
  5. Carl Edwards
  6. Kasey Kahne
  7. Regan Smith
  8. Denny Hamlin
  9. Clint Bowyer
  10. Joey Logano
  11. Paul Menard
  12. Jamie McMurray
  13. Brad Keselowski
  14. Trevor Bayne
  15. Mark Martin
  16. Sam Hornish Jr.
  17. Marcos Ambrose
  18. Martin Truex Jr.
  19. Jeff Gordon
  20. Ryan Newman
  21. Kyle Busch
  22. Greg Biffle
  23. Bobby Labonte
  24. Michael McDowell
  25. Scott Speed
  26. Landon Cassill
  27. Casey Mears
  28. Juan Pablo Montoya
  29. Tony Stewart
  30. Kurt Busch
  31. David Stremme
  32. Jeff Burton
  33. Joe Nemechek
  34. Mike Bliss
  35. Kevin Harvick
  36. Cole Whitt
  37. David Ragan
  38. Travis Kvapil
  39. T.J. Bell
  40. David Gilliland
  41. Danica Patrick
  42. Dave Blaney
  43. Josh Wise
DNQ: Scott Riggs, Reed Sorenson, JJ Yeley, Jason Leffler.
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Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski Collide In NASCAR Chicagoland Garage

During one of the most crucial practices of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, a miscommunication caused a collision between Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski – before they were even on the racetrack.

As Truex followed Keselowski out from the garage to pit road, both drivers were confused by a NASCAR official's motions. Truex said the official usually puts one hand out as if to say "STOP!" But this time, the official had one hand out and one hand waving in a different direction – and Truex was confused as to what that meant.

"I've done some dumb shit in my life, but ain't nothing ever topped that," Truex said after practice. "... My bad. Totally my fault. You get in a hurry in and out of the garage, and it's kind of hard to see what the guy is doing, you know?"

Drivers navigating that part of the Chicagoland Speedway garage rely on the official's hand motions because they can't see the cars merging from the other part of the garage. The official acts as a traffic cop to help drivers get safely to pit road and onto the track.

Truex said he saw Keselowski start to make the turn to pit road and figured he'd follow. But when Keselowski suddenly stopped at the official's hand motion, Truex wasn't ready.

"I was just checking to make sure a car wasn't coming (from the left), and he already hit the brakes and I was like, 'Oh, shit,'" Truex said. "You can't see them when you're coming, so you've got to watch the guy. But the guy did something different than normal."

Truex's No. 56 car sustained a small amount of front-end damage – Truex said he was worried because he saw a crack – but the team was able to fix it quickly. The rear end of Keselowski's No. 2 car was partially caved in, but the team somewhat repaired the damage (though it still looks like it needs work).

After the practice was over, Keselowski walked over to find Truex but didn't immediately see the driver and had to get to the Nationwide car for another practice session. Keselowski told SB Nation there were "too many fuckin' people in the garage" and he didn't see the official's stop sign until it was almost too late.

"You're trying not to run over people and you can't see what's going on," Keselowski said. "I couldn't see the damn guy because there are too many people in the garage. There are more people in the garage than the stands – that's the problem!"

Chicagoland Speedway's grandstands were not open on Friday except to a small amount of campers and fans who could sit in a designated section in exchange for a charity donation. There were plenty of fans wandering around the garage, though; they lined up along the Cup haulers to watch drivers pull in and out of the stalls.

Truex ended the practice session in 25th but said he was pleased with his car; Keselowski improved to 16th by the end of practice.

"He was fast, so I guess we're all good," Truex said. "It's one of those deals where you've seen it happen a few times and you're like, 'Damn, that must suck!' It scared me pretty bad."

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Michael Waltrip Racing Signs Yet Another Sponsor

A week after Clint Bowyer's second victory of 2012, the good news continued for the driver and his Michael Waltrip Racing team: MWR announced Peak Motor Oil will be the primary sponsor on Bowyer's No. 15 car for three races per season for the next three years.

"Ever since I made this change to Michael Waltrip, it seems almost daily there is more good news around the corner and this is another example of that," Bowyer said.

Friday's news marks the second time in three weeks MWR has made a major sponsorship announcement. Two weeks ago at Atlanta, the organization made it known Napa Auto Parts would return as the full-time sponsor for Martin Truex Jr.

So why, in a slow economy, are companies drawn to a team which before this season had never made the Chase? In large part, it's due to the gregarious personality of the man whose name is on the company stationary. On that front, Waltrip doesn't try to be someone he's not.

