RICHMOND, Va. -- The field has five series champions, the reigning Daytona 500 winner, three of NASCAR's rising stars, two newcomers and a 14-year veteran searching for his first title.
Together, they've combined to win 23 of the first 26 races. Alone, they'll race against one another for NASCAR's biggest prize.
The Chase for the Nextel Cup championship begins Sunday in New Hampshire, and the fourth installment of this 10-race title hunt promises to be the best one yet.
``It's a stout field,'' defending champion Jimmie Johnson said. ``I think it's going to be the most competitive Chase we've seen. You've got a lot of wild cards, a lot of action.''
It starts with Johnson, who is trying to become the first driver to win consecutive titles since Jeff Gordon in 1997 and 1998. His win Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway was his second straight and series-best sixth of the season, and it earned him the top seed in the Chase.
NASCAR tweaked the format this year, expanding the field from 10 to 12 drivers and seeding them based on bonus points earned in the 26-week regular season. After one of his typical summer swoons, Johnson rallied the last two weeks to lock down the top spot and take a 20-point advantage over Gordon into the Chase.
``We're happy to be hitting our stride at this point in the season,'' he said. ``As everybody knows, it was a little bit of a tough summer for us. But everything is working right now. We're strong on all fronts and I'm happy that we're able to put it together and win back-to-back weeks like this.''
He'll face his toughest competition within his own Hendrick Motorsports camp, where teammate Gordon has been flawless this season. He won four races, finished in the top 10 in all but five events and built a lead of more than 300 points in the standings.
It's all gone now, but Gordon isn't worried. The four-time series champion is a veteran of close title chases -- and has even lost one to a teammate before, Terry Labonte in 1996.
``Jimmie has been putting the pressure on me for the last four or five years,'' Gordon said. ``Right now the momentum is on his side. We know that team is going to step it up when we get in the Chase, they always do.
``But we are excited about what we are going to be able to do because we step it up in the Chase as well. There are 10 other guys out there that are going to come in fired up and ready to do the same thing.''
Tony Stewart, the two-time series champion, is back in the Chase after failing to make it last year in a stunning collapse. He'll start third, 30 points behind Johnson, as three former champions are positioned for what could be an epic battle.
``You respect the guys that have made it ... and have won it before,'' Stewart said. ``They know how to win championships. That in itself makes it fun to know that you're racing guys that have been in that situation.''
Carl Edwards will start fourth after a one-year absence. He finished third after making the Chase as a rookie in 2005, but missed it last season. He's followed by Kurt Busch, who won the inaugural Chase in 2004. He missed it last season, his first driving for Roger Penske, but got hot in late July and stormed into contention behind new crew chief Pat Tryson.
``We're poised to be a threat in this deal,'' he said. ``We have fast race cars, we have consistency and we've got patience. And the best thing we've got is experience.''
Denny Hamlin, who finished third as a rookie last season, is out to prove last season wasn't a fluke. He's stepped up of late, not backing down from teammate Stewart during a July clash and talking a little trash the last few weeks.
Hamlin is a rising star in NASCAR, and wants a Nextel Cup title to prove it.
Martin Truex Jr. starts seventh in his inaugural Chase appearance, but is ready to step into a starring role. He's the new leader at Dale Earnhardt Inc., which is losing star Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the end of the season.
With Junior out of the Chase, Truex is eager to carry the banner.
``This is my time to step up and be the leader at DEI,'' he said. ``I'm ready. I'm excited about the opportunity and ready to make the most of the Chase.''
Matt Kenseth, the last driver to win a championship under the pre-Chase system, starts eighth and is followed by Kyle Busch, a dark horse in the field. He's got to be considered a contender because of his stout Hendrick equipment, but an impending move to Joe Gibbs Racing may handicap him.
But Busch is in it to win it, and hopes to use lessons learned from a rough start to last year's Chase to start strong this time around.
``You've experienced it and you've been there before and it's just frustrating because you start off so bad and you just keep going worse,'' he said. ``This year you can just do what you know how to do, do what we've done the past 10 races ... that we've been running strong.''
Jeff Burton is a title contender for the second straight year, and the 14-year veteran is looking for his first Cup title. He was so steady at the start last year, but faltered midway through and never recovered.
His teammates, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, round out the top 12. Harvick hasn't won a points race since the season-opening Daytona 500 and Bowyer is still searching for his first Nextel Cup victory.
The Richard Childress Racing crew slumped into the Chase, as Harvick and Bowyer were both in danger of losing their spot to Earnhardt in the final race.
But now that they are in, they plan to race for the title.
``Everybody's back on the same turf now, so it will be fun,'' Harvick said.