Following weeks of speculation, rationalization, and wild-assed guesses, the field for the 2009 Sprint Cup Championship Chase is now set. This week, the Dirty Dozen has been performing the requisite New York City media stops, making appearances on just about any talk show or television program you care to mention before the first round is fired at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday. After weeks of fretting over Kyle Busch making it in or Matt Kenseth hanging on, the focus shifts to obsessing over who will prevail in the final 10 races and become this year’s Sprint Cup champion.
So, just how do I see this whole thing playing out?
Like you didn’t see this one coming. The resident Martin Myopian is picking him to finally erase the tag of “Best Driver To Never Have Won a Championship,” putting an end to the only question that has been asked more times than “When is Danica Patrick coming to NASCAR?” regarding whether or not he will ever win a Sprint Cup title. The answer to both of those questions: Very soon. With four wins so far this year – coupled with at least two more he should have won – Number Five is alive, and shows no signs of slowing down as we approach the zero hour.
For much of this summer, Martin and the No. 5 team led by Alan Gustafson have had to race hard enough to win (close second-place finishes at Indianapolis and Bristol), yet conservatively enough to not make mistakes that would cause a huge points loss (running out of gas at Michigan, getting plowed into at Infineon). As Martin said in the press room Saturday night at Richmond, if they make a mistake in the Chase, they have a second chance, whereas before there may not have been an opportunity to even compete for the title.
A master at points racing, Martin was nearly leading the points with zero wins in 2006, and if not for a punctured radiator and crash not of his making at Martinsville and Charlotte, he very well could have won the Cup that year, and not in a particularly fast car to boot. This year, he has a lightning-fast ride, a team that rarely flubs an assignment, and a crew chief who has said that winning a title for Martin would be the crowning achievement of his career.
So it is written, so it shall be done.
Final Points Prediction: 1st
Chase Wins: Dover, Lowe’s, Phoenix
If the past three seasons are any indication, the No. 48 Lowe’s team led by Chad Knaus may very well just be biding their time, waiting to unleash a hailstorm of pulverizing performances upon their unsuspecting competition. The last two years, the team looked nothing more than average during the summer, only to fire away unrelentingly during the Chase like Animal Mother in Full Metal Jacket. Yet while they won three races and hung around for the majority of this regular-season summer stretch, collecting their third Brickyard win in four years… something still seems amiss. Twice, they ran out of fuel while leading at Michigan, and were out-crewed and out-driven at Phoenix and Darlington by their team car, which had once been thought of as little more than an afterthought during the No. 48’s championship seasons.
Johnson and Knaus still communicate better than any tandem in motorsports, though for some reason I still see a bit of 2005 in their season this year, and believe that may hold true again come Chase time. But if they’re just playing it close to the vest, then go ahead and prepare the name plaque for a record-setting fourth consecutive Cup – cementing the greatest dynasty in NASCAR and perhaps motorsports history.
Points Prediction: 2nd
Chase Wins: Kansas, Fontana, Texas
For anybody (my dumb self included) who thought that Smoke’s best days were behind him when he abandoned ship at Joe Gibbs Racing to take over the operation of a man convicted on tax evasion, we all have a Whopper-sized bowl of crow to eat. Although some may decry it as little more than a pseudo-Hendrick operation, what Stewart and the braintrust at Stewart-Haas Racing have been able to accomplish this season has been nothing short of remarkable. Still think Stewart is an owner in name only? Would it really matter? I don’t see the same accusations being made of Doug Yates, Richard Petty or Leonard Wood. The bottom line is, a win is a win, and this is essentially a new team with key personnel having worked elsewhere a year ago.
To lead the points for the better part of the season was no small feat, just as winning on three completely different race tracks this year shows that the No. 14 team is not some one-trick pony who lucked into a red flag rain win. The next 10 races won’t be so much a test of whether or not this team is for real, but rather serve as confirmation that SHR will be a force in the Sprint Cup Series for years to come.
Points Prediction: 3rd
Chase Wins: Talladega
In my newsletter piece What’s Vexing Vito a few weeks ago, I suggested that Vickers should use Atreyu’s “Becoming The Bull” as his entrance music at Bristol. The past few weeks have confirmed my suspicions, as the Red Bull driver has aggressively charged through the field – overcoming broken axles and late-race battles with guys known to spin out for no apparent reason to qualify for his first ever Chase. Scoring Red Bull Racing’s first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory was a huge momentum builder, and Vickers has shown with that win this team is for real.
