After seven months, 26 races, and a roller coaster of ups and downs, the 2008 Chase for the Championship field is now set. This year’s 12 participants will go at it in the fifth edition of NASCAR’s new format, battling through a 10-week playoff push that will culminate with a 400-mile shootout at Homestead in November. On that fateful Sunday, the sport will reach a new milestone, awarding the 60th championship trophy in the history of what’s now known as NASCAR’s Sprint Cup division.
This latest version of the Chase, as has been the pattern in recent years, represents a little of the best and worst the sport has to offer. On the plus side, you’ve got some of the most legendary active drivers battling with some of the sport’s newest young guns. Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, and two-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson have nine series titles between them, and they’ll battle the momentum established by regular season standard-bearers Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. But this year’s group comes from just four organizations – the fewest number of car owners in Chase history – which means the concept of “team play” will jump to new levels as they stop at nothing to end the year on top.
As we’ve seen in the past, it can sometimes be difficult to sort out playoff contenders from the pretenders. But on paper, who’s entering this year’s Chase with an edge over the competition? Read on below to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not heading into the final 10-race stretch:
Johnson — Entering the Chase third, 40 points behind leader Kyle Busch, Johnson’s hoping three becomes his lucky number this fall; but in some ways, it already is. Seeking a third straight championship for Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson will go for his third straight win in the Cup Series at Loudon, following a convincing victory at Richmond to finish off the regular season. And while much of the focus as of late has been on Edwards and Busch, it’s Johnson who’s heated up over the last two months. He’s matched Edwards with three wins since Indianapolis in July, leading 379 laps in the process while racking up – you guessed it – three pole positions.
With all that said, it’s still likely you’re considering Johnson as the third-best option in this year’s title field. But be aware the stats show this is the best summer Johnson’s had leading up to the playoffs… and all we know how good they were in ’06 and ‘07. It won’t be a shoo-in like the last two seasons, but this is a team that should not be counted out.
Edwards — Seeded second in this year’s Chase, 30 points behind Busch, Cousin Carl won’t be sneaking up on anybody this fall. And while he ended Richmond a disappointing 13th, the fact it was his worst run since Chicagoland in July tells you all about the momentum this driver’s bringing into the playoffs. Since Indianapolis, Edwards has matched Johnson’s success, claiming three wins of his own while racking up a scintillating average finish of 4.7. With those kind of numbers, it’s hard not to label the No. 99 as one of your title favorites – although I wouldn’t expect any kind of miracle at the Magic Mile. Edwards struggled to 17th in July, failing to lead a lap while extending a streak of four straight finishes outside the top 10 at New Hampshire.
Busch — NASCAR’s Bad Boy enters the playoffs struggling a bit, but remains the number one seed on the strength of eight regular-season victories. That gives Busch a small cushion to hold off Edwards and Johnson as the No. 18 team gets itself in order for the stretch run. With six top 10s in his last nine starts – including five finishes of second or better – it’s not like the No. 18 car has lost his mojo altogether. For Busch to win the title, though, he’s going to have to avoid embarrassing incidents like his Richmond wreck, coming courtesy the front bumper of the No. 88. With all the feathers he’s ruffled this season, Busch learned at Richmond that payback can be a bitch, intentional or not; he can’t afford for it to happen again during the playoffs.
Kevin Harvick — Many think the top three have done enough to be in a league of their own, but Harvick’s recent performance deserves a mention. While a winless season has the ’07 Daytona 500 winner seeded ninth in the Chase, six consecutive top-10 finishes have left him a darkhorse title contender. And of the four drivers we just listed, it’s Harvick who’s got the best shot to get off to a strong start at Loudon. He led 54 laps there en route to a 14th-place finish in July, and won the ’06 version of the playoff opener there in dominating fashion. Is an 80-point deficit on Busch too much to make up over the 10-race stretch ahead? We’ll have to wait and see; but there’s no question the No. 29 team will be the strongest championship entry out of the RCR camp.
Stewart — While Smoke was clearly fuming following a near-miss at Richmond, don’t read too much into his post-race fracas with crew chief Greg Zipadelli over the radio. Once cooler heads prevail – and they will – both will look ahead and see a solid summer has put them in position to have an outside shot at a third title. Three runner-up finishes in his last six starts have pushed Stewart up to sixth in regular-season points, and the playoff format leaves him just 80 behind teammate Busch. With the No. 20 team poised to end their winless drought this weekend – Stewart led a race-high 154 laps at Loudon in July before circumstances left them 13th at the finish – look for them to emerge from the pack in their 10th and final season together.
