Jimmie Johnson made it clear in the mid-part of 2012 that he would be the driver to beat in the Chase because of his consistency. From the May 12 race at Darlington to the June 30 race at Kentucky — a seven-race span — Johnson won twice while finishing inside the top six all but once.
The only other driver that displayed consistency even remotely matching that this season is Brad Keselowski. What Keselowski has done might even be more impressive. Nobody has scored more points in the last 11 races; during that span, Keselowski has two wins, seven top 5s and 10 top 10s.
On Sunday, he made a statement to Johnson and the rest of the Sprint Cup garage. Johnson brought his best car to the track and led a race-high 172 laps after starting from the pole only to finish second to Keselowski’s Dodge. Chad Knaus is still at Chicago, talking with NASCAR officials about Keselowski’s slide up in front of Johnson after his final pit stop. I’m not sure what there is to talk about, though. Keselowski relinquished the lead only to pass Johnson back half a lap later and leave the five-time champion in the dust.
Here is who’s hot and who’s not after the first race in the Chase at Chicago.
There isn’t much to be said about *Brad Keselowski* that wasn’t said in the intro. With his first Chase win on Sunday, Keselowski moved into the point lead for the first time in his career. Considering he is the hottest driver in the series right now, that could spell trouble for the competition.
*Jimmie Johnson* and Chad Knaus find a way to turn up the wick once the Chase begins like no other team. Johnson dominated at Chicago, leading 172 laps at a track that he had never even won at before. Keselowski got the best of Johnson in the end, but with only three points separating the drivers and nine races to go, Johnson is still the favorite to capture his sixth title.
*Clint Bowyer* didn’t have the speed to contend for the win, but he kept himself in the hunt with another top 10 (tenth). Bowyer has been one of the hottest drivers as of late with six top 10s in his last seven starts.
After his win at Richmond, expect Bowyer—only 15 points out of the lead—to be a factor for the win at New Hampshire, where he finished third earlier this season and has won a Chase race in the past.
If *Tony Stewart* could qualify in the top 20 consistently, he’d be in contention to win a lot more races. For the second straight week, Stewart started in the back (28th and 29th) and drove up into the top 10. Smoke wound up sixth with a car that wasn’t to his liking and is lurking only eight points out of the lead. Up next? Loudon, a race where last year’s five-time postseason winner is the defending champ.
*Sam Hornish Jr.* isn’t going to get much recognition for 11th place, but he has been solid since Roger Penske asked him to step into the No. 22 in place of A.J. Allmendinger. He has three consecutive finishes of 11th and an average finish of 17.4 since taking over behind the wheel. By comparison, it is better than Allmendinger’s season average of 20.65 and right on pace with Joey Logano, the driver piloting Hornish Jr.’s current ride, who has an average result of 17.8.
*Greg Biffle* is really wishing he was awarded some extra bonus points for being the point leader after 26 races because he could sure use those points now. Biffle is still in the hunt after placing 13th at Chicago, but has about as much momentum as Travis Kvapil (who took his jack for a lap around the same track).
Since winning at Michigan, Biffle’s best result in the last four races is ninth. That’s not going to win him the Cup at Homestead, as is a rough Ford performance all around – none of their cars finished inside the top 10 on Sunday.
*Aric Almirola* got the weekend off to a promising start on Saturday by qualifying on the outside pole. He ran in the top three for the first stint of Sunday’s race, but after a mistake on pit road, Almirola never found his way back to the front. Almirola has show a propensity to fade like no other driver. He’s qualified in the top 5 five times in 2012 but his finishes in those races are 12th, 16th, 19th, 35th and 17th.
*Carl Edwards* proved why he wasn’t Chase material on Sunday, finishing a lap off the pace in 19th. Since the No. 99 team isn’t in the playoffs, their goal needs to be to improve Edwards’ cars so they can be contenders in 2013. Unfortunately for Roush Fenway Racing, it didn’t like they learned much at Chicago to help Edwards going forward: 13th with Biffle was the best they could do with three cars.
Edwards is arguably performing worse now than he has all season. He hasn’t cracked the top 15 in the last four events and has just two top 10s in the last nine races.
*Jeff Gordon* went from being one of the hottest drivers in the series to one of the coldest in a week. The black cloud that has followed Gordon around all season was hovering over the No. 24 at Chicago. While running fourth, Gordon slammed into the outside wall with an apparent stuck throttle. It could only happen to Gordon, the same driver who cut multiple left-rear tires at Darlington, was side-swiped by his teammate and spun into the wall at Bristol and hit a moose at Pocono (one of those might not be true).
The real reason Gordon belongs in the cold category is because after one week, his Chase is all but over. Martin Truex, Jr., Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick all struggled with their cars on Sunday, but they all drove to top-15 finishes; they all lived to fight another day. Gordon’s in a big hole, 47 points out, and while it isn’t impossible for him to climb out, the way his year has been going, I think he has a better chance of actually hitting that moose than getting back in the hunt.
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