The 10th edition of the Chase for the Sprint Cup might be more identifiable for those drivers left out of the championship rather than who will be competing for it. Those not qualified this year are longtime Chase mainstays Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart as well as reigning champion Brad Keselowski.
But in part the absence of big names has created what might be the most wide-open Chase in recent memory. Unlike previous years there is no clear-cut favorite to win the title, as a persuasive case could be made for Matt Kenseth (No. 1 seed, a season-best five victories), Kyle Busch (four wins, 11 top-fives), Jimmie Johnson (four wins, 18 top-10s) or Carl Edwards (regular season points leader).
"This is an important 10 weeks and this is where it really counts," Kenseth said. "This is where we really need to put it together and go try to win a championship."
Yet no matter how open the field appears, what we do know is that whoever does claim the championship will in all likelihood follow a time-tested blueprint for what a driver must do to win.
1. Get bonus points
Bonus points are huge -- and that's an understatement. Look no further than what transpired two years ago when Tony Stewart edged Carl Edwards by the slimmest of margins.
On three occasions in that Chase, Stewart led the most laps in a race and in doing so procured three additional points. That was in contrast to Edwards, who led the most laps just once. Ultimately, those two extra points for Stewart proved to be pivotal, as the pair ended the year tied atop the standings with Stewart prevailing via a tiebreaker.
2) Win a race
Only once in the Chase Era has the eventual champion not won at least a single playoff race (Stewart, 2005). While it's unclear how many wins a driver needs (Brad Keselowski won two last year), the minimum is one.
That's happened in eight of the nine Chases, so a driver shouldn't expect to win the championship if he can't get to Victory Lane at least once in the next 10 weeks. And it's worth mentioning that for two consecutive years the driver who was victorious in the opening Chase race at Chicagoland has gone on to also win the title.
"It might take wins it might not, but the sure fire way is to go win races," Edwards said. "That is what we would like to do."
3) Only one mulligan
The thing that really can make or break a driver's championship effort is avoiding multiple mistakes or bad luck that can lead to poor finishes.
Only once since the inception of the Chase has an eventual champion had more than one finish outside the top 20. And when Johnson did that in 2006 (he had two mulligans), he was only able to rally thanks to a five-race stretch where he finished no worse than second. But Johnson is the exception and not the norm, and the point system in place today makes it even tougher for a driver to overcome a series of bad races.
"It takes 10 weeks," Busch said. "You have to be strong for 10 weeks that's the fact of it. You can win five and DNF in the other five and be pointless. You have to be consistent enough, but you may also have to have a couple of wins, too."
So while the above three factors don't foretell who is going to win the title, it might reveal who won't.