The 2016 edition of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s 10- race, season-ending playoff, is set to begin Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. Here are 10 things you need to know about the upcoming heavyweight title fight.
Getty ImagesMatt Sullivan
This will be the third Chase in the current format, which is simple and easy to understand. The Chase begins with 16 drivers; four are eliminated after every third race. The final round will be four drivers in a one-race, winner-take-all shootout at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20. Whichever driver finishes ahead of the other three will be the champion.
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Seeds mean nothing
Where the 16 drivers are seeded to start the Chase doesn’t matter. In 2014, the No. 16 seed, Ryan Newman, wound up finishing second in the championship, while none of the top four seeds made it to the final round. Last year, No. 12 seed Jeff Gordon made it to Homestead, while three of the four top seeds didn’t.
Getty ImagesRobert Laberge
There are four first-timers
For the first time since Denny Hamlin in 2006, there is a rookie in this year’s Chase. In fact, there are two of them -- Chase Elliott (left) and Chris Buescher (right). In addition, Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson are making their first Chase appearances.
Getty ImagesJerry Markland
Jimmie Johnson is a long shot
Hard to believe, right? But the six-time champion hasn’t led any laps in 11 of the last 16 races and has led as many as 20 laps in a single race just five times this year. He could be an early exit again this time around.
Getty ImagesSean Gardner
This is Tony Stewart's last chance
Always unpredictable, Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Premier Series champion, is in his final full season of racing. Can he dig deep and summon the kind of magic that led him to win five of the 10 Chase races and his most recent title in 2011?
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Penalties will factor into it
Between cars flunking NASCAR’s Laser Inspection Station, lug nuts coming loose and pit-road penalties, a lot of teams have been penalized this year. Just in the last two races, Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. saw their cars flunk post-race LIS. You can bet penalties will bite someone in the Chase, too.
NASCAR via Getty ImagesJonathan Ferrey
There will be controversies
Remember last year’s Talladega Chase race, which ended with two restarts, one of which was deemed to not be a restart at all, and one of which wound up with Kevin Harvick wrecking half the field? You can bet something crazy will happen this time, too.
Pit road will be critical
The fastest car doesn’t always win. Mistakes on pit road can cost trams victories. Just ask Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. Eight times this year, Truex or Harvick led the most laps in a race but didn’t win. And most of the races they dominated but didn’t win were lost on pit road. The champion will need to have flawless pit stops.
Getty ImagesRey Del Rio
There will be stars knocked out early
Jimmie Johnson (left) was the top seed in the Chase last year, but he got eliminate in the first round by a failed rear axle seal at Dover, a track where he has won a record 10 races. Matt Kenseth (right) got knocked out early last year, too. We don’t know who will be knocked out early this year, but there’s a good chance a top driver gets bounced in the first round.
Getty ImagesJerry Markland
Boys will have at it
The Chase format brings out the best in drivers and it brings out the worst, too. In recent years, fights and harsh words have become the norm during championship time. At Phoenix in 2012, the crews of Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer brawled in the garage, and two years later, Gordon punched Brad Keselowski in the face after the Texas race. And don’t even get us started on Joey Logano vs. Matt Kenseth. The Chase turns sane men into crazies, and it’s just about time to heat up again.