This Sunday, just 12 men will take the green flag at New Hampshire with their dream of a 2007 Cup title intact. It’s been a remarkable season for them to get this far, as both consistency and talent have put them in position to achieve the ultimate goal.
But of course, from the 12 only one can emerge to watch their dream turn into reality. Who will that person be? We’ll try and figure that out over the next two days, handicapping the Chase field to dissect what drivers stand a chance at the trophy, and which ones are better off walking away.
So, without further ado, let’s finish off a look at how these men will finish, tackling the predicted final standings from the bottom up. If you didn’t see Part I, shame on you! Click here to get the lowdown on who will finish seventh through 12th.
Chase Seeding: T-sixth (-50 off the lead)
Chase Appearance: Second
Knew He Made The Chase When: Hamlin came out of the box strong in 2007, scoring six top-five finishes in the first 13 races of the regular season to virtually lock up a playoff spot by June.
Season Highlights: Finally taking the checkered flag at a Car of Tomorrow race – New Hampshire – after coming so close the first four months of the season. Dominating August to the tune of three top-five finishes at Pocono, Watkins Glen, and Michigan to assert himself as a true championship contender.
Wants To Forget: All but firing his pit crew, frustrations mounting after at least three wins were taken away through mistakes on pit road. Getting wrecked by his teammate at Daytona, finishing dead last, and then having to face the media after Tony Stewart blamed the whole wreck on him. Blowing an engine at Bristol, just the second DNF of the sophomore’s Cup career.
Chase Outlook: After a rookie season which saw him finish third in the final standings, no one would have blamed Denny if he slumped a bit in 2007, but instead, he’s held steady. A consistent season filled with 10 top-five finishes and 15 top 10s left him solidly in the points race all season long, at times emerging as the number one challenger to Jeff Gordon in the standings. Truth be told, Hamlin’s done everything he can to put himself at the top of the heap; it’s the pit crew that’s lagging behind. Time and time again, the No. 11 has put itself in position to win, only to be bogged down by silly mistakes; and even when this team has its pit stops running all cylinders, they still fall short when compared to the times of the top teams. After losing his edge in the CoT races as of late – Hamlin’s led just 17 laps in the last three CoT events, a far cry from the record 372 he led in the first three – a faulty pit crew is the last thing the No. 11 team needs right now, especially with a switch to unheralded Toyota on the horizon for ’08.
Best Chase Tracks: New Hampshire, Dover, Martinsville, Phoenix.
Chase Hiccups: Kansas, Talladega, Charlotte.
Wins The Title If: Teammate Stewart stumbles out of the blocks, Hamlin’s pit crew steps up to the plate, and the youngster can deal with handling such veterans as Gordon and Jimmie Johnson around him when the going gets tough. Sounds implausible, but it’s entirely possible. Trust me.
Odds Of Winning: 40/1
Chase Seeding: T-fourth (-40 off the lead)
Chase Appearance: Third
Knew He Made The Chase When: Pat Tryson was hired as crew chief. It took a few weeks, but by the time the former Roush Fenway head wrench had settled in at the beginning of July, the No. 2 car came to life, to the tune of nine consecutive top-15 finishes to end the regular season.
Season Highlights: Obliterating the field at Pocono in August for what was easily the most lopsided win of the year. Following that up with a Michigan triumph at a track that’s been very good to car owner Roger Penske throughout history. Not throwing in the towel when the going got tough,
Wants To Forget: Nearly running over Stewart’s crewman on pit road in frustration, angry over a crash that took both drivers out of contention. Spinning out with Stewart earlier in the year, losing his chance to win the Daytona 500 after both drivers dominated the first 375 miles.
Chase Outlook: The sole Dodge representative in the Chase, Busch brings a new perspective to the table in his first playoffs as a member of Roger Penske. Despite getting off to a notoriously slow start, Busch picked things up at exactly the right time to charge into the Chase. But three years removed from a championship, can the driver of the No. 2 do it again now that he’s no longer 700 points behind the leader? Not really; despite all the Busch “darkhorse” hype, everything about this team seems one year away from being truly outstanding. Unfortunately, that year won’t be 2007.
Best Chase Tracks: Martinsville, Talladega.
Chase Hiccups: Charlotte, Dover.
Wins The Title If: The No. 2 teams come out swinging in the first two races. They suffer through CoT events. Little brother Kyle Busch helps out whenever possible. No engine failures.
Odds Of Winning: 20/1
Chase Seeding: T-fourth (-40 off the lead)
Chase Appearance: Second
Knew He Made The Chase When: When Edwards blew an engine at Richmond, it was the first time he’d finished 22nd or worse since Talladega in April. That’s the type of consistency that’ll land you in the playoffs.
Season Highlights: Taking home a Bristol trophy. Ending a 53-race winless streak in Cup by snagging the trophy at Michigan. Dominating the Busch Series to the tune of a 700-gazillion point lead.
Wants To Forget: Two blown motors. The first few CoT races. The fact he has far less experience than the three drivers in front of him.
Chase Outlook: After an off year in ’06, Edwards came back in ’07 to reestablish himself as a top Cup contender. While Roush Fenway has struggled to keep pace with its young star, when the equipment matches the talent the results have been championship-worthy. It’s just whether or not the team consistency can remain that way.
