Chicagoland Speedway first began hosting NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing in 2001. (Getty Images)
JOLIET, Ill. -- The time for talk is over, and the start of the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup Series championship will finally begin.
After nearly a week of hype for the countdown to NASCAR's playoff season, the drivers who will battle it out for this year's title are ready to do their talking on the racetrack in Sunday's Geico 400.
“It's exciting to be sure, but I'm just ready to get this thing started and let the best man win,” said Clint Bowyer, one of two Michael Waltrip Racing drivers in this year's championship field.
After Tony Stewart's amazing run last year to win five races in the Chase and edge Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker, it's hard to imagine how this year's playoff run could be much better.
Even Stewart, who entered the 2011 Chase feeling as if he had no chance at competing for a third title, has no idea how this season's title race will play out.
“It is such a guess,” said Stewart. “There isn't really a set way of doing anything anymore. I think probably the one thing that everybody is probably more focused on after last year is the fact that every single point is going to be a big deal.
“Whether it's leading a lap to get a point, you know if you might stay out on a caution just to lead a lap and if you are not running well you might … if you get in a crash, you can get that thing fixed and you are going to fight for every spot you can get just to get that one extra point.”
Stewart felt he had no momentum going into last year's Chase yet went on to take the crown. However, Jeff Gordon has the opposite feeling as he enters the playoffs riding high off his stirring drive in Richmond last week to secure the final spot in the championship field.
"It was huge,” Gordon said of the win, “and we're still feeling the impacts of that performance. The whole team is extremely fired up and excited about the way things have been going, and to be able to pull that off gives us a huge boost. We're ready to go get after it here in Chicago this weekend. We feel like we've got a good game plan and a great race car. And the 'stache is back, so I think we're in great shape."
If there's one thing all drivers agree on, it is the wide-open nature of this season's Chase.
"There's no dominant figure in that stands out, and that really boosts our confidence that it's there for the taking," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. "And if we can put it together and put together consistent weeks, week in and week out, win a couple races, we can be the champion. No question about it."
Chase Race #: 1 of 10
Season Race #: 27 of 36 (09-16-12)
Track Size: 1.5 miles
Banking/Turns: 18 degrees
Banking/Tri-Oval: 11 degrees
Banking/Backstretch: 5 degrees
Frontstretch Length: 2,400 feet
Backstretch Length: 1,700 feet
Race Length: 267 laps / 400 miles
2011 pole winner: Matt Kenseth, Ford (183.243 mph, 29.469 sec., 09-17-11)
2011 race winner: Tony Stewart, Chevrolet (143.306 mph, 2:47:41, 09-19-11)
Track qualifying record: Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet (188.147 mph, 28.701 sec., 07-08-05)
Track race record: David Reutimann, Toyota (145.138 mph, 2:45:34, 07-10-10)
Geico 400 Race Facts
There have been 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Chicagoland Speedway.
11 drivers have competed in all 10 races.
Todd Bodine won the first pole.
There has been a different pole winner after every qualifying session (qualifying was canceled in 2008), 10 total.
Kevin Harvick won the first two races.
Eight drivers have won, led by Tony Stewart with three.
Kyle Busch won the 2008 race from the pole, the first time a driver won from the pole. It was also the only time a driver had won from a top-five starting position.
Kevin Harvick won the 2002 race from the 32nd starting position, the deepest in the field that a race winner ever started at Chicago.
Only one starting position has multiple wins: 14th. Mark Martin won from there in 2009 as did Ryan Newman in 2003.
Tony Stewart (8.7), Jeff Gordon (10.0) and Jimmie Johnson (10.0) are active drivers who average a top-10 finish at Chicago.
Six of the last seven races have ended with a margin of victory under one second. The closest margin of victory at Chicago was 0.159 seconds (7-12-08).
Joe Gibbs leads all car owners in wins at Chicago with three, followed by Richard Childress and Rick Hendrick with two each.
Chevrolet leads the series with the most wins by a manufacturer at Chicago with eight.
Youngest NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chicagoland Speedway winner: Kyle Busch (07/12/2008 – 23 years, 2 months, 10 days).
Oldest Chicagoland winner: Mark Martin (07/11/2009 – 50 years, 6 months, 2 days).
Who's Hot at Chicagoland Speedway
Tony Stewart – Has two wins in his last five Chicagoland starts, including his victory in last year's Geico 400 that helped him on his impressive run to the Sprint Cup Series championship.
Jeff Gordon – If momentum means anything, Gordon will be in great shape on Sunday. Comes into the Chase opener after a stellar run at Richmond to take the final wild card spot and has had success at Chicagoland.
Clint Bowyer – Also riding high on momentum after winning at Richmond last Saturday night. Gaining confidence with each passing week and could surprise during the Chase for Michael Waltrip Racing.
Paul Menard – Missed the Chase and now working without regular crew chief Slugger Labbe, who is serving a six-race suspension. Menard has a 26.6 career average finish at Chicagoland.
Jamie McMurray – Suddenly thrust into some unknown sponsorship challenges for 2013 and must overcome a 22.9 career mark at Chicagoland.
Jeff Burton – The veteran hasn't fared well at Chicagoland in recent years with an average finish just a shade below 20th. The Richard Childress Racing No. 31 team is hoping to get a jump start on 2013.
Construction of the Chicagoland Speedway began in August 1999.
The first NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland was July 14, 2001.
The first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland was held on July 15, 2001.
This weekend marks the second year that Chicagoland has been included in the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup – Sept. 18, 2011.
There have been 13 NASCAR Sprint Cup races in Illinois.
Seventy-four drivers all-time in NASCAR's three national series have their home state recorded as Illinois.
There have been five race winners from Illinois in NASCAR's three national series.