_Does your favorite driver have a shot to win the championship? In this week’s edition of Fact or Fiction, we analyze which drivers will really compete for the hardware in Miami and why._
OK, OK. I know he’s leading the series in wins. I know I said last week that he only had a shot at the title if a win at Richmond could change the mood within the No. 11 team. But the more you look at Hamlin’s season, the more you see that right now he’s not quite at championship level. Consistency wins titles in the Chase era, and Hamlin’s hit or miss season won’t cut it. Despite his six wins – two of which came at Chase tracks – he also has five finishes of 30th or worse, and a total of eight more landing well outside the top 20. Reliability in the engine department remains a question for the Joe Gibbs Racing program, who’s had a history of faltering motors in the Chase and experienced mechanical woes with this team twice in the last month – at Bristol and Atlanta. If the No. 11 bunch can magically fix their consistency woes, they have a shot, but I just don’t see the parts and pieces holding out.
*Jimmie Johnson (-10)*
Is there even any question? Johnson could have gone winless in the regular season and he still would be a favorite for the title come Chase time. The final ten races are built for the No. 48 team, and Johnson has proven over and over again that he can get the job done. He struggled with just one top 10 from Daytona’s summer date through Bristol just three weeks ago, but like clockwork he has reeled off back-to-back third-place efforts, and…oh yeah, he won at New Hampshire earlier this season. Keep in mind, too, this team had led laps in ten of the last eleven races, often pursuing a “win or bust” philosophy that caused some critics to mistakenly think the No. 48 was much further off than it really was.
*Kevin Harvick (-30)*
Harvick wasn’t nearly as strong at the end of the year as he was at the beginning of the year, but when it comes to the Chase tracks that have already had a race on the schedule, he experienced the type of success that warrants being a major championship threat. With a win at Talladega, top 5s at Fontana and Loudon, and top 10s at Texas and Dover, Harvick should be primed to avenge a disappointing 2009 with a top-5 effort this season. But the title itself is just too much of a reach; keep in mind no driver with the regular season point lead after 26 races has gone on to win the Chase since Tony Stewart accomplished the feat in 2005.
*Kyle Busch (-30)*
Kyle Busch has gone into the Chase as the favorite before, and it didn’t really work out all that well (2008, anyone?). This year, he goes in as the No. 4 seed with three fewer wins than teammate Hamlin. But with three consecutive top 5s going into the Chase and the most points at the eight Chase tracks in the regular season, Busch makes for a nice sleeper pick. Sweeping the races at Bristol just a couple of weeks ago, the momentum is there in a way that he’s never had it before, and top-5 runs in the face of adversity at Charlotte and Atlanta have proved he has what it takes to make a comeback from a damaged car, a speeding penalty, or worse – problems which would have derailed him in years past. He’s learned a lot from his failed Chases, and this may finally be the year he puts it all together.
*Kurt Busch (-40)*
Strong for much of the year, Kurt Busch has struggled in the second half of 2010. Since Daytona in July, Busch has yet to record a top 5 on an oval and while he does have three top 10s in those eight races, that’s far from championship caliber – especially when guys like Johnson and the younger Busch can easily come out of the gate with wins. What’s really hurting this group is their tendency to act as a single-car program within a multi-car team; both Sam Hornish, Jr. and Brad Keselowski have failed to record a top 10 in Cup this season, weighing down the organization as a whole and making it difficult for the Blue Deuce crew to get additional help when they need it. Penske and Busch in particular have made great strides this season, but they may still be a year away.
*Tony Stewart (-50)*
While Tony Stewart struggled at many of the Chase tracks, most were on the early part of the schedule when the No. 14 really ran poorly. Since the July Daytona race, Stewart has just two finishes outside of the top 10 and has shown in the past this is the part of the schedule where he excels. In teammate Ryan Newman, who just missed the Chase in 13th, Stewart also has an R&D car of sorts in the playoffs that’s still running well enough to give his boss a much-needed boost in practice. Smoke might not be on many people’s championship lists, but it would not shock me if he was near the top of the standings going into the final few races.
*Greg Biffle (-50)*
The Cinderella story in this Chase just two years ago, the No. 16 team is hoping for a repeat of their 2-for-2 Victory Lane assault that made them a factor in that championship race until the bitter end. But while the Roush organization as a whole has improved as the season has progressed, Biffle didn’t record a top 5 on any of the eight Chase tracks already on the schedule, and it’s clear he’s not even the best car in the Roush camp going into the playoff. That honor goes to Carl Edwards, and if there is any driver going to win Jack Roush the title this year it’ll be him, not Biffle.
*Jeff Gordon (-60)*
Gordon has been consistent in the second half of 2010, but it hasn’t been consistently good enough to compete for a championship. A strong challenger for wins early in the season, the four-time champion has led 813 laps this season without recording a victory – the most since Harry Gant back in 1981. But the frustration involved with coming up short finally seems to be getting to a program that’s consistently one step behind its peers inside the same shop – you know, the ones that also have four trophies sitting on their mantles at home. Three consecutive top 15s won’t get it done for the No. 24 car, and neither will one top 5 since Daytona as they’ve gradually faded into the mediocrity reserved this season for teammates Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt, Junior. There’s a Sprint Cup threat at Hendrick… but it’s not Gordon.
*Carl Edwards (-60)*
The popular sleeper pick has top 10s in all but one race since Daytona, and that one race, he finished 12th. Not bad for a guy that early on this season looked as if he might miss the Chase altogether, leading fewer laps until September than part-time road ringers Boris Said and Mattias Ekstrom. If there’s a weakness within this program, actually getting over the hump and ending a winless streak dating back to November, 2008 has to be it: when will that victory finally come? But Edwards has been a Chase contender before, had success, and whether or not you believe in momentum, there’s no doubting the No. 99 team is on a roll.
*Jeff Burton (-60)*
With Mark Martin out of the Chase, Burton inherits the role of sentimental favorite, an 18-year veteran still searching for his first Cup Series title. He went through a strong stretch in July and early August, but has since cooled off with just one top 10 in his last four races. Part of a Richard Childress Racing trio that all made the Chase after missing out in ’09, it’s clear the organization may be the most well-balanced team across the board. So I expect Burton to be strong; but with a 60-point hole, you need to win to have a chance, and I don’t see his first win of the season coming in the Chase.
*Matt Kenseth (-60)*
With just five top-5s on the season, it’s hard to envision any possibility that Kenseth can overcome a 60-point deficit and contend for the title. It’s not easy to deal with three different crew chiefs, and with the inconsistency still registering over at the No. 17 Ford it’s possible we could see a fourth before the year is over. With Roush’s improvement in the second half of the season and Robbie Reiser on top of the pit box, Kenseth could be a contender next year… but not now.
*Clint Bowyer (-60)*
The Chase’s final driver has reeled off three consecutive top-10 finishes to sneak in, but will have to carry that over into the playoff if he is to have any chance. Aligned with Richard Childress Racing, Bowyer was often riding the coattails of teammates Burton and Harvick all year, third in his own stable which makes him even more of a longshot. He may have a good run at New Hampshire, but over a span of ten races I don’t see the No. 33 contending with the elite teams.