It’s that time of year again. For the eighth consecutive season, NASCAR has reset the points for its top drivers in the standings, putting them all within striking distance for the Sprint Cup. Whether you love or hate NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, the week leading up to race one of the Chase is more tense than usual. It provides everyone with an opportunity to analyze and predict which drivers can capitalize on the ten race sprint for the championship. So without further ado, here is my take on how the final standings will play out:
*12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. –* Bring it on Junior Nation! I am ready for the backlash. You guys will need to have a strong argument to think he can fare any better, though. After starting the year off with near wins at Martinsville and Charlotte, Earnhardt has faded, dropping from third in points back in June to currently tenth. In the last ten races, he has posted just one top-10 and has accumulated fewer points than any other Chaser in that same span. For Earnhardt fans, rejoice that he is back in the Chase, but don’t get your hopes up that he will be a threat.
*11. Denny Hamlin –* Hamlin made it in as the second wildcard thanks to his win at Michigan. However, there hasn’t been much else to be proud of. He enters the Chase with just four top-5 finishes, which is on pace to be his lowest total since joining the Cup level full-time in 2006. If he can avoid some of the bad luck that has plagued him in the first 26 races, then maybe Hamlin could make some more noise, but 2011 has looked to be the year of Kyle Busch at the JGR stable.
*10. Kurt Busch –* The last time someone was this bad with the media was in 2002, when it was Tony Stewart who got into trouble on several occasions. Stewart went on to win his first championship that year. Is that a good omen for Busch? Probably not. From a racing standpoint, this season has been interesting enough for the inaugural Chase winner. A solid first month had him leading the standings only to plummet almost outside the top-10 by May. It has continued to be a roller coaster ride since, but the Penske organization as a whole has been running better, accumulating a total of four victories since June. The problem for Busch is that teammate Brad Keselowski has three of those, which has overshadowed Kurt’s performance. Add in the reenergized feud with Jimmie Johnson and the new one with the media, and signs point to a Busch implosion in the final three months.
*9. Tony Stewart –* Despite many saying Stewart limped his way into the Chase, one could argue he hasn’t been all that bad, despite his comments after Michigan last month saying his team wasn’t worthy of a Chase spot. Five of Stewart’s 11 top-10s have come in the last eight races. For the two-time champion, 2011 has been possibly his weakest season to date, but putting that aside, he has looked better as of late, and has put up stronger numbers than several of the other Chasers.
*8. Ryan Newman –* Did you know that Newman’s 13.1 average finish this season is the highest in his ten-year career? Yes, even better than his sophomore campaign when he posted eight victories and 22 top-10’s. The Rocketman has to be concerned about some of the tracks on the remaining schedule, though. Dover, Kansas, Charlotte and Texas are Chase tracks that weren’t so kind to Newman earlier in the year. That list doesn’t even include Talladega, where he always seems to be a victim of the restrictor plate chaos.
*7. Brad Keselowski –* What a turnaround it has been for your defending Nationwide Series champion. Guess who you can thank for that? Me. I’m kidding of course, but if you read my article about him right before Darlington in May, I noted that if he didn’t step up soon, that his Cup career might not last much longer. Well as we all know, he did pick up the pace, going all the way from 28th to 11th in that stretch. No one has better hotter (except for maybe one guy, more on him later) in the last month, and the driver of the blue deuce will look to carry that momentum into the final ten races. While he may run with the leaders for the first few weeks, it is tough seeing him remain consistent all the way through. Inexperience will be the biggest issue. He is driving in only his second full year, and his crew chief Paul Wolfe, who was Keselowski’s crew chief in their championship season on the Nationwide side, is still a rookie on the Cup level. This team should be a threat for years to come, but their debut in the Chase will be more of a learning experience.
*6. Kyle Busch –* Unlike Keselowski, Busch has plenty of experience in the Chase. Unfortunately for your current point leader, he is starting to develop a history of not being able to put a full season together. He has always been strong early in the year, but has just one career top-5 points finish to show for it. He is having one of his most consistent seasons yet, but until he can prove to be competitive in the last ten events, it is hard to see him claiming the title. One thing that may help him – he plans to run just three more Nationwide races this year, allowing him to focus more on his Cup program.
*5. Carl Edwards –* Has Edwards been running test set-ups during the summer months in preparation for the Chase? If so, then he needs to be considered the favorite to dethrone Jimmie Johnson. He clearly looked to be that guy for the first half of the year, finishing in the top-10 in 12 of the first 16 races. From then until Bristol, the No. 99 team looked lost, with just one top-5 in eight weeks. Whether they were trying new things on the car or if it was the whole contract issue that lingered on for far too long, the problems have seemingly evaporated with back to back top-5s in at Atlanta and Richmond. We should know rather quickly which Carl Edwards will show up in the Chase.
*4. Kevin Harvick –* Much like Edwards, Harvick started the year off quite well, slumped during the summer, only to return right before the Chase. If Harvick’s problems were limited to trying out new things to gear up for a championship run, then he is going to be very strong. I am still a little concerned that they may have some consistency issues as the entire Richard Childress Racing team struggled over the summer. The Richmond win was a huge momentum booster, but he still seems to be missing the consistency he had during his 2010 run.
*3. Matt Kenseth –* Kenseth has to be excited that Texas and Dover, the two tracks he won at earlier in the year, are still on the schedule. In typical Kenseth fashion, he has once again quietly put together a very strong campaign, but is overlooked by guys like Busch, Edwards and Harvick. If Kenseth can stay out of trouble at Talladega, which is a big if, he and the No. 17 team could be one of the most consistent throughout the Chase.
*2. Jimmie Johnson –* Do I really think Johnson is actually going to lose this year? No, I don’t. But allow me to play Devil’s advocate and say he will. For starters, this looks to be the first year he enters the Chase in the midst of one of the hottest feuds in recent memory. Kurt Busch has made it seem like there will be no retaliation in store, but I don’t buy it. There is no one driver who has expressed so much disdain for Johnson’s success as Busch, and now he has a reason to mess with the five time chum – I mean champ. There is also the fact that Johnson has been off this year in one category, and that is in the win column. He has been having his typical year from a consistency standpoint, but his victory at Talladega in the spring has been his only checkered flag in 2011. While that’s not to say he isn’t going to win at all in the next ten weeks, it is going to be important that he does; all but once has the eventual champion won at least one race in the Chase.
*1. Jeff Gordon –* I’m really going out on a limb by saying that the guy that will finally end Johnson’s win streak is one of the sports greatest of all time, aren’t I? Remember when I was talking earlier about the one driver who has been hotter than Keselowski? It has been Gordon. He has scored more points than anyone else in the last ten races, and almost has a full race on second most (Keselowski, in case you were wondering). Perhaps the most defining moment of Gordon’s season came two weeks ago at Altanta, when he was able to hold off Johnson for the final ten laps. It reminded everyone that Gordon is still around, and he can still wheel a a racecar. Crew chief Alan Gustafson has been a great fit for Gordon, and he is experienced in the Chase, nearly leading Mark Martin to his first ever title two years ago, coming up short only to Johnson. This team has a good look right now, and if anyone can outdrive Johnson for the title, Gordon has shown he might just be the man to do it.
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