The Frontstretch: Fact or Fiction: Which Chasers Have A REAL Shot At Winning The Title? by Mike Lovecchio -- Monday September 13, 2010

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Which of the twelve Chase drivers have a real chance at the championship and which are just along for the ride?

Does your favorite driver have a shot to win the championship? In this week’s edition of Fact or Fiction, we analyze which drivers will really compete for the hardware in Miami and why.

Denny Hamlin

OK, OK. I know he’s leading the series in wins. I know I said last week that he only had a shot at the title if a win at Richmond could change the mood within the No. 11 team. But the more you look at Hamlin’s season, the more you see that right now he’s not quite at championship level. Consistency wins titles in the Chase era, and Hamlin’s hit or miss season won’t cut it. Despite his six wins – two of which came at Chase tracks – he also has five finishes of 30th or worse, and a total of eight more landing well outside the top 20. Reliability in the engine department remains a question for the Joe Gibbs Racing program, who’s had a history of faltering motors in the Chase and experienced mechanical woes with this team twice in the last month – at Bristol and Atlanta. If the No. 11 bunch can magically fix their consistency woes, they have a shot, but I just don’t see the parts and pieces holding out.

Jimmie Johnson (-10)

Is there even any question? Johnson could have gone winless in the regular season and he still would be a favorite for the title come Chase time. The final ten races are built for the No. 48 team, and Johnson has proven over and over again that he can get the job done. He struggled with just one top 10 from Daytona’s summer date through Bristol just three weeks ago, but like clockwork he has reeled off back-to-back third-place efforts, and…oh yeah, he won at New Hampshire earlier this season. Keep in mind, too, this team had led laps in ten of the last eleven races, often pursuing a “win or bust” philosophy that caused some critics to mistakenly think the No. 48 was much further off than it really was.

Kevin Harvick (-30)

Harvick wasn’t nearly as strong at the end of the year as he was at the beginning of the year, but when it comes to the Chase tracks that have already had a race on the schedule, he experienced the type of success that warrants being a major championship threat. With a win at Talladega, top 5s at Fontana and Loudon, and top 10s at Texas and Dover, Harvick should be primed to avenge a disappointing 2009 with a top-5 effort this season. But the title itself is just too much of a reach; keep in mind no driver with the regular season point lead after 26 races has gone on to win the Chase since Tony Stewart accomplished the feat in 2005.

Kyle Busch (-30)

Kyle Busch has gone into the Chase as the favorite before, and it didn’t really work out all that well (2008, anyone?). This year, he goes in as the No. 4 seed with three fewer wins than teammate Hamlin. But with three consecutive top 5s going into the Chase and the most points at the eight Chase tracks in the regular season, Busch makes for a nice sleeper pick. Sweeping the races at Bristol just a couple of weeks ago, the momentum is there in a way that he’s never had it before, and top-5 runs in the face of adversity at Charlotte and Atlanta have proved he has what it takes to make a comeback from a damaged car, a speeding penalty, or worse – problems which would have derailed him in years past. He’s learned a lot from his failed Chases, and this may finally be the year he puts it all together.

Kurt Busch (-40)

Strong for much of the year, Kurt Busch has struggled in the second half of 2010. Since Daytona in July, Busch has yet to record a top 5 on an oval and while he does have three top 10s in those eight races, that’s far from championship caliber – especially when guys like Johnson and the younger Busch can easily come out of the gate with wins. What’s really hurting this group is their tendency to act as a single-car program within a multi-car team; both Sam Hornish, Jr. and Brad Keselowski have failed to record a top 10 in Cup this season, weighing down the organization as a whole and making it difficult for the Blue Deuce crew to get additional help when they need it. Penske and Busch in particular have made great strides this season, but they may still be a year away.

Tony Stewart (-50)

While Tony Stewart struggled at many of the Chase tracks, most were on the early part of the schedule when the No. 14 really ran poorly. Since the July Daytona race, Stewart has just two finishes outside of the top 10 and has shown in the past this is the part of the schedule where he excels. In teammate Ryan Newman, who just missed the Chase in 13th, Stewart also has an R&D car of sorts in the playoffs that’s still running well enough to give his boss a much-needed boost in practice. Smoke might not be on many people’s championship lists, but it would not shock me if he was near the top of the standings going into the final few races.

Greg Biffle (-50)

The Cinderella story in this Chase just two years ago, the No. 16 team is hoping for a repeat of their 2-for-2 Victory Lane assault that made them a factor in that championship race until the bitter end. But while the Roush organization as a whole has improved as the season has progressed, Biffle didn’t record a top 5 on any of the eight Chase tracks already on the schedule, and it’s clear he’s not even the best car in the Roush camp going into the playoff. That honor goes to Carl Edwards, and if there is any driver going to win Jack Roush the title this year it’ll be him, not Biffle.

