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NASCAR: As Chase action opens in Joliet, Toyota’s chances look good

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Updated: October 17, 2012 6:41AM

Is NASCAR nation ready for a Sprint Cup champion affiliated with a foreign automaker?

‘‘I think they need to be,’’ Martin Truex Jr. said, ‘‘because there is a pretty good chance of it happening this year.’’

Truex is one of three Toyota drivers in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, which opens with the GEICO 400 on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet. Truex’s teammate at Michael Waltrip Racing, Clint Bowyer, and points leader Denny Hamlin all drive Toyotas.

The trio gives the Japanese automaker its strongest chance of having a championship driver for the first time since Toyota joined the Cup series in 2007 in a partnership with MWR. The last time Toyota had three cars in the Chase was 2008, when all three drivers were Joe Gibbs Racing teammates: Hamlin, Stewart and Kyle Busch. JGR dropped Chevrolet in favor of Toyota in 2008.

‘‘It means a lot, and Toyota has been so instrumental in the building of our team,’’ Truex said. ‘‘For us, we’re really proud to put two cars in there for them.’’

For Truex, the significance of this Chase isn’t just about the three Toyota cars, but more so the impact it might have on MWR. For an organization that almost went bankrupt in 2007 despite having big-name sponsors, Truex and Bowyer represent how a mid-level to small team can compete with the powerhouse teams such as Hendrick Motorsports and JGR.

To wit, Hendrick has all four of its drivers in the Chase: five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champ Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Kahne and Gordon grabbed the last two wild-card spots to fill up the 12-driver field.

And Roush-Fenway Racing rounds out the big teams with two drivers in the Chase, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle.

Biffle, the regular-season points leader before the standings were reset after last week’s Richmond race, is a 10-1 favorite to win the championship based on Las Vegas odds. But he’s not all that impressed with the decent odds.

‘‘Sounds like an easy way to make some money,’’ Biffle said after Friday’s first practice session. ‘‘I never really look at that stuff much. It doesn’t seem like that great of odds.’’

And Johnson is apparently a 9-5 favorite to get his sixth Cup championship. Like Biffle, he’s not all that wrapped up in odds.

‘‘I still don’t know what that means,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘I see it’s at the top of the list, and I was asking Hamlin and Biffle because they both understand all that stuff, and neither one of them could give me a clear answer as to what it really meant.’’

Defending champion Tony Stewart cannot be discounted. Third in the points standings, Stewart started his championship run at Chicagoland Speedway last year with his first victory of the season. That was all Stewart needed, as he rattled off four more wins en route to his third championship.

Stewart has had a lot of success in Joliet with three victories, eight top-five finishes and nine finishes in the top 10.

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