By having anterior cruciate ligament surgery in the spring. That may sound odd, but it was Hamlin’s decision to go ahead and bite the bullet and have surgery on his torn ACL in the spring — and his gritty recovery from that in the races throughout the spring and summer months — that set his team up for a Chase run. If Hamlin had continued to put off the operation, as originally planned, he could have reached a point where his pain level interfered more with his racing and where surgery came closer to the time of the Chase, sidelining his effort. Instead, he has surgery and the majority of his rehab out of the way, and was in better shape to make his run for a berth — and to win four more races post-surgery to give him a piece of the leading points tally.
Clint Bowyer — Handling pressure
Bowyer spent the entire season in or near contention for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. As it neared, he talked about how if he could just get into the field, he felt confident of his chances in the title run. It was a nerve-racking run to the Chase, though, with more veteran drivers faltering under the pressure and giving up ground in the weeks leading up to the Richmond event. Bowyer, though, held firm. He and crew chief Shane Wilson stayed focused and stepped up their game, gaining the consistency needed to break into the field. He earned a pair of top-10 finishes in the two races leading up to Richmond to hold him 12th in the standings and needing only to finish 28th or better. At Richmond, he once more held up under the pressure and locked into the race.
Jeff Burton — Teamwork
One could argue that Burton’s defining move to surge into the Chase actually came before this season even started. When Burton played a role in a series of competition shifts at Richard Childress Racing, including the movement of his crew chief, Scott Miller, to lead the competition wing, and Todd Berrier into the role as his crew chief, the cast was set. It was that move that sparked resurgence at RCR — and that pair of moves that has Burton enjoying one of his strongest seasons to date. Burton may not have won a race, but he’s been a factor all year — all because of a move made to benefit not only his effort, but also that of the entire organization.
Matt Kenseth — Adaptability
Like Johnson, Kenseth’s stellar start to the season powered his move into the Chase field, a spot he’s held all year. Kenseth opened the year with a run of five consecutive top-10 finishes, six in the first seven races, despite a crew chief change after Daytona. He would go on to endure another crew chief run later in the year, giving the man who spent the first eight years of his full-time Cup career with Robbie Reiser his third crew chief in one season. Kenseth has adapted and adjusted to the changes, maintaining his pace and a berth in the Chase. Lately, he’s even shown new signs of strength with longtime Roush leader Jimmy Fennig.
Carl Edwards — Richmond
Richmond in May certainly seems like a long time ago, and that is probably especially true for Edwards. After all, he entered that race 13th in the standings and struggling and has since taken a more secure place among the top-10 drivers. However, Richmond featured a breakthrough for the driver. It was there that Edwards led his first pair of laps for the season. Stunning, it’s true, that he had yet to lead — or that he only led six laps in the season’s opening 24 races — but that run showed Edwards could stay among the leaders and his potential to return to the championship-determining field.
Tony Stewart — Summer stretch rally
Stewart has long been known for his performances at the tracks that are showcased in the hotter months of the season, and this year was no different. He turned a somewhat lackluster season into a Chase-worthy one with his run from Pocono Raceway in June through Michigan in August. In that stretch, he raced to 10 top-10 finishes in 11 races, including five top-five runs. Two of those were runner-up finishes — at New Hampshire and Pocono — as he steadily climbed past competitors and secured a spot in the Chase field.
Jeff Gordon — June
It was in June, at Michigan International Speedway, that Gordon sparked his surge. He was idling along at seventh in the standings after a series of up-and-down runs. At Michigan, though, he returned to form and ran among the leaders before finishing fourth. That began a five-race stretch of top-five finishes, a run that boosted Gordon to second in the standings and saw him once more leading laps and racing for the win. He’d led more laps in earlier races, but had not put together this type of run. He finished fifth at Infineon Raceway, fourth at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, third at Daytona International Speedway and third at Chicagoland Speedway to move closer to Harvick and take over the second position in the points that he would hold for seven races.
Greg Biffle — Perseverance
Biffle started the season with a third-place run in the Daytona 500 and, with an opening run of six consecutive top-10 finishes, seemed to have his year in hand. However, Roush Fenway Racing as a whole began to struggle with the car and its changes and fell off the front-runners’ pace as the months passed. Biffle and crew chief Greg Erwin, though, gritted through the stretch and still managed to maintain a hold on a Chase berth. Biffle and his crew worked feverishly on their cars throughout the races, finally netting a win at Pocono Raceway in the season’s 21st race. They returned to top form — and easily held onto a Chase berth — with their perseverance through the struggles and determination to help Roush turn the tide and return to the top tier in NASCAR.
Kurt Busch — Texas
The race at Texas Motor Speedway signaled that Busch would be a player this season. He’d been in and out of the group that would lock into a spot in the Chase up to that point — and had already won at Atlanta — but at Texas in April, he made his competitive fire clear. Busch only led a couple of laps, but his fourth-place finish in that race vaulted him to ninth in the standings overall — and put him a group he would not leave again this season. Busch earned finishes of eighth or better in five of the next seven races to further secure his position.
Kyle Busch — Managing races
This season, the 25-year-old seems to have more fully embraced the concept that one needs to be running at the finish of races. Certainly, he’s had his share of run-ins, but Busch has tapered his aggressive style to match a Chase run, finding a way to balance getting to the front and staying in the race. He’s finished on the lead lap in all but three events this season — but has only one DNF as he and his Dave Rogers-led crew have gotten him back on track — and saved as many points as possible, This lack of DNFs, if it continues, could help Busch to his best Chase run to date.
Kevin Harvick — Consistency
Nothing has marked Harvick’s season more than his consistent ability to run at the front of the pack. He’s tallied a series-leading 16 top-10 finishes and three wins, spread relatively evenly over the opening months of the season, to take the lead in the points for 19 weeks. Harvick and his team have erased errors over the course of the year and shown a togetherness, a competitiveness and a united relationship that made them the team to watch entering the Chase. If his consistency continues, he’ll be one to watch in the Chase.
Jimmie Johnson — Early strike
By winning early and building an insurmountable points lead on those hoping to break into the Chase. Johnson left no question he would be part of the Chase this season when he won three races in the opening five events. That not only helped Johnson and his team carry over the momentum from their fourth consecutive Cup title in 2009, but also set them up to try new things and to be undeterred by a summer stretch that included an unusual series of setbacks. For Johnson, earning only one top-10 finish in a seven-race stretch — and showing a sudden propensity for spinning out in events — wasn’t an issue when it came to making the Chase. After all, he'd won an additional pair of races that put him atop the standings when the field was reset.