CHICAGO (AP) - This could finally be the year Kyle Busch, he of all that raw talent and ability, will win NASCAR's highest honor.
Of course, everybody said the same thing in 2008, when he won eight races and opened the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship as the top seed in the 10-race series. Busch instead opened that Chase with back-to-back clunkers and never contended.
Here he is again, though, headed into Round 1 of the Chase as the top seed and the early favorite to claim the Sprint Cup title.
It's not that simple, though.
This year's Chase field is arguably the deepest to date, and this year's championship is actually up for grabs.
``It's not somebody's race,'' said Busch this week, ``it's anybody's race.''
If that wasn't already evident, it was made crystal clear last week at Richmond in the final Chase qualifying race. Busch had the strongest car until a tire problem took him out of contention. Then it became Jeff Gordon's race to lose, which he did on a late restart when Kevin Harvick seized the victory with Carl Edwards right behind him.
Harvick's win tied him with Busch for a series-best four victories, and proved that every time Busch tries to pull away from the competition, his rivals find a way to even it up.
And the most overlooked guy in this Chase? Well, that's Jimmie Johnson. The five-time defending champion, who, by the way, doesn't plan on handing his title over without a fight. Nobody has figured out how to beat Johnson since Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart took the first two Chase titles. Since then, Johnson has collected five championships, including last year when he rallied late to withstand Denny Hamlin's challenge.
Johnson has 19 Chase victories in eight appearances, and an average finish of 8.1 - much better, by a lot, than any driver. He knows how to turn it up when everything is on the line, and he shouldn't be dismissed because he's got just one victory this season.
He believes he's a contender.
``We're certainly hopeful for a sixth,'' he said. ``We are obviously in a good spot right now. We've proven to ourselves time and time again what we are capable of and looking forward to this year's challenge.''
Right there with him is Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon, who waged the most incredible title race to date against Johnson in 2007. Gordon was almost perfect that season, but still couldn't keep pace when Johnson switched it to a higher gear.
Gordon has been trying to add a fifth championship to his resume since collecting No. 4 in 2001, and he thinks his chances are better than they were in 2007. A three-time winner this season, he probably could have five or six wins had things gone differently at Indianapolis, Bristol and Richmond.
``I feel like we've got more momentum going into the Chase,'' Gordon said. ``I feel like our team is really, really strong. I feel like in '07, while we gave Jimmie a great run and a great battle, I still feel like they had the momentum. And were outrunning us just by a little bit on a regular basis.
``We're competing with everybody out there right now, and lately I feel like we've been better than most on a lot of different types of race tracks.''
There's also Edwards and Harvick, who at different times this season seemed to be the favorites. Harvick won three early races, then struggled through the summer and took charge late last month in a lengthy (and mandatory) Sunday meeting after an abysmal run at Bristol. He lit a fire at Richard Childress Racing, and stormed back into championship contention with the Richmond win that sent a statement to the competition.
Edwards, winner of one race and the All-Star race, also dropped off a bit as the year went on. He led the standings for 14 weeks, faded to fourth in points, but has rallied with three consecutive top-10 finishes. His contract negotiations with Roush Fenway Racing were wrapped up six weeks ago, and there are no distractions standing in his way.
His teammate, Matt Kenseth, should not be discounted. The last champion under the old points system, he's only contended for a championship once under the Chase format, in 2006 when he finished a not-so-close second to Johnson. Then came a string of lean years, but Kenseth bounced back this season with two victories.
Kenseth may not win a Chase race this year, but his style of staying steady and collecting top-10 finishes could just give him the title.
The next group of drivers are more dark horses than serious contenders, and Brad Keselowski is easily the most dangerous guy in the bunch.
He was 28th in the standings at one point this season, then turned it up a notch after breaking his ankle while testing in August. He reeled off finishes of first, second, third and first to climb to 11th in points. He got into the Chase via the wild card introduced this year, and he truly is the unknown.
He and teammate Kurt Busch both drive for Penske Racing, and the organization has never won a Cup title. It could play against them, but then again, Penske has never been this balanced. Busch challenged leadership earlier this year to turn things around, and both cars are remarkably better.
Busch, winner of the inaugural 2004 Chase, thinks he's got a shot this year to become a two-time champion.
``I feel like this is one of the best opportunities I've had to shoot at the championship again since 2004,'' he said.
Tony Stewart, the last driver not named Johnson to win the title, typically could never be counted out. But this has been a strange year for the two-time champion, who has not kept pace with teammate Ryan Newman and needed to turn it up a notch the last two weeks to make sure he even made the Chase.
Stewart is streaky, and he's winless this season. But if he gets hot, he could get really hot and reel off some wins that could make him a contender.
Newman, on the other hand, has more to prove. He's back in the Chase for a fourth time, but he's never finished higher than sixth in the standings. He's been steady this year, and aside from wins, his numbers are on par with Harvick.
But with only three wins in six years, he needs to start running closer to the front on a consistent basis to break free from the middle of the Chase pack.
Hamlin is the enigma of the Chase.
He got in with the second wild card, and needed to really work hard over the last three weeks to make sure he didn't miss the Chase. He won eight races last season, but has only one this year.
His Joe Gibbs Racing team has been beset this season by engine woes, and various struggles forced the No. 11 team to be conservative in pursuing a Chase berth. Now that the slate has been wiped clean, he's got a fresh start and could salvage this year with a strong Chase.
Wrapping up the field is Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he's the first to admit that he's got to work hard to have any shot at winning the title.
He made it into the Chase after a two-year absence, but his berth is credited more to his early season work than how he's run over the last three months. Still winless since 2008, he's not threatened to break that streak for some time. He's got just one top-10 in the last 12 races, and enters the Chase with finishes of 15th, 14th, 16th, 19th and 16th over the last five races.
If crew chief Steve Letarte can get him back to where he was at the start of the season, Earnhardt could have a chance. He believes his Hendrick team can do it.
``I feel like I'm a good enough driver to be in the Chase, my team is good enough to be there,'' he said. ``Hopefully we're going to work real hard, hopefully we do a good job.''

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