It certainly was strange not to have a Cup race to watch this past weekend. You get so used to the relentless nature of the schedule and the regular routine that when there is a brief moment of respite it seems, well, all a little strange. Now, though, with the off week consigned to the history books, it’s time for the stretch run and seventeen straight weekends of racing that will decide who does and doesn’t make the Chase; and ultimately who will be crowned the 2012 Sprint Cup Champion.
What Tony Stewart did last year in “the playoffs” was unparalleled in Chase history. No driver has ever won so many races to on the way to the wavy silver Sprint Cup trophy. You can top-5, top-10 the competition into the ground but wins count big. Real big. Truth is, it probably was something of an anomaly. How many drivers other than Smoke could have done that? You’re talking about a handful, at best. So yes, anything can happen. In the NASCAR world it usually does, let’s be fair. We don’t even know the final make up of the Chase; who might sneak in at the last minute and surprise everyone. But at this stage of the season with 19 races in the books and 17 left to go, here are my top five favorites for the championship, ranked from least to most likely to win it all.
*Brad Keselowski:* There is something refreshingly different about Brad Keselowski. He speaks his mind without sounding like a tool, even when he addresses controversial issues and he backs it up on the track. His teething troubles with Denny Hamlin were of a more flippant nature; but there was nothing frivolous about the retaliation Carl Edwards meted out at Atlanta when Keselowski walking away unscathed was a testament to the safety of this new car. Then a hot streak of 3 wins in the summer of 2011 catapulted Keselowski into the realms of the drivers that could.
Three further wins this year — and surely the #NASCAR tweet of the year with his tweet of the Daytona 500 fire — sees him all but locked in. And with wins on three very different courses: Bristol (second straight), Kentucky and Talladega – with a game-changing two car tandem draft breaking move not to mention a top-10 type consistency could see Keselowski be a factor deep into the playoff run. Last year Keselowski finished the Chase in fifth place. He should go several places better, if not more in 2012.
*Tony Stewart:* Like the driver of the blue deuce, defending champion Tony Stewart also has three wins on the year. He won two of the first five races (Las Vegas and Fontana) riding a wave of momentum on the back of his third Cup championship. Stewart’s form slowed down some over the following weeks and months; but his win under the lights at Daytona was a virtual Chase clincher (under the new Wild Card rules). Once again, then, the wily veteran will run for a championship and try to defend his crown.
His chances? Simply put, you just can’t rule him out. What he did last year I said only a handful of drivers could do: Jeff Gordon in his title winning prime, old five-time himself Jimmie Johnson and that’s about all. It might not be Darian Grubb atop the war wagon this year, but new head wrench Steve Addington has already showed what he’s made of. Expect Stewart and his crew chief to be in synch when the Chase Pay window opens. A back-to-back championship, and a fourth overall Cup crown, is very much a possibility.
*Matt Kenseth:* I’m sure there are those of you reading this now thinking this guy is crazy. Matt Kenseth is a lame duck; he can’t win it despite his good form in 2012. And on one level I get that, with Kenseth’s likely move to Joe Gibbs Racing and the Home Depot car still not officially announced. But on the other hand, Kenseth is too good and too professional a driver and the team too good for anyone to give it any less than maximum effort. Kenseth won’t be taking so much as a tenth of a second off the gas: He’s in it to win it and Jack Roush, after an eight-year drought from the head table at the banquet, knows that as well.
As they stand, Kenseth is atop the points standings with one win – The Daytona 500 – nine top-5s, 13 top-10s and a series best average finish of 7.7. Make no mistake folks; the “robot” is back. It really is a sign of the times in NASCAR land that a consummate pro and a fantastic driver can’t get a sponsorship package at a top echelon organization like Roush Fenway Racing. But don’t be surprised if his career at RFR ends on the highest note of all with a second Cup championship.
*Denny Hamlin:* Hamlin’s 2011 season was statistically his worst in six full seasons of racing yet he still finished with a win and ninth place in the standings. There are drivers out there who would donate you a body part to have that stat line. In 2012, Hamlin under the guidance of 2011 champion crew chief Darian Grubb has driven to two wins, nine top-5s and 491 laps led (40 more than last year already.) Yes, he threw one away at Loudon in the last Cup race, but Grubb and Hamlin will learn more from that mistake in the long run than any short term pain they incurred by not finishing one position higher and winning the race.
Hamlin has been there before. He knows how close you can get and not actually win it all. Given the way Hamlin’s raced this year and the knowledge accumulated from always making the Chase these past sixth seasons, I’m of the mind that Hamlin might just go all the way this year. Heck, his good friend Bubba Watson won the Masters. Why not a first Cup title for Hamlin? He’s a good enough driver, that’s for sure.
*Jimmie Johnson:* And finally, there’s Five-Time himself, the Double J, good old Jimmie Johnson. Take away his poor finishes at restrictor plate races (42nd Daytona, 35th Talladega, 36th summer Daytona) and Johnson’s worst result of the year is a 12th place result at Martinsville…and we all know what happened there. No question about it, Jimmie is back and he’s hungrier than ever. He eviscerated the field at the first race at the Monster Mile; we all know what that means for the Chase race and that’s just one track.
Johnson is, in my mind, one of the top five greatest drivers ever. I would not be surprised at all to see him win championship number six this year, a title that would put him in sight of the legendary names of Earnhardt and Petty.
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