Jimmie Johnson Favored to Win Sixth Title Heading Into NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup

Jimmie Johnson Favored to Win Sixth Title Heading Into NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint CupThe NASCAR Sprint Cup season's first 26 official races were simply a warm-up to what begins Sunday: the 10-event Chase for the Championship to crown the 2012 points champion.

The top 12 drivers in the points standings are eligible to compete for the Chase, and Jeff Gordon made a dramatic entrance into the top 12 last week in the regular-season finale.

The 41-year-old Gordon finished second to Clint Bowyer at Richmond, which was just enough to take the final berth in the Chase away from Kyle Busch. Gordon, who was a lap down at one point at Richmond, is a four-time points champion but hasn't won that title since 2001. He is 9-1 at Bovada to add a fifth title.

Denny Hamlin enters the Chase as the points leader and is 9-2 to win his first points title. Hamlin also entered the 2010 Chase as the top seed but would become the first driver in the Chase era to lose the points lead in the season's final race –- Jimmie Johnson won a record fifth consecutive points title that year.

Hamlin leads all NASCAR drivers this season with four victories, the last on Sept. 2 in Atlanta. Just seven drivers in NASCAR history have won more career Cup races than Hamlin's 21 and not won a points championship. Hamlin opened at +800 to win the Chase-opening Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday, but he has yet to win at Chicago in six tries.

Johnson is in a three-way tie for second in the points standings, three behind Hamlin, but JJ is the 9-4 Bovada favorite to win title No. 6. The only drivers with more than Johnson's current five titles are Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, both with seven. Johnson has three victories this season but has not won since the Brickyard in late July. He is the opening +700 favorite for the Geico 400. Johnson is winless in 10 races at Chicago but does have five top-5 finishes and leads all active drivers in ratings there.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is No. 7 in the points entering the Chase and is the 8-1 third-favorite to win his first points title. Junior ended a long winless streak earlier this year at Michigan but has not won since. Earnhardt is tied with Johnson for the most top-10 finishes this year with 17. Junior opened at +1200 to win this week and won the Chicago race in 2005.

There are three drivers at 10-1 to win the Chase: Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart. Keselowski enters the playoffs as the fourth seed and has three victories on the year. He has been terrific of late, with top-10 finishes in nine of his past 10 races, and he's +1200 to win Sunday in Chicago.

Kahne earned one of the two wild card spots in the Chase and is the No. 11 seed. He has two wins and six top-10 finishes this year on tracks that are in the Chase. Kahne is +1200 to win at Chicago, where he has an average finish of 21st in eight races and just one top 5.

Stewart dominated last year's Chase and tied points leader Carl Edwards in the year's final race at Homestead to win his third points title and first since 2005. Stewart won the tiebreaker because he had five victories — all in the Chase –  in 2011 compared to Edwards’ one. It was the first tie in Chase history.

"Smoke" was the first owner/driver to win the championship since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. Stewart is +800 to win at Chicago, where he is the defending champion and leads all active drivers with three wins, eight top-5 finishes, 431 laps led and an average finish of 8.7.

The longest shots to win the Chase at 18-1 are Bowyer (No. 6 seed), Kevin Harvick (No. 9) and Martin Truex Jr. (No. 10) Harvick and Truex Jr. are the only drivers in the Chase not to have a victory in 2012. Truex hasn't won a Sprint Cup race in five years.