09/10/08 — Opinion - One playoff begins Sunday

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Opinion - One playoff begins Sunday

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on September 10, 2008 1:02 PM

College football desperately needs a playoff system and college basketball's version captivates our nation for nearly an entire month.

The NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL's respective postseasons seem to arrive way too late and the NFL season culminates with perhaps the most annually anticipated sporting event known to man.

NASCAR's own form of playoffs will begin on Sunday as the fifth annual Chase for the Cup gets under way at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Here's five things to watch in the Chase:

* Jimmie Johnson -- Winner of the last two Cups as well as the last two races, no driver enters the Chase hotter than Johnson. A season ago, Johnson won four of the final five races along while earning eight top-10 finishes in the Chase.

Johnson is also one of just two drivers to qualify for all five Chases. With previous victories at eight of the 10 tracks in the Chase, Johnson has the experience and confidence needed to three-peat.

* Tempers -- Fortunately the 2008 Chase won't lack dramatic appeal with Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart in the hunt. Busch made his displeasure with Carl Edwards' late bump-and-run maneuver on Aug. 23 at Bristol well known in a post-race incident. That incident got both Busch and Edwards put on probation.

On the other hand, Busch downplayed being spun out by Dale Earnhardt Jr. last week at Richmond. Busch's ability to harness his emotions could go a long way toward his hopes of capturing his first championship.

Stewart has yet to reach victory lane this season and his frustration is becoming increasingly visible. His in-car audio following Sunday's race at Richmond displayed his irritation with his pit crew's performance on a late stop that Stewart felt led to his second-place finish as opposed to a win.

History has shown that when he's motivated and angry, Stewart can be awfully difficult to beat.

* Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- Junior's season has slowly been going downhill since his win on fuel mileage at Michigan in June. His fourth-place finish at Richmond was his first top-five and second top-10 since that Michigan victory. In just his second Chase, Earnhardt Jr. could go a long way toward validating his position at Hendrick Motorsports with a solid finish or even a championship.

* Kevin Harvick -- Perhaps the sleeper in this year's Chase, Harvick enters the final 10 races with six consecutive top-10 finishes -- more than any other driver. With a victory and eight top-10 finishes to his credit at New Hampshire, a strong start could help Harvick dig out of the hole starting the Chase in 11th place has put him in.

* Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards -- Along with Johnson, Busch and Edwards have combined to win the last nine races. The last time a driver not named Johnson, Busch or Edwards won a race was the last time NASCAR visited New Hampshire in June.

Failing to win a championship would steal a lot of thunder from the dominating seasons and combined 14 wins Busch and Edwards have put together.