After seven months of speculation, surprise winners and clinch scenarios, the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup grid has been set.
And let me tell you, it’s a doozy.
Coming off a fairly standard year in 2015 — or at least as “standard” of a year as you can have in the second season of a new playoff format — 2016 provided a slew of new storylines previously thought to be little more than distant hopes.
Two rookies, seven past champions, six Daytona 500 victors and a retiring legend will fill the field for NASCAR’s playoffs starting this coming weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, and each made their way onto the grid via their own unique story. Here’s how each driver made their way into the playoff, and what their odds for success are moving forward.
2016 Chase Grid: How They Got Here
1) Brad Keselowski
Wins: 4 (Las Vegas, Talladega, Daytona, Kentucky)
How He Got Here: By making the most of each opportunity. Brad Keselowski and Team Penske haven’t shown the consistent speed of some of his closest competitors, but his No. 2 team made the most of each opportunity to tally four wins in the regular season. Keselowski peaked at the right time to snag victories at Las Vegas and Kentucky, but his true strength has come on the restrictor plate tracks, where he won back-to-back races in dominant fashion at Talladega and Daytona.
Championship Odds: High. Keselowski may not be the favorite to take the title, but his team’s ability to strike when opportunity arises is reminiscent of the 2012 campaign that saw Keselowski surprise the field for his first championship. It’s been a surprisingly quiet year for the Michigander, save for a recent squabble with Matt Kenseth, and that may help his odds if his team can hit on the right balance through the next three months.
2) Kyle Busch
Wins: 4 (Martinsville, Texas, Kansas, Indianapolis)
How He Got Here: Looking to defend his 2015 title, Kyle Busch led the way for Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing, earning four victories in the regular season. Rowdy repeated his 2015 victory at Indianapolis, and earned three victories at tracks he’ll see again in the Chase to give hope for another championship come Homestead.
Championship Odds: High. Kyle Busch is a wheelman. Nobody would dare deny that. He’s been the top drive throughout the course of the year at arguably the best team in the garage, and that should bode well for his Chase hopes. Still, Busch tallied only one win in the final 15 races of the regular season. That tally will likely need to increase if he hopes to make the Championship 4 again.
3) Denny Hamlin
Wins: 3 (Daytona I, Watkins Glen, Richmond II)
How He Got Here: Denny Hamlin’s road to the Chase ended after just one week, when he surged to a incredible victory in the Daytona 500. However, from there the Virginian went quiet, failing to make his way back to victory lane through the summer, famously surrendering the race lead to Tony Stewart on the final turn at Sonoma Raceway. Hamlin avenged that loss with a win in the other road-course race at Watkins Glen International, and followed it with a victory in the regular season finale at Richmond International Raceway.
Championship Odds: High. Hamlin may have gone quiet over the spring and summer, but his team quietly build up a consistent campaign during that time. Hamlin tallied top 10s in a career-best eight-straight races to end the regular season, and he’s made the final round of qualifying in every race since the Daytona 500.
4) Kevin Harvick
Wins: 2 (Phoenix, Bristol II)
How He Got Here: The same way Kevin Harvick’s made his way to the Chase in each season with Stewart-Haas Racing, with incredible speed and the occasional win. Harvick tallied another six top-2 runs, including two victories at Phoenix and in the lone “Bristol Night Race” actually ran during he day. Harvick enters the Chase with supreme consistency, but his team again gave away more wins than they earned.
Championship Odds: High. Yes, Harvick’s No. 4 team has had their issues, resulting in a swap of a couple pit crew members with Danica Patrick’s No. 10 team after Darlington. Still, Happy’s No. 4 is seen inside of the top 5 more often than it isn’t, and he’s finished inside of the top 10 in 80 percent of his starts. That was good enough to make it to the Championship 4 in the last two years, and it likely could be again in 2016.
5) Carl Edwards
Wins: 2 (Bristol I, Richmond I)
How He Got Here: Carl Edwards did much like the rest of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates early in the season, dominating the field and finding himself in contention to win multiple times throughout the spring. Edwards ultimately earned two victories, scoring back-to-back wins in the spring races at Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway. However, Cousin Carl has failed to score another win in the last 17 races, tallying only seven top 10s in that time
Championship Odds: Average. Carl Edwards has come closer to a Cup title than any other driver without one, losing the title to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker in 2011, so the 12-year veteran knows how to get the job done. The issue for Edwards will be righting the ship after struggling through the summer months. He’s in arguably the best equipment in the field with JGR, but he’ll need to outrun his three (well, basically four) teammates along with the rest of the playoff grid to hoist the Sprint Cup. Recent history indicates that accomplishing that feat will be an arduous task.