"I always look at it that we're very blessed to race cars," he said. "It is such a privilege. I'm thankful for that opportunity and like people to understand my enthusiasm for the sport. And I've just always been that way.

"It's fun to have cats around me who get that and understand that and appreciate it."

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NASCAR At Chicago: Tony Stewart Cannot Predict The Future, So Don't Ask

Tony Stewart is not a psychic and he cannot predict the future (at least that's what he claims). So if you ask the NASCAR driver to forecast racing results, you're doing so at your own risk.

Take the British reporter who asked Stewart on Friday if he had a prediction for who would win this season's Formula One championship.

"If I could do that, bud, I'd be sitting my ass on a leather chair in Las Vegas," Stewart said. "I wouldn't be sitting here in the media center in Chicago. I'd be making a lot more money sitting there getting free drinks from cocktail waitresses who are hot.

"So, no, I can't do that. I wish I had that ability. I wish I could do that with all forms of auto racing, but that's what makes this sport cool: It's hard to predict."

To that end, Stewart said he has no idea how NASCAR's Chase will be won this year. After all, he's won it both by winning five of the final 10 races (last year) and none of the final 10 races (2005). The three-time Sprint Cup champion compared solving the Chase to asking a gambler how many hands it would take to win the World Series of Poker – no one knows.

"I don't know how you could predict it," he said. "I don't know how you could honestly and accurately predict it. ... There is no formula, and there is no right or wrong answer.

"It all depends on what the 11 other guys you're racing with do each week. It's strictly dictated by that. There isn't a set formula, guys. There's no blueprint, there's no certain way of doing it. It's just who can put together the 10 best weeks."

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NASCAR At Chicago: Jeff Gordon Going All-Out For Wins – Not Points – As Chase Begins

Halfway through the season, Jeff Gordon was buried in points and his Chase prospects looked grim. Facing an uphill and seemingly impossible battle to get into the top 10, he knew the only chance he had to make the Chase was to concentrate on winning races.

That strategy paid off, as Gordon won at Pocono and finished high enough in points to snatch the final wild card spot away from Kyle Busch.

But now in the Chase for the eighth time in his career, the question is this: Is Gordon going to change his aggressive approach with playoffs starting this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway?

Not a chance, Gordon said Friday.

"That's what's gotten us in this thing and that's what's going to keep us in it and get us that championship," he said. "If anything, what these last three weeks and really this season has proven to us is that you have to aggressively pursue wins."

That go-for-broke style paid dividends heading into the Chase, as the No. 24 team finished second, second and third in the last three races.

"We're going to go out there with nothing to lose and everything to gain – just the same way we approached these last several weeks," Gordon said.

Another reason factoring into Gordon's decision to continue to pursue wins and not worry so much about points is the lesson he learned a year ago when he entered the Chase as a title favorite. Then, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson decided to be conservative and not do anything which might cost themselves a potential championship.

But that plan backfired, as Gordon was a non-factor throughout Chase, going winless and posting six finishes outside the top 10 (including five finishes of 20th or worse).

"We just didn't start the Chase off the way I felt like we needed to," he said of 2012. "And I think some of it was that we didn't have that win-or-nothing-type attitude. We kind of got into that 'We have 10 weeks and we need to be consistent and do what's gotten us here (approach).'

"That's not the case for us this year. We didn't expect to be here. The pressure is not on us right now and we can go out there and be aggressive and do our thing and do it under the radar."

Following a come-from-behind runner-up finish at Richmond, the 24 team according to Gordon is "rejuvenated" and has "an excellent opportunity to do something pretty spectacular."

"I think the only way you don't hear from us in the Chase is if some of the same things that bit us earlier in the year bite us again," Gordon said. "(If) we finish where we are running or where our performance level is at, then we're going to be a major threat in this thing."

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Confident No. 88 Team Will Be Fully Sponsored In 2013

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have the National Guard on his car for 20 races in 2013, but what company will sponsor the other 16 events?

That question remains unclear as of Friday, and Earnhardt Jr. said current sponsor Diet Mountain Dew is "going to back off a little bit" next season.

"That makes it a bit of a challenge to fill that small of a gap," Earnhardt Jr. told reporters at Chicagoland Speedway. "If It were a bit larger gap, it would be easier to fill."

