The Chase is finally here, and after one race, there’s something very strange about the standings — Kyle Busch isn’t leading. An array of problems at NHMS knocked Busch from his perch atop the championship ladder, dropping him all the way to eighth while his two toughest competitors (Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards) stepped up to share the points lead he’d owned for the better part of the last four months.
But Busch shouldn’t panic, as there’s still a long way to go until the champion is crowned — and as we learned from Week 1, there’s sure to be plenty of surprises in store this year. Several drivers, including this weekend’s winner, proved to be legitimate Chase contenders once the points system tightened things up. To see who looks primed to make a run at the championship — and who’s already primed to bow out of the running — check out this week’s edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup.
Johnson: With a third consecutive win in sight, Johnson was passed in the closing laps by a hard-charging Greg Biffle — the eventual race winner. But while Johnson didn’t make it to Victory Lane, he and the No. 48 team seem poised to start the Chase exactly the way the regular season ended — on top. With Busch’s disappointing 34th-place run, both Johnson and Edwards were pushed to a tie on top of the standings. But with three top-two finishes in his last three starts, the momentum may still clearly be in favor of the two-time defending champ.
Edwards: Edwards has been trying to chase down series leader Busch for months; and with the points readjusted for the playoffs — combined with a poor first race for Busch — Roush Fenway Racing’s best hope for a title has finally staked his claim out front. There is no denying the No. 99 team is one of the favorites, with seven top 10s in their last eight races; and now, “Concrete Carl” heads to Dover, a track where he has yet to finish outside of the top five in his last four starts.
Kevin Harvick: Mr. Consistency is on a similar streak to that of the one his teammate Jeff Burton went on earlier this season. With a 10th-place run this weekend, Harvick increases his top 10 streak to seven straight races. That consistency helps, but wins are going to be needed to take home that championship trophy; the No. 29 lost points to seven of his fellow Chase competitors this weekend, and remains without a points-paying victory since the 2007 Daytona 500 — 63 races ago.
Greg Biffle: Biffle makes the biggest jump of all the Chase competitors this week. With the restructuring of the standings combined with his first win of the season, Biffle moved up six spots to third in points; now, he’s only 30 back of the lead. Eight top 15s in nine races — along with three top fives in his last five — signal the type of success the Biff is going to need in order to contend for the title.
Tony Stewart: Approaching his final season at Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart would like nothing more than to end his historic tenure with his soon-to-be former team holding the Sprint Cup. Pit road miscues continue to plague them, though, with a speeding penalty far from Stewart’s finest hour at NHMS. Still, with five top 10s in his last seven races and a recovery to eighth this weekend, the No. 20 team could be viewed as a sleeper for this year’s title.
Denny Hamlin: Stewart’s teammate has been on fire over the past month. After engine problems at Michigan five races ago, Hamlin has rebounded with four top 10s and three top fives to not just make the Chase, but make some noise atop the points ladder: he’s a solid sixth with nine weeks left to up the ante on the competition.
Burton: If Burton can get on a run similar to the one he was on at the start of the season, then a championship could be a realistic possibility. After going through a five-race stretch where he finished no better than 11th, back-to-back top 10s, including a fourth this weekend, moved the No. 31 team to fifth in points and back in contention for the title. Needless to say, this team couldn’t be happier to head to the Monster Mile: Burton won there in 2006, ending a winless drought that extended back almost five years.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Just like Burton, Junior went through a tough stretch of seven races without a top 10 — but seems to have his act together with the Chase finally here. Coming off a fourth-place finish at Richmond last weekend and a fifth to start the playoffs at New Hampshire, Junior suddenly sits fourth in points, just 50 out of the lead.
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer’s been consistent, but not finishing consistently high enough to compete for the title. The No. 07 team has recorded four straight top 12s, including a 12th-place run this weekend, but his best finish over that stretch was seventh. What’s worse, he failed to lead a lap as the defending Loudon champion, marking the 17th straight event he’s failed to put the Jack Daniel’s Chevy out in front of the pack.
Busch: Everything that could go wrong, went wrong for Lil’ Busch this weekend. With a broken sway bar, an error on pit road, and then a self-made spinout to top it all off, Busch watched his success from the first 26 races simply go up in smoke. Lack of consistency is the knock on the No. 18 team, and this weekend’s poor performance dropped Busch all the way to eighth in points — 74 behind the leaders. There’s plenty of time to regroup… but will this team believe that?
Jeff Gordon: No matter what Gordon and the No. 24 team do, they can’t seem to make up ground on the competition. Despite a number of top 15s (14th this weekend) the majority of Gordon’s Chase counterparts continue to pull away in front of him.
Matt Kenseth: Kenseth caught fire a little over a month ago and made the Chase for the fifth straight time. But that fire burned out in the last couple of weeks, and he could really go for a good finish again after two consecutive runs outside the top 35. Now 12th in points, Kenseth’s already 177 behind Edwards and Johnson. Ouch.