Best Chase Tracks: Atlanta, Texas, Homestead.
Chase Hiccups: New Hampshire, Martinsville.
Wins The Title If: Ford catches up to Chevrolet with its CoT chassis. Edwards becomes more of a hard charger near race’s end. Definitely a darkhorse pick for the title if you need one.
Odds Of Winning: 15/1
Chase Seeding: First (current point leader)
Chase Appearance: Fourth
Knew He Made The Chase When: Chad Knaus came back from a six-week suspension in August. Since then, the No. 48 has won twice and scored four top fives in five races leading up to the Chase.
Season Highlights: Winning a series-high six times: Las Vegas, Atlanta, Martinsville, California and Richmond twice. Leading 100-plus laps four times this season.
Wants To Forget: Crashing out while defending major titles at Daytona and Indianapolis. Watching crew chief Knaus get suspended for cheating, again. Suffering through four DNFs, the most of anyone who made the Chase, and all were due to wrecks.
Chase Outlook: Despite an up and down year, Johnson’s victories give him the top seed in the playoffs leading into his first official title defense. It was a summer filled with hard times early; Knaus’s June suspension was a brutal reminder to the No. 48 team of how integral he is to the fabric of their success. But in the past month, no one’s been hotter on-track with the exception of possibly Stewart; that puts Johnson in a great spot. But can he get the luck he needs to gain the slight edge in this battle, two years in a row??
Best Chase Tracks: Dover, Charlotte, Martinsville, Atlanta.
Chase Hiccups: Texas, Homestead.
Wins The Title If: Knaus doesn’t get caught for anything over the final 10, and no one else cheats, for that matter.
Odds Of Winning: 5/1
Chase Seeding: Second (-20 off the lead)
Chase Appearance: Third
Knew He Made The Chase When: He started his engine for the Daytona 500. In 20 of the first 22 races, Gordon finished inside the top 10 on the final results sheet, think that might be good enough to earn a playoff berth? I think so.
Season Highlights: Winning two in a row at Phoenix and Talladega, passing Dale Earnhardt on the all-time wins list in the process. Stealing the Pocono trophy due to some savvy pit-road strategy by crew chief Steve Letarte. Having his first baby (Ella Sofia was born in June).
Wants To Forget: Spinning out while leading with a handful of laps left to go at Watkins Glen. Umm, that’s about it?
Chase Outlook: 2007 has seen Gordon return to form in a big way, dominating the regular season to a point where he could have cakewalked to a fifth title under the old system. But this is the Chase, and it doesn’t work that way; instead, Gordon’s point lead is gone, and questions abound concerning momentum that’s never quite reappeared after the Glen mishap. While crew chief LeTarte has proved to be one of the series’ greatest young minds, he hasn’t been in a clutch championship scenario over the final two races of the season yet, and that could prove to be critical should a neck-and-neck battle occur with Stewart and Greg Zipadelli down the stretch. In the end, despite the outstanding year, Gordon will come just short.
Best Chase Tracks: Phoenix, Talladega, Texas.
Chase Hiccups: Kansas, Homestead.
Wins The Title If: He shifts into peak form quicker than expected after a month of poor performances. Johnson shares setups willingly and gives the No. 24 an extra boost of energy. Letarte steps up his game, and Stewart steps down his finishes just enough to open the door.
Odds Of Winning: 4/1
Chase Seeding: Third (-30 off the lead)
Chase Appearance: Third
Knew He Made The Chase When: He won the Brickyard 400, creating momentum that led to a total of three wins this summer and 200 points chopped out of Gordon’s enormous point lead.
Season Highlights: Kissing the Bricks – again. Taking the checkered on both a road course (Watkins Glen) and intermediate track (Chicagoland). Coming within inches of victory number four at Atlanta.
Wants To Forget: Crashing with Kurt Busch at the Daytona 500, ruining what was his best chance to date to win the Great American Race. Taking out both himself and his teammate at Daytona before 20 laps were complete in July. Failing to report to the media center at Phoenix. Calling NASCAR out on “fake” debris cautions.
Chase Outlook: More than ever this season, Stewart has proved he moves to the beat of his own drummer. While chaos ensues around him (the team is switching from Chevy to Toyota in ’08, and the third No. 18 entry from Gibbs will be driven by Joe Gibbs Racing rival) Stewart has occasionally lost his cool, too, with Phoenix and Daytona shining examples of the man’s continued bouts with immaturity. Clearly, he’s no stranger to controversy.
But as the Chase heats up, so too should Stewart’s title bid. Although Gordon and Johnson both pose formidable challenges, no one’s been hotter over the course of the entire summer than the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet, and despite a diminished lack of support – and respect – from the Chevrolet camp after announcing its departure, this team knows too much about the R-07 engine to ever be at a disadvantage. Should he remain in the top five in points through Talladega, what’s bound to be a close race simply becomes Stewart’s not to lose.
Best Chase Tracks: Kansas, Atlanta, Texas, Homestead.
Chase Hiccups: New Hampshire.
Wins The Title If: The No. 20 car just trots out there each week and acts like its usual self.
Odds Of Winning: 3/1