So is there a chance Earnhardt Jr. might have some unsponsored races for next season? That remains unlikely for NASCAR's most popular driver, who said it's a matter of getting companies to share their space. With Diet Dew still wanting some races, Earnhardt Jr. might have three primary sponsors in 2013.

"Every sponsor on the car wants to be the top guy," he said. "It's a bit hard to have a top guy when you are trying to work with multiple sponsors. It's just a little bit of a balancing act."

Hendrick Motorsports has "a lot of irons in the fire," he said, and is just deciding which company would be a good fit for the 88 car.

"We just got to kind of decide which one is going to work out, which one we want to work with," he said.

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NASCAR At Chicago: Danica Patrick Understands JR Motorsports' Decision To Release Tony Eury Sr.

Though Danica Patrick said she had a "really good relationship" with Tony Eury Sr., the former JR Motorsports competition director who was released last week, the driver also said she understood why the team made a change.

"I really like him," Patrick said Friday at Chicagoland Speedway. "He's definitely one of those old-school guys. It will be sad to see him not around, but that's a part of business."

Eury Sr.'s exit comes as JRM is mired in a winless streak that dates back to the 2010 season and has seen both Patrick and teammate Cole Whitt struggling this year to be competitive. In 25 Nationwide Series starts in 2012, Patrick has just two top-10 finishes with a best result of eighth at Texas and she has posted nine finishes of 25th or worse.

On Wednesday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said former Sprint Cup crew chief Ryan Pemberton has been hired to help bring some fresh ideas to a team which has fallen behind in terms of technology.

Patrick referred to Pemberton as "the new arrival" and said she didn't know him very well.

"I'm sure I will get to know him a little bit as the year goes on, but there is not too much left," she said. "With any organization, it's tough to turn the ship around instantly."

Patrick will focus on both her JRM team in the Nationwide Series and the No. 10 Sprint Cup Series car this weekend at Chicagoland, which she refers to as her home track since she grew up in nearby Roscoe, Ill.

But racing in front of her family and friends – some who came from as far as Canada – isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be, she said. The constant demands on her time can be a distraction.

"It is a bit more work and it doesn't make the weekend easier, but it doesn't mean I don't appreciate that people show their support and care and be a part of it and see it," she said. "Ultimately, I'm glad that they come, but I'm glad that they don't come all the time."

Compared to an IndyCar Series race, where Patrick used to compete from 2005-11, the atmosphere at a NASCAR event is far different. In IndyCar, there were numerous hospitality areas that helped pass the time for those visiting and help take the pressure off of Patrick to feel the need to entertain.

In the end, she said, it's all about managing expectations.

"You want to make time for them for making the effort and supporting you," she said. "But in my situation, I just try and create realistic expectations – low expectations – for the people coming to the track. Basically, (I say) 'You're not going to see me until after the race,' so that they don't get their hopes up thinking they're going to spend an hour with you hanging out, knocking back beers with me before the race."

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Best Buy To Sponsor Ricky Stenhouse Jr. In NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Since June, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s move to Roush Fenway Racing's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team has been public knowledge.

But what companies were going to sponsor him? And in replacing Matt Kenseth, would he drive a No. 17 car or a No. 6?

Those questions were officially answered on Friday when Roush Fenway announced Stenhouse will drive a No. 17 car with anchor sponsorship from Best Buy and additional primary sponsorship from Zest and Fifth Third Bank (Matt Kenseth's existing sponsors in the 17).

"I'm honored to be able to step into the 17 ride," Stenhouse said at Chicagoland Speedway. "That whole team is a top-caliber team. I feel good they have the confidence in me to come in and be able to run a car like that."

Stenhouse, the defending Nationwide Series champion, said he was "kind of shocked" Best Buy chose to return as a sponsor for an inexperienced driver – but he certainly appreciated it.

His future Cup teammate, Carl Edwards, said there was a major reason behind the decision.

"All of you in this room know Ricky Stenhouse is going to be a force in this sport," Edwards said. "Today is officially the beginning of a new era. It's going to be very exciting to have Ricky in the 17 car."

Similarly, team owner Jack Roush said Stenhouse was "going to make a statement in this business."

"He is at the head of his class, of this generation of rookies coming through," Roush said. "He has one championship behind him and another one in his clutches, and I am very happy and proud of Ricky and what he might do."

Best Buy will also sponsor Edwards' No. 99 car for "a few" races next season.

