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Reigning Cup champ Jimmie Johnson didn't win the first race of the Chase, but his solid finish sent a powerful message nonetheless

The words came over the radio in a calm, confident tone at 11:10 a.m. on Monday at Chicagoland Speedway, words that Jimmie Johnson has heard so many times in the relatively quiet moments before the start of the 10-race Chase for the Championship. "This is what we've been waiting for," Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, told the five-time defending NASCAR champion before the green flag dropped on the rain-delayed Sprint Cup race. "Solid top 10s from here on out will get us what we want."

The key to winning the Cup isn't taking checkered flags, and it isn't reeling off top five finishes. Rather, history has shown—check that, Jimmie Johnson has shown—that consistently finishing in the top 10 week after week trumps all. In the Chase era, which began in 2004, the average finish of the eventual Cup winner in the first race of the playoff has been 11.3. In his five straight championship seasons, Johnson's average finish in the Chase opener is 15.2 (including a 39th-place finish at New Hampshire in '06). "The Chase is about somehow making your bad days into top 10s, and then, when you have a chance, you have to go hard for the win," says Kevin Harvick, who finished second and now sits atop the point standings. "It's going to be a very, very competitive next nine weeks."

For most of Monday's race, drivers were more conservative than usual, like prizefighters cautiously taking each other's measure at the opening bell, giving their rival Chasers plenty of space on the 1.5-mile oval. Because of the lack of caution flags, the end of the race became a fuel-mileage game. Several playoff drivers (including Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon) ran out of gas—and perhaps ran themselves out of the championship. Tony Stewart took the checkered flag, one of eight Chase drivers among the 10 top finishers, including Johnson, who coasted across the finish line on an empty fuel tank in—what else?—10th. The Chaser now in the biggest points hole is Denny Hamlin, who finished 31st (see sidebar).

It's always difficult in NASCAR to divine future performance based on one event, but Stewart (who led 35 of the 267 laps) and Johnson (who led 39) clearly were the class of the field for the majority of the race, which sent a powerful message through the Cup garage. Five of the 10 tracks in the Chase take place at 1.5-mile venues like Chicagoland. This means that Stewart and Johnson, who have lightning-quick setups in their Chevys, should be highly competitive at the other four intermediate-length playoff tracks.

When Johnson climbed out of his cockpit after the race, he cracked the slimmest of smiles. He had achieved precisely what his crew chief had demanded—a "solid top 10"—and, judging by that look on his face, it sure seemed like he felt better days were soon to come.

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Two days before the season-opening Daytona 500 last February, Denny Hamlin was brimming with confidence about his prospects in 2011. "I feel like this is our year," he said. Uh, not quite. A year after he won a series-high eight races and finished second in the final standings behind Jimmie Johnson, Hamlin has won just once, and made the Chase only as the second wild card. At Chicagoland he finished a desultory 31st, undone by the same issue that has ruined his season: He and crew chief Mike Ford were unable to get their number 11 Toyota to handle smoothly through the corners. Just one race into the Chase, Hamlin and Ford have essentially been eliminated from Cup contention—and have earned the unofficial distinction of being the season's most disappointing team.



SHINING THROUGH On a quest for a sixth straight title, Johnson overcame a one-day weather delay and an empty fuel tank to secure a 10th-place finish at Chicagoland.