Crew chief Ryan Pemberton has long been regarded as one of the greatest minds in the garage area, and combined with the organizational leadership of Jay Frye, the No. 83 Red Bull Racing team is the second coming of MB2 Motorsports – an organization that always prided itself on doing the impossible with the resources allotted to them. While they may have a ways to go before truly becoming title contenders, you have to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. The No. 83 team is just starting to hit its stride, and will be running through Pamplona to Pocono in the coming years. You just watch….
Points Prediction: 4th
While not consistently the fastest Hendrick Motorsports entry, the No. 24 is consistently the most consistent. With 12 top-five finishes and 18 top 10s, Gordon and Steve Letarte’s DuPont Chevrolet embodies that smooth and steady wins the race philosophy, and they are not ones to take undo risks or do something foolish that will take them out of contention. While Gordon may not light up the victory column as he did a decade ago, that doesn’t mean he won’t be a threat to win his fifth championship this year. Until NASCAR issues a 25-point bonus for wins, Gordon will be a threat to win the title every year he competes from here on out. Can he do it before Johnson does is the only question that remains to be answered.
Points Prediction: 5th
Chase Wins: Martinsville
Hamlin said that his win at Richmond Saturday night was the biggest of his career, finally succeeding at his home track after leading a combined 533 laps in the previous three races. Hamlin is pumped about his fourth Chase appearance, having qualified every year he has been in the series, with a best finish of third in his rookie season of 2006. Hamlin excels on flat tracks, with five of his six career wins coming at Pocono, New Hampshire and Martinsville. He will no doubt be a factor at the latter two in the coming weeks, Hamlin stating that the No. 11 group has had a team of engineers dedicated to New Hampshire and Dover all year in an effort to get off on the right foot come Chase time. He thinks they will be a threat on the bigger tracks as well, which is what it will take to make a compelling case for the championship. The No. 11 has been solid on the 1.5-2-mile tracks, it’s true – but it still lacks just a little compared to the Hendrick machines.
Points Prediction: 6th
Wins: New Hampshire
Manning up and driving with a broken foot is admirable to say the least. After all, playing hurt is what winning championships is all about. Unfortunately, even when Edwards didn’t have a bum wheel, the Roush Fenway Fords have been a non-factor much of the year, and have not had a serious shot at win since Greg Biffle ran out of gas with a mile to go at Michigan in June. At least he won’t have to worry about doing any backflips….
Points Prediction: 7th
They key cog in Busch’s success the last two years has been Pat Tryson. So with the announcement this week that PT is leaving for Michael Waltrip Racing next season, Kurt surmised that it very well could prove to be a distraction for the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. Perhaps, but not more so than getting into arguments with Roger Penske over the radio (something this veteran is no stranger to causing). The No. 2 car has been a solid top-10 runner most of the year; but this is the Chase, and wins count far more than a handful of ninth-place finishes. The first driver to win the Chase will not win the title this year, but he will undoubtedly be back again in 2010 – and with a new crew chief as well.
Points Prediction: 8th
Many had picked Montoya to fall out of the Chase throughout the summer, but it simply didn’t happen. The former Formula 1 and CART standout has finally come of age in stock cars, and he’s making his first Chase appearance in ’09 as a result. Martin suggested he might be one to watch as a serious Chase threat Saturday night; however, the No. 42 team has not shown much in the way of dominant speed except at Pocono and Indy – and there are no tracks that look like either of those in the Chase.
The No. 42 team still really hasn’t had any bad luck this year, and the law of averages dictate that something has to explode eventually. Having said that, I believe he will cap off such a pleasantly surprising season at the season finale in Homestead-Miami in November.
Points Prediction: 9th
This is normally where I would make some joke regarding Biffle’s braces; however, after a dismal performance at the dentist last week, I am going to keep my big mouth shut.
Points Prediction: 10th
The King gets a car in The Chase, and Ford gets a second shot at who was the second coming of Gordon – just seven years later. This Bud’s for All of You.
Points Prediction: 11th
I am not going to make that stupid, “Hello Newman…” reference that everybody insists on regurgitating some six years after he first won a race. I guess by acknowledging it, I have done just that. Either way, the second half of the Stewart-Haas success story is dedicated to Newman. Stewart has said he is the unsung hero of his new team this year, as having a true friend and teammate has made the transition that much easier for both of them. While he and Tony Gibson may not win a race in 2009, they are laying the groundwork for what will surely be a number of wins to come in 2010.
Points Prediction: 12th