6) Martin Truex, Jr.
Wins: 2 (Charlotte, Darlington)
How He Got Here: Martin Truex, Jr., and his Furniture Row Racing team have played the role of big game hunters in their first season with Toyota, avenging the closest loss in Daytona 500 history with wins in a arguably the next two biggest races – the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500. The first was a record-setting domination, the latter a win stolen from Kevin Harvick amid the 2014 champion’s pit road woes. The scary thing is, this team should’ve won more races, with 1234 laps led on the year to date, including more than 100 laps led in five separate races.
Championship Odds: High. It’s easy to look past Truex and focus on his pseudo-teammates at JGR, but the fact of the matter is that none of Toyota’s teams have flexed quite as much muscle as Truex in recent weeks. Truex’s win at Darlington sent a statement to the field, and his team’s weekly speed is rivaled by only a select few drivers. This team survived to the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway last season, and they weren’t running nearly as strong as they are this year. If they can minimize mistakes and poor luck for the next 10 weeks, their championship potential is as high as any team in the paddock.
7) Jimmie Johnson
Wins: 2 (Atlanta, Fontana)
How He Got Here: If NASCAR’s entire schedule was made up of tracks on the early-season West Coast Swing, then Jimmie Johnson would likely be the favorite in the garage. Johnson tallied a win in the second race of the year at Atlanta Motor Speedway to stamp his name into the Chase, and followed it up with a win at Auto Club Speedway during the West Coast Swing while climbing up the second in points. Unfortunately for Johnson, the summer following that run has been arguably the worst period in the Californian’s career. Case in point: Johnson has two more finishes outside the top 30 (five) in the last 13 races than he has top 10s (three).
Championship Odds: Low. It’s difficult to rule the six-time Sprint Cup Series champion out of contention going into the Chase regardless of his recent results, but Johnson’s No. 48 team has a difficult slope ahead if they want to make a deep run in the postseason. Hendrick Motorsports has looked a step behind the rest of the field for the majority of the season, and even Johnson should find that difficult to overcome as he looks to avenge his first-round elimination in 2015. Still, if JJ can catch fire at the right time, we all know what he’s capable of.
8) Matt Kenseth
Wins: 2 (Dover, New Hampshire)
How He Got Here: If you only saw the first 11 weeks of the season, you’d likely think Matt Kenseth was in the midst of a full-blown crisis. After losing the Daytona 500 on an ill-advised move coming off of Turn 4 on the final lap, Kenseth was dealt blow after blow of bad luck through the early stages of the season, prompting fans and media alike to question his team’s ability to make the Chase. However, a late spring win at Dover International Raceway erased all of those doubts, and an second win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway established Kenseth as a legitimate contender moving forward, even if his team still struggles a bit with inconsistency.
Championship Odds: Average. Look, this needs to be said: Kenseth has been arguably the worst driver at JGR throughout the season. His team never rose higher than ninth in the series standings during the regular season, and they have only five top 10s in the last 10 races. Still, Kenseth is a veteran capable of winning on any given week, and is sitting in some of the best equipment in the garage. It also helps than Kenseth’s two wins the season come at track’s he’ll see again early in the Chase. If the 2003 NSCS champ can repeat his earlier success at those tracks and survive the attrition rate of the later rounds, he might just find himself among the Championship 4 at Homestead. From there, it’s anybody’s race.
9) Joey Logano
Wins: 1 (Michigan I)
How He Got Here: Joey Logano entered 2016 as one of the championship favorites after a dominant 2016 that fell short of a title largely because he made the wrong people angry. However, this season Logano has traded wins for consistency, earning only one points-paying victory (he also won the All-Star Race), but also tallying top 10s in 69.2 percent of his starts thus-far. The Team Penske driver trailed only Harvick and Keselowski in points after the final week of the regular season.
Championship Odds: Above Average. It wouldn’t be fair to say Logano’s championship odds are high when his team has struggled delay to find victory lane, but the eighth-year veteran’s consistency should serve him well in the Chase. Team Penske seems to be a step behind JGR, but they’ve shown flashes of speed when they find a good setup. Logano’s best hopes would be to survive to the Championship 4, much like he did in 2014, and hope his team can hit on the right package for Homestead.
10) Kurt Busch
Wins: 1 (Pocono I)
How He Got Here: Consistency, consistency and more consistency. Kurt Busch completed every lap of a record 22 races to open the season before crashing out from the lead in August’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. The Nevadan hasn’t shown the same raw speed as Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Harvick, but his sheer consistency keep him in the top five in points until a crash in the penultimate race of the regular season at Darlington Raceway.
