Seven past champions are racing full-time in the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and from the looks of it, one of them will take the title when the checkered flag falls at Homestead in November.
Cup champs Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson have combined to win 15 of 20 events run in 2016 so far, putting them on pace to win 27 of 36 points-paying races by the end of the season. Given that the Chase now puts the premium on winning higher than it ever has before, it makes sense to say that one of these seven will be the champion.
Of these seven drivers, two have stood out in recent weeks as heavy favorites to make to Homestead to be in contention for the big silver trophy: Keselowski and Kyle Busch.
Both are more recent Cup titlists, with Kyle Busch’s title coming last year in the most-recent iteration of the Chase. Keselowski’s title, on the other hand, was won under the 10-race Chase format, although he had to be on the top of his game to dethrone then five-time champion Johnson.
The two drivers have finished in the top 10 in more than half their races this season, a feat only five others have accomplished. But unlike those five others, Kyle Busch and Keselowski both sit in the top 5 in points, both have four wins to their name and both have the momentum to continue adding to those numbers over the next 16 races.
So who is the championship favorite out of these two red-hot drivers?
As strong as Toyota has looked this season, only one team has really had the speed to compete, and that team is Team Penske, which Keselowski drives for.
So as much as I’d like to argue that Kyle Busch is the championship favorite right now, I’ve got to say that Bad Brad is more likely to take the title in a few months.
Why? One major reason: consistency.
While it is true that, in this iteration of the Chase, a driver can overcome a bad race and move on by winning another race in the round, it is important to not have those bad days. Just look at Johnson, who had a terrible Dover race last season and, because he had not won at Chicagoland or Loudon previously, was knocked out of the playoffs early. The good news for Keselowski is that he has been consistent all season, having yet to record a DNF and failing to complete only eight of 5,673 laps turned. This will serve him well in the Chase should he not find himself with a car able to win.
Kyle Busch, on the other hand, has as many DNFs through 20 races as he has wins – four. What’s even worse is that two of those DNFs came at tracks that host Chase races – Dover and Charlotte. Both fall into different rounds of the Chase, meaning if the No. 18 finds trouble again in either race, its Chase hopes could suffer. Throw in Kansas, too, a track where the younger Busch has struggled at mightily prior to his win in the spring race this season, and Joe Gibbs Racing must be at least the slightest bit concerned about the playoffs.
Keselowski, provided he keeps his current pace up the rest of the season, doesn’t need to worry about the issues that have plagued his chief rival for the title.
And while both Kyle Busch and Keselowski know how to win, Keselowski seems to win at more opportunistic times. During his 2012 title run, Keselowski won two of the first three races, serving notice to Johnson that he’d have to step up his game in order to wrestle the title away from the Blue Deuce. Kyle Busch, on the other hand, won only one race during his 2015 Chase – the final one. Which is fine and dandy until one realizes that a team has to survive nine races prior to the finale to have a shot. And with that, we find ourselves back at the consistency issue.
It’ll be a close title run, for sure, but when the dust settles it is much more likely that Keselowski will be the two-time champ rather than Kyle Busch.
As a result of Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance through the first half of the season, Kyle Busch is the current favorite for the Sprint Cup Series title.
JGR has been unstoppable in 2016. The organization has scored nine wins through 20 races, including four from Busch. This team’s success has been influenced by many factors.
Most notably, JGR has mastered the current rules package. When the low downforce package was first used last season, JGR drivers captured the victories with Busch at Kentucky and Carl Edwards at Darlington.
Through this success, they earned a leg-up on the competition heading into this year when the package would be used full-time. This advantage was most evident in April into May when the team won six of seven races.
While it seemed as JGR had lost this advantage in June when the organization struggled to post the same caliber of performances, they have redeemed themselves in July. This includes winning the last two races, including Busch’s record-breaking domination at Indianapolis.
Through JGR’s recent performances, there is no indication they will ease up anytime soon and will likely continue to get stronger as the Chase approaches. While Team Penske has been stout this season, they haven’t been able to match JGR’s domination.
Two of Keselowski’s victories came at restrictor plate tracks, which attest to his prowess at Daytona and Talladega. However, with only one plate track left this season, success at other types of facilities will be key to deciding who contends for the championship.
Both Busch and Keselowski have two wins at 1.5-mile tracks, but the significance of the victories differ. Keselowski’s wins came at tracks that won’t be in the Chase and have unique characteristics that set them apart from most intermediate facilities.
Busch’s first mile-and-a-half win came at Texas, a crucial track come November when a spot in the Championship 4 will be on the line. He also won at Kansas, another Chase track and one where a win could alleviate the pressure of going to Talladega in the Round of 12 and needing to perform well to advance.
Busch also stands out in terms of laps led en route to victory. He led 604 laps in his four victories compared to Keselowski who only led 260 laps.
Head-to-head, Busch has scored 11 top five’s and 13 top 10’s in 2016, while Keselowski has captured 8 top five’s and 12 top-10 finishes.
The advantage will sit with Busch once the Chase arrives as well. Last year, he conquered the format by running well when he needed to and being in position when it counted.
This included finishing second at Dover in October in an elimination race after placing 37th in the previous event at New Hampshire.
In the second round, a top-five run at Kansas and surviving Talladega propelled the No. 18 team to the third round where they scored three consecutive top-five finishes and advanced to the championship race.
Busch also has the experience of racing for a championship at Homestead-Miami under the current format. While Keselowski has won a championship, it was not in a winner take all event with three other competitors. Experience always plays a crucial role in the sport and Busch has it on his side.
While both drivers seem to be the strongest title threats at the moment, anything can happen in the final six regular season races.
However, based on JGR’s success, Busch’s dominance, and his experience, if the Chase started today, Busch would be the championship favorite.
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