The mantra from many in NASCAR media and some of the drivers themselves is that 2010 is the most closely matched Chase field to date, meaning picking a champion this early is next to impossible. The consensus is that there is not a clear advantage to be had by any driver headed into the final 10 races, and no one team has showed enough performance or consistency to stake their claim to this year’s Sprint Cup title.
I, however, am of the other opinion; this year’s Chase will not be nearly as close as some would have you believe.
Of the 12 teams that have qualified for the playoff, there are but a handful of drivers that stand a chance of competing down to the wire. In fact, this year’s Chase will look quite familiar if you’ve been following NASCAR the last 10 weeks, and not just glancing at the final box scores.
With Denny Hamlin’s series-leading sixth win Saturday in the Air Guard 400, the Joe Gibbs Racing pilot starts the postseason with a 10-point lead on four-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson. Want to know who the two leading contenders for the Cup are this year? Look no further than this duo.
Hamlin had stumbled in the weeks just prior to Loudon, experiencing engine failure while leading during the first half of the Atlanta event after suffering when electrical gremlins reared their ugly head in Bristol. What should buoy Hamlin and the No. 11 team, though, are past performances at the tracks in the Chase and their dominance of banked downforce tracks in 2010. Wins at Texas and Michigan (June), coupled with top fives at Atlanta and Michigan (August) bode well for similar locales that make up the bulk of the Chase slate. California, Kansas, Charlotte, Texas and Homestead are high-speed, big-horsepower banked ovals – the type that the No. 11 team used to earn their No. 1 Chase seeding.
With the other half of the schedule comprised of Martinsville (Hamlin won there in the spring), Dover (fourth) and Talladega (fourth), that leaves really only two question marks for this team: Phoenix, where Hamlin finished 30th earlier this season while driving with a surgically repaired knee, and New Hampshire, where he ran to a lackluster 14th-place effort. No worries on the first one – Hamlin hasn’t finished worse than sixth at Phoenix since 2007 if you throw out the last race, and he’s traditionally solid as nails on any flat track. Speaking of flat tracks, how about Loudon? Hamlin finished second last fall at the Magic Mile and won in a photo finish over Jeff Gordon in 2007.
Suffice it to say, Hamlin and his Mike Ford-led No. 11 JGR bunch are leading the points for a reason – and are looking to add to their “all we do is win” mantra over the next 10 weeks.
But wait; there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Or should I say the 4,800-pound gorilla? With big eyebrows. And a Sonny Crockett beard.
Johnson and his Lowe’s team have set the standard for playoff perfection since 2006. Many have cheered enthusiastically at the struggles (read: disappointing final finishes) over the course of the last few months, citing these chinks in the armor as evidence that they will soon be dethroned as Sprint Cup champions. Well, take heart NASCAR Nation… because it ain’t going to happen. After all, it isn’t as if Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have suffered the same performance problems as their teammates on the opposite end of the building at Hendrick Motorsports.
Stat dorks can rejoice by looking at the last 10 races by Johnson and Co.: one win, two thirds and a pole. The poor finishes during this stretch are nothing more than an anomaly. He got wrecked while running well at Watkins Glen and had just led his 175th lap at Bristol before getting turned by Juan Pablo Montoya. Johnson led 92 and 96 laps, respectively, at Chicago and Pocono, and you can pretty much throw out Daytona since everybody except the jet-blower truck got tore up that night.
So what does it all mean for the championship duo of Knaus and Johnson? Simple: Now it’s go time. Everybody has his or her share of bad luck during the season, and this bunch seems to get it out of the way early. And did I mention his last win before he went on this much ballyhooed 10-race – ahem – “slump” just so happened to be at the kickoff Chase track, New Hampshire Motor Speedway?
So what about the other Chase contenders? They will look stout early, as the first couple of races are great tracks for virtually every driver in the top 12. Loudon is favorable to Clint Bowyer, Hamlin and Kurt Busch, while Dover has always favored virtually anything Roush-powered or driven by Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart. By the time the series gets to the halfway point at Charlotte, however, I believe the championship picture will become much more clear.
Why? Only once since 2004 have two of the top-three drivers after Charlotte not finished in the top three in the final points standings.
That leaves Johnson and Hamlin in the driver’s seat, watching from above as the rest of the challengers begin to falter. While Kevin Harvick’s turnaround from a year ago is remarkable, to say the least, I see him as this season’s Stewart of 2009; regular season consistency and notching a Chase win, but not quite enough to make it stick for 10 straight weeks. Jeff Burton runs well, but hasn’t really been in a position to win a race since the first half of the season, while the third RCR driver, Bowyer, was sweating out the final few weeks simply because he seems to be a magnet for late-race bad luck (i.e., both Daytona races this year).
The Busch brothers will remain the enigma that they have been since each came to the Sprint Cup Series. The biggest battle for Kurt is that he is the lone Penske and Dodge team in the Chase. It would benefit him greatly this time of year to have another competitive car or two to lean on, or garner some added support from his manufacturer. However, as has been the case all year long, Kurt is the Lone Ranger for the Mopar camp. Younger brother Kyle has come on in recent weeks, albeit at tracks that bare little resemblance to those in the Chase. The No. 18 machines prepared by crew chief Dave Rogers can be as mercurial as the individual piloting them, though, and cannot match the consistency of their No. 11 stallmates.
With the Roush Fenway trio of Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards having been thrust back into relevancy by way of some help from their pseudo-teammates at Richard Petty Motorsports, Ford makes up a quarter of this year’s Chase field. But will they be able to build on their momentum of recent weeks? Biffle’s August win at Pocono was both timely and inspirational for the entire organization – Ford’s first win in over a year and a half, and one that was on the heels of team owner Jack Roush narrowly escaping death in another aerial accident. Edwards hasn’t won, but scored eight top 10s in the last nine races, with the other being a 12th-place effort. Kenseth made it on the strength of not wrecking and nothing breaking; however, top-15 finishes are not going to mean much after about the third race at Kansas.
So what is the final prognosis from Professor Pugliese?
Johnson, Hamlin and Edwards will win, place and show for the 2010 Sprint Cup, with seven wins divided among these three. Will it go down to the last race to determine Johnson’s unholy fifth consecutive title? Sure, but only due to a mathematical possibility should he not start, or finish 38th or worse in Homestead.
So while the top 12 are separated now by a whopping 60 points, don’t believe the hype; the Chase is not going to be the Rocky vs. Apollo saga between the Dirty Dozen, but rather between the two teams that have put up the wins come crunch time in 2010, along with a third on the rebound and riding a wave of momentum as it crests into the playoffs at Loudon this Sunday.
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