Jeff Gordon (-60)

Gordon has been consistent in the second half of 2010, but it hasn’t been consistently good enough to compete for a championship. A strong challenger for wins early in the season, the four-time champion has led 813 laps this season without recording a victory – the most since Harry Gant back in 1981. But the frustration involved with coming up short finally seems to be getting to a program that’s consistently one step behind its peers inside the same shop – you know, the ones that also have four trophies sitting on their mantles at home. Three consecutive top 15s won’t get it done for the No. 24 car, and neither will one top 5 since Daytona as they’ve gradually faded into the mediocrity reserved this season for teammates Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt, Junior. There’s a Sprint Cup threat at Hendrick… but it’s not Gordon.

Carl Edwards (-60)

The popular sleeper pick has top 10s in all but one race since Daytona, and that one race, he finished 12th. Not bad for a guy that early on this season looked as if he might miss the Chase altogether, leading fewer laps until September than part-time road ringers Boris Said and Mattias Ekstrom. If there’s a weakness within this program, actually getting over the hump and ending a winless streak dating back to November, 2008 has to be it: when will that victory finally come? But Edwards has been a Chase contender before, had success, and whether or not you believe in momentum, there’s no doubting the No. 99 team is on a roll.

Jeff Burton (-60)

With Mark Martin out of the Chase, Burton inherits the role of sentimental favorite, an 18-year veteran still searching for his first Cup Series title. He went through a strong stretch in July and early August, but has since cooled off with just one top 10 in his last four races. Part of a Richard Childress Racing trio that all made the Chase after missing out in ’09, it’s clear the organization may be the most well-balanced team across the board. So I expect Burton to be strong; but with a 60-point hole, you need to win to have a chance, and I don’t see his first win of the season coming in the Chase.

Matt Kenseth (-60)

With just five top-5s on the season, it’s hard to envision any possibility that Kenseth can overcome a 60-point deficit and contend for the title. It’s not easy to deal with three different crew chiefs, and with the inconsistency still registering over at the No. 17 Ford it’s possible we could see a fourth before the year is over. With Roush’s improvement in the second half of the season and Robbie Reiser on top of the pit box, Kenseth could be a contender next year… but not now.

Clint Bowyer (-60)

The Chase’s final driver has reeled off three consecutive top-10 finishes to sneak in, but will have to carry that over into the playoff if he is to have any chance. Aligned with Richard Childress Racing, Bowyer was often riding the coattails of teammates Burton and Harvick all year, third in his own stable which makes him even more of a longshot. He may have a good run at New Hampshire, but over a span of ten races I don’t see the No. 33 contending with the elite teams.

Monday on the Frontstretch:
Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: Richmond-2 Race Recap
The Cool-Down Lap: Junior, No. 88 Team Have Fight Club Moment At Richmond
Bubble Breakdown: Conway, Robby Gordon’s Team Still Headed The Wrong Way
Running Their Mouth: Air Guard 400
Nationwide Series Breakdown: Virginia 529 College Savings 250

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
Open Wheel Wednesday: How Can IndyCar Stand Out?


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09/13/2010 10:40 AM

I detest the Chase.

Don Mei
09/13/2010 11:27 AM

I’m with you, Sharon.

09/13/2010 01:06 PM

Do we really need the CHASE?

Carl D.
09/13/2010 01:38 PM

No we don’t.

Kevin in SoCal
09/13/2010 01:52 PM

So its better to talk about Kevin Harvick’s 200+ point lead, and whether Jeff Gordon or Kyle Busch can catch him? Or is it better to see 12 drivers with a shot at getting hot and winning the Championship? You all call a race “boring” with only 3 or 4 lead changes instead of 12, but a Championship race with only 3 or 4 drivers is more exciting? I dont get it.

09/13/2010 03:44 PM

People despise change. That’s why all old people do nowadays is complain about how nascar has changed and how good it used to be.

Things always change! get over it. I loved watching every race this season and even though my driver isn’t in the chase and can’t win a championship I would love to see him win several races and spoil the chase

09/13/2010 06:05 PM

Amazing how, once again, a driver builds a nice point lead and starts the chase behind. The pattern doesn’t change. Win a couple of races early then use the rest of the “pre-chase races to experiment. Let’s be realistic. Only about 3 or four drivers have a shot at the title. And if the chase is a good “change” then I’m missing something. What I can hope for is my driver winning a race and creating some excitement.

09/13/2010 06:41 PM

Wait, Hamlin can’t win because of mechanical and reliability issues at JGR but Kyle Busch can win it? Say what?

09/13/2010 07:15 PM

The Chase is garbage.

Brian France should be relieved of his command because of ineptitude.

09/13/2010 09:13 PM

Remember when winning was above the championship? Everyone trying to win all race, every race…not just riding around for points? Yeah – the old days suck…too much real racing.

09/14/2010 12:49 PM

i’m with the wingcar guy.
i’ve done the math…

chase = championship
championship = points racing
points racing = boring
chase = boring

chase = artificial points reset
artificial points reset = make believe
make believe = delusional
chase = ….

Big John
09/19/2010 10:38 AM

If Kenseth can get that dead squirell, bad plugs or whatever it is on his head pointed in the right direction he may have a sho…, nevermind. No he wouldn’t.

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