The 2013 championship Chase in the Sprint Cup Series starts this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, but along with it comes a cloud of controversy following the end of last Saturday's race at Richmond.
Two days after Richmond, Martin Truex Jr. was bounced out of the Chase and Ryan Newman placed in it after NASCAR handed down severe penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing for manipulating the outcome of the race. As part of the team's penalties, Truex was docked 50 points, which dropped him to 17th in the point standings. Truex had clinched the last wild card prior to the penalties. Newman, who won at Indianapolis in July, replaced him in that position.
NASCAR is now investigating another possible manipulation at Richmond. The sanctioning body is reviewing the radio communication between Joey Logano's No. 22 Penske Racing team and David Gilliland's No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team to determine if a deal was made to have Gilliland let Logano pass him after the final restart with three laps to go. Logano finished 22nd, and Gilliland was 23rd. Logano secured the final top-10 points spot in the Chase, beating Jeff Gordon by only one point.
Despite the controversy, the 10-race battle for the Sprint Cup championship is on. Matt Kenseth, who starts the Chase in the top seed, is seeking his first title in 10 years. Jimmie Johnson is attempting to claim his sixth championship in the series, but Johnson has lost a lot of momentum within the past month.
One thing is for sure. There will be a new champion this season. Brad Keselowski failed to qualify for the Chase after winning his first series title last year.
Here's a look at the 12-driver field based on their seed and points total adjusted to start the Chase:
1. Matt Kenseth (2,015 points)
Kenseth has had a terrific first season driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. This will be the ninth appearance in the Chase for the 41-year- old driver and 2003 Cup champion. He has the most wins this season with five -- Las Vegas, Kansas, Darlington, Kentucky and Bristol.
"I'm proud of my team for putting us here," Kenseth said. "I'm ready for the Chase to start, excited about the stuff we got going for Chicago."
This will be the third consecutive season that Chicagoland kicks off the Chase. Tony Stewart won there and then went on to capture the championship in 2011. Keselowski accomplished the same feat last year. Can Kenseth be the next one to win both the race at Chicagoland and the series title?
"I'm as confident going into Chicago this weekend as anywhere else," Kenseth said. "Each point in every race is equally important, and you don't want to have any bad races throughout the Chase. Certainly, you don't want to have a bad first one, but you don't want to have any bad ones. You want to start strong and finish strong."
Kenseth's best points finish in the Chase is second, which occurred in 2006. This is the first time he clinched the top seed in the playoffs.
2. Jimmie Johnson (2,012)
One month ago, it looked as though Johnson would be the clear favorite to win the Chase. The Hendrick Motorsports driver held a 75-point lead following the Aug. 11 race at Watkins Glen. But Johnson has struggled in the four races since then, finishing 28th or worse. He ended the regular season one point behind Carl Edwards, who won at Richmond.
Johnson is not overly concerned about his recent finishes. He had lost momentum before the start of the Chase in the past but bounced back nicely to win the championship.