Denny Hamlin — With his back against the wall after an engine failure at Michigan, Hamlin shined through the final three weeks of the regular season. Indeed, three was the number of choice for the third-year driver, who racked up thirds at Bristol, California, and Richmond to solidify his spot in the 12-driver field. With just one win so far this season, Hamlin may not be deserving of the Chase’s fourth seed – but after an ’07 playoff in which he slid to 12th, it’s doubtful we’ll see a disaster happen twice in a row. The key for this team will be getting over the mechanical problems that have plagued them in recent weeks; Hamlin’s got more DNFs in 2008 (two) than he’d had the previous two years combined.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. — NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver showed signs of life after a fourth-place finish at Richmond. But to give you a clue of how bad things were at the No. 88 camp, that marked Junior’s first top five since his lone win of the season at Michigan – back in June. Over the last 13 races, he’s led just 269 laps, and the communication with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. is iffy at best. With an average finish of 29th this season at Loudon and Dover – the first two Chase events – it’d be a shocker if Junior contends for a title in his first season with HMS.
Kenseth — The ’03 champ pulled one of the biggest comebacks of his career to remain one of two men to make all five Chase for the Championships (Johnson is the other). After falling outside the top 20 in points, Kenseth closed with 11 top-10 finishes to end the regular season 11th in the standings. But a wreck at Richmond had him limping home in 39th, and just 12 laps led this summer doesn’t inspire confidence that his season-long winless streak will come to an end anytime soon. After two straight seasons of solid Chase performances, it’d be a surprise to see this team finish in the top half.
Greg Biffle — While all 12 men have made the Chase before, there’s no one happier to be here than Biffle – he’s making his first appearance in the playoffs since a runner-up finish in 2005. But while the No. 16 team’s had a renaissance season, duplicating that ’05 performance will be nothing short of a miracle. Coming into the Chase on the strength of four top-15 finishes, that streak’s likely to end for Biffle at Loudon – he finished a ho-hum 21st there in July. And while he’s the defending champ at Kansas, the expectations are low for a man that looks to be third or fourth best within his own organization.
Gordon — Coming home with a top-10 finish at Richmond, the four-time champ buckled down and played it safe to make the playoffs. But 12 months removed from a dominating season, just getting to the Chase will likely be the biggest accomplishment for Gordon in ’08. Just one top five over the past month had him limping to the finish line, leaving the Rainbow Warrior a few steps below not just Johnson, but new teammate Earnhardt Jr. as well. Crew chief Steve Letarte believes there’s magic left in the tank for the playoffs, but with the type of year this legend’s had, that seems like wishful thinking. Right now, Gordon has a better chance of getting to Homestead in jeopardy of his first winless season since 1993 rather than on the verge of completing his Drive For Five.
Clint Bowyer — Bowyer made the Chase at Richmond, but it wasn’t easy, with the No. 07 Chevy suffering handling problems that took him outside the top 20 at one point. Some say he might have played dirty by using Regan Smith as a pinball to bodyslam Chase rival David Ragan, but you can’t argue with the final result: Bowyer’s in, Ragan’s out, and that’s the bottom line people will remember 10 years from now. However, it’s going to be nearly impossible for Bowyer to duplicate last season’s unlikely run as Chase Cinderella. His RCR team’s been behind the curve for most of the year, and Bowyer’s failed to lead a lap since pulling the upset at Richmond in May. Add the distractions of a pending fourth car and a switch to the new No. 33 for 2009, and this is one driver who’s going to have his hands full to simply finish these playoffs in the top 10.
Jeff Burton — The oldest driver in this year’s Chase at 40, Burton’s looked his age over the season’s second half. Leading just 14 laps in the last 20 races of the regular season, the No. 31 car has gone the entire summer without a top-five finish. If it wasn’t for the strong start over the season’s first three months, we’d be talking about Burton, not Kasey Kahne, as the odd man out in this year’s Chase. Can this team pull things together over the season’s final 10 races? Given their experience, it’s certainly possible… but don’t expect too much. If Burton doesn’t get off to a solid start this Sunday at Loudon – he leads all drivers with four career wins there – expect him to be at or near the back of the pack throughout most of the 10-race playoff.