In the press conference following Kevin Harvick’s first non-restrictor-plate win since the penultimate race at Phoenix in the 2006 season, the mood of team principal Richard Childress was predictably ebullient. The four-decade plus NASCAR team owner, not known for unnecessary hyperbole, was keen to point out, “Somebody’s got to beat Jimmie [Johnson] this year, and it might as well be RCR.”
On the one hand, Childress is right: Somebody, some day – to paraphrase the old Vera Lynn wartime song “don’t know when, don’t know where” – will indeed beat Johnson. Despite rumors to the contrary, Johnson is not a robot and still bleeds red when cut. Indubitably, someone will beat him to the Sprint Cup crown. But with four back-to-back championships, the simple fact is until someone actually does, Double J is still very much the man to beat. Forget the fact that it’s been six races since Johnson last picked up a top five… that’s just details. When the Chase begins in three races’ time, he’s still THE MAN (and that’s deliberate use of capitals, despite the fact that I just broke about 96 editorial etiquette rules. Ah, well; worse things happen at sea.) So, with eleven of the all-hallowed Chase spots essentially locked up, let’s take a look at the runners and riders and assess who is best placed to challenge Dr. Evil and the Vanilla Boy.
We’ll start with the championship leader, Harvick. As we’ve seen in previous years, leading the points at the drop of the green flag in Chase race number one hasn’t amounted to a whole hill of beans. So, is Harvick for real? In a word, yes. He has a series best 11 top fives and 16 top 10s to go along with his three wins. And, as Denny Hamlin pointed out post-Michigan, “I really don’t see how he can’t be, really, the favorite going into it… Those guys, they’re tough, they’ve really got everything working right now. Their cars are handling really well and they’ve got horsepower. Those are two things that are tough to beat.” Can Harvick pull it altogether when it counts? Again, in a word, yes. But will he? That remains to be seen; but there’s no doubt Harvick is a bona fide title contender.
Another who falls into that category is Hamlin. With a career best five wins so far this season, Hamlin has demonstrated he has found a way to win races this year that in the past would have eluded him. The knock on the Chesterfield, Va. native is consistency and, as we saw in the 2009 iteration of the Chase, it was exactly that factor which ruined Hamlin’s chance at a first Sprint Cup crown. With the experience of Mike Ford (and the driver himself), you can’t help but feel when it starts getting serious, Hamlin will be there or thereabouts.
Likewise, the original four-time, Jeff Gordon, who has 10 top fives and 13 top 10s in 23 races. The problem for the recent second-time father, however, is that he can’t convert good runs into victories. And this, folks, is a man who has won 82 times in 604 attempts. Yes, like Harvick, Gordon has the consistency, but as he found out in 2007, consistency is nothing if your main competitor keeps taking the checkers atop the field.
A more interesting case might just be the sophomore owner/driver Tony Stewart who, to be fair, has not had, by his own very lofty standards, a particularly stellar year. Six top fives and 13 top 10s show Smoke can get it done, but over a 10-race stretch, I’m not convinced he can pull it altogether to win a third title. That said, I wouldn’t rule him out ever; I’m just not convinced he has the race cars to get it done.
Senator-elect Jeff Burton is another who falls into this “close, but not close enough” category. Just four top-five runs and no race victories suggest that while Burton is benefiting from the massive uptick in form for RCR in 2010, the 18-year, 570 race veteran won’t have enough to finally win a first championship. I’d also put the Roush Fenway trio of Cousin Carl, the Biff and 2003 champ Matt Kenseth in the same category. Sure, since the debut of the shiny new FR9 engine they’ve all looked racier – Biffle and Edwards especially – but their collective body of work suggests that while they could still spring a surprise, a third overall Cup crown for Jack Roush might just have to wait another year.
Then, there’s whoever finishes in the final Chase transfer spot: Bowyer, Martin, Newman or Jamie Mac (if everything falls absolutely into place). Much as I would like the legend that is Mark Martin to make the Chase and win it all, I just don’t see him getting it done. His form, so far, particularly when compared to his five-win 2009 season just suggests he’s that crucial scosh short of winning the big prize; likewise, Bowyer, Newman and/or Jamie McMurray. Of course, that’s not to say one of them could pull off a huge upset, but realistically that is what it would be. Stranger things have happened, no question, but I just don’t see it. Do you?
All of that leaves us with a pair of irascible siblings: Kurt and Kyle Busch. Separated by just 40 points after 23 races, both have won twice (expiring engines aside) and proved this season they have the mettle to get it done. Kurt has been vocal at times this season about going for a championship – and has a Chase title to back it up – while Kyle has shown he can finish respectably when he has an ill-handling racecar: a new quality for the fiery (or should that be “burning”) Busch. For my money, the Busch brothers, Harvick aside, might just give Double J the most to think about come Chase time.
So there you have it, dear readers, a quick step through the runners and riders for the 2010 Sprint Cup crown. As my good buddy Matt Carey mentioned to me on the always entertaining ESPN Radio Carey and Coffey show last weekend, I can be somewhat verbose; so in his honor, I’ve kept it short and sweet this week. Let me know if you disagree below.