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Jeff Gordon Bringing Back Old-School Mustache For NASCAR's Chase

Earlier this week, SB Nation proposed 10 different mustache options for Jeff Gordon in light of the driver's promise to bring back his '90s 'stache after making the Chase.

With more than 1,100 votes counted, it's clear readers prefer "The Depp" mustache by an overwhelming margin. But as it turns out, Gordon's 'stache is probably going to look like "The Ditka."

Jg_ditka_medium

"I can't control the grey," Gordon said Wednesday in downtown Chicago. "I mean, yes, I could with some products – but I'm going for it. I'm excited."

Gordon didn't have the mustache yet during NASCAR's Chase Media Day, but he did have a bunch of greyish stubble. After visiting a barber on Thursday, Gordon planned to bring his 'stache to Chicagoland Speedway for the race weekend.

"I wanted to have it (Wednesday), but I need a little more growth," he said. "... Friday, for sure, I will have a mustache."

It's unclear what exactly what sparked the mustache pledge – even Gordon can't remember the specific circumstances – but he recalls being in the No. 24 team hauler one race weekend looking at Twitter when yet another fan brought up the awful-looking mustache he sported early in his career.

"I threw it out there and said, 'Listen, if we make this Chase, I'm bringing back the mustache," Gordon said. "(The crew guys) were all like, 'Yeah! Yeah!'

"I have fans all the time on Twitter, off Twitter, other competitors who all say, 'Bring back the 'stache! Where's that 'stache?' And I guarantee it's not because it was cool."

In addition to Gordon's promise, crew chief Alan Gustafson also pledged to shave his head – which he did – if the team made the Chase. Of course, none of this might have happened if Gordon's wife, Ingrid, hadn't reminded everyone on Twitter about her husband's promise.

"I made a statement and I'm a man of my word, so that's where it's coming from," Gordon said.

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Clint Bowyer Gets New Spotter In Time For NASCAR's Chase

NASCAR spotter Brett Griffin tweeted some good news on Tuesday: After parting ways with Richard Childress Racing, where he served as spotter for Jeff Burton, Griffin already had a new gig: Spotting for Chase driver Clint Bowyer.

The timing was unusual, because Bowyer was not only about to start the 10-race playoffs, but he'd just won the Richmond race three days earlier. And now Griffin was replacing spotter Ty Norris?

Uh oh! Did Michael Waltrip Racing pull a spotter change on Bowyer without even informing the driver?

If you know Bowyer at all, you probably realized it was a joke; the driver was fully involved in the decision to change spotters heading into the Chase.

"I was just screwing with Brett," Bowyer said with a grin on Wednesday.

Here's what happened: Griffin, who is also Elliott Sadler's business manager, lost his job as Burton's spotter when it became clear Sadler was leaving RCR at the end of the season.

Suddenly, one of NASCAR's top spotters was a free agent.

"I talked to Jeff Burton about him, and he was like, 'Hire him. Hire him in the morning. Hire him right now,'" Bowyer said. "I've just got a lot of confidence in him. I don't think it'll be a transition at all because we know each other so well and he does such a good job. I've listened to him a lot and most of the things I ask for, he does."

Bowyer has worked with Griffin before – kind of. When the tandem drafting was all the rage last year at Talladega, Bowyer and Burton drafted together and used Griffin as their common spotter on the radio.

But more than that, Bowyer and Griffin are friends off the track and have a good relationship. That's part of the reason why Bowyer felt comfortable teasing the news via Twitter.

"He announced it, and I was like, 'What?'" Bowyer said with a chuckle. "But that's the relationship we have. That's why I don't think there will be any transition period."

Before making the hire, Bowyer had to make sure Norris – MWR's general manager – was comfortable stepping aside. Bowyer was going to change spotters next season, but Griffin's availability moved the timetable forward.

"I wanted to make sure Ty was OK with it, because first and foremost, Ty helped me get to where I'm at in so many different levels," Bowyer said. "So I didn't want to take anything from him if he wanted to be a part of that. ... Ty kind of wanted to focus on his job and make sure all three cars are running well. I think it'll just be a good thing."

Griffin, who has 12,000 Twitter followers and has earned a reputation for being outspoken, will make quite the combination when paired with the wide-open Bowyer.

"It'll be fun," Bowyer said. "It'll be something to listen to, I promise you that."

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How Do NASCAR Chase Drivers Rate Their Chances On A Scale Of 1-10?

It's easy for NASCAR drivers to be vague when asked about their championship chances, because no one can tell the future and no one wants to be pinned down to a Joe Namath-like prediction.

That tends to generate non-specific answers, and there was a lot of that going on during Wednesday's Chase Media Day in downtown Chicago.

You know what I'm talking about. A driver will say he has a "pretty good shot at it" or his team "likes our chances." But how to quantify that? How to figure out exactly how confident these racers are?

Thankfully, some genius long ago invented the Scale Of 1-10. I don't have all the facts on this, but I assume it was created by a guy named Dr. Scale.

Surely, you've heard of Dr. Scale's method. Olympic judges use it to rate gymnasts (A perfect 10!). Doctors use it to rate discomfort (How much pain are you in on a scale of 1-10?). Frankly, it can be used for almost anything.

From figuring out someone's appetite level to just how crappy your spouse's day at work was, the "1-10" question is a great way to measure how a person feels.

So what about the 12 NASCAR drivers who will compete for this season's Sprint Cup Series championship beginning on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway?

In honor of Dr. Scale's Nobel Prize-winning career (again, just assuming, but how could he not win something for inventing such an invaluable measuring system?), SB Nation asked each of NASCAR's Chase drivers for a "1-10" answer to how they viewed their title hopes.

"Scale of 1-10..." Jeff Gordon said, mulling the question. "Is 1 the best?"

No, Jeff, that's the worst.

"Oh," he said. "Then 10."

BOOOOM! There it is! Gordon said he's a 10, which indicates he's extremely confident about his chances. Heck, that's probably worth a bet in Las Vegas (the 1-10 Scale is never wrong).

How about you, Greg Biffle?

"9.8," Biffle said.

Well done, sir. Biffle's answer showed he was also very confident about winning the Chase – but not quite enough to declare himself a total lock. Mark him down for second place this year.

Wasn't this easy? By using the 1-10 Scale, it was obvious several other drivers felt very good about their chances, too.

Denny Hamlin said he was an "8.5 or 9." Kasey Kahne said he was "definitely a 7 or an 8" – which really isn't that definite, if you think about it – and Brad Keselowski rated his chances exactly the same as Kahne.

Five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson gave himself a 7, but it came with a deeper explanation.

"Those last three points kind of fall down to some racing luck and variables that are out on the racetrack," Johnson said. "... (Like) mechanicals. Parts don't just break on a car from bad luck, they break because they weren't put on the car right."

Alert the science journals! Johnson, being the analytical thinker he is, was able to find a new wrinkle in the 1-10 Scale: A driver can only promise a maximum of 7, because the final three points are out of his control.

Did we get that right, Jimmie?

"Well, I just came up with that a few seconds ago," he said with a laugh. "But I think so."

Some drivers weren't as outwardly confident as their peers. Martin Truex Jr. said his team has "as good a chance as anyone based on recent performance," but gave himself a "5 or 6." Dale Earnhardt Jr. answered with a "6 or 7" and said he felt "pretty good about it, but I don't want to overstate it."

And Matt Kenseth said his team has been on top of its game lately, but gave himself a surprisingly low 5 because "you never know what's going to happen with flat tires, luck, circumstances."

Sounds similar to the Johnson Theory Of Scales, doesn't it?

Anyway, a few guys were less than forthcoming about their chances. Apparently they don't use the 1-10 model in their daily lives, and that is sad.

"You're thinking about it waaay too much," defending champion Tony Stewart said. "'Cause I'm not thinking about it that deep."

Come on, Tony. Can't you just throw out a random number for scale measurement purposes?

"Sure: 5," he said. "That's a random number."

Similarly, Kevin Harvick talked around the 1-10 question without giving an exact number and had to be pressed for a specific answer.

"I can't honestly tell you," he eventually said. "Is it based on the last three weeks? I'd say we're a 7 or an 8."

Of course, there's always one joker in the bunch who doesn't want to play along. Naturally, we're talking about Clint Bowyer.

"Well...hell, I don't know," Bowyer said, dropping his head as if a teacher just asked him to recite all the state capitals. "I have to put a number on it?"

Yes, Clint.

"1 to 10?" he said. "I'm going to go ahead and tell you a 2, because I don't want to talk about (winning) it – I just want to focus on it."

So there you have it. Jeff Gordon will win the 2012 Sprint Cup Series championship and Clint Bowyer will finish last.

Somewhere, Dr. Scale is smiling.

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