Championship Odds: Average. Much like Logano, the elder Busch brother will likely need to rely on survival and hope for a good weekend at Homestead if he wants to earn his second Sprint Cup Series title. Busch has six top 5s on the year, but his win at Pocono is his lone finish in the top two. It’ll take more speed than that to have a chance at the Sprint Cup come November.
11) Kyle Larson
Wins: 1 (Michigan II)
How He Got Here: He finally got the monkey off his back. Larson bested fellow young gun Chase Elliott on a late restart to claim his first-career Cup Series victory at Michigan International Speedway back in August, securing himself into the Chase after sitting on the bubble throughout the summer. Larson then followed up that run with two more top-three results at Darlington Raceway and Richmond International Raceway to end the regular season on a high note.
Championship Odds: Above Average. Kyle Larson hasn’t had the most successful year, but the Californian enters the Chase with momentum after contending for the race win in three-straight weeks. His Chip Ganassi Racing team has some inconsistency issues to work out –they earned only 10 top 10s in the opening 26 races– but when the No. 42 team has speed they’ve proven that they know how to get the job done. That will serve them well over the coming weeks if they can stay out of harm’s way.
12) Tony Stewart
Wins: 1 (Sonoma)
How He Got Here: By returning to vintage Tony Stewart form at Sonoma Raceway. Stewart didn’t make the first start of his final year in Cup until the ninth week of the season after injuring his back shortly before Daytona, and struggled through his first handful of starts with Mike Bugarewicz. However, a strong run in the first race at Michigan helped Smoke gain momentum, and a timely caution at Sonoma set the three-time champion up for a surprise win. From there all Stewart had to do was make his way into the top 30 in points, which he did in the July race at Daytona. Smoke had a few bad runs in the month leading up to the Chase, but by then he had risen up to 26th, guaranteeing his Chase berth.
Championship Odds: Average. Stewart soared to his first win in over three years at Sonoma, and scored five top 5s in seven races from June through August. However, four-straight finishes outside of the top 20 in the final four rounds before the Chase aren’t a good sign for fans hoping for another miracle title from Smoke like 2011. If Stewart can return to summer form he’s as strong as anyone in the paddock, but if he continues to show the struggles the plagued him for the last month then Stewart’s final Chase run could see an early exit.
13) Chris Buescher
Wins: 1 (Pocono II)
How He Got Here: With the most surprising win of the season. Chris Buescher found himself in the lead of an already-postponed Monday race at Pocono Raceway back in August when heavy fog and rain storms forced NASCAR to call the race, giving Buescher his first NSCS victory and Front Row Motorsports their first win since David Ragan’s shocking victory at Talladega Superspeedway in 2013. Still, Buescher had more work to do. The Texan drove his way from 33rd into the top 30 in points over the final eight races, finally earning his Chase bid when both David Ragan and Landon Cassill faced issues at Richmond.
Championship Odds: Low. Look, Buescher and his Front Row Motorsports crew barely made their way into the top 30. Just making the Chase is a tremendous accomplishment. They’ll likely be out in the first round, but there’s a tremendous value to making the playoff in the first place.
14) Austin Dillon
How He Got Here: Austin Dillon entered 2016 with tempered expectations after regressing to a 21st-place finish in points in 2015. However, after being the only Richard Childress Racing driver to fail to make the Chase last season, this year Dillon will be the team’s only hope amid a surprisingly strong 2016 campaign. The elder Dillon brother failed to earn his first victory, but tallied four top-5s and recorded only one DNF to make his way into the Chase on points.
Championship Odds: Low. Dillon knows a thing or two about winning a championship without a victory –His lone XFINITY Series championship in 2013 came without a win– but the North Carolina native isn’t likely to repeat that success in the Cup Series. It took a win at Homestead for both Harvick and Busch to earn their titles in the first two years of the new Chase format. If Dillon’s No. 3 team can’t find the speed necessary to get to victory lane, he’ll likely fall short like teammate Ryan Newman in 2014.
15) Chase Elliott
How He Got Here: If you asked Chase Elliott himself, he’d likely tell you his season to date’s been a failure. However, the truth is that the Georgian has done an admirable job replacing the retired (well, sort of) Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet. Elliott contended for wins frequently throughout the spring and summer months, finishing twice in both starts at Michigan and scoring seven top 5s in total. A slew of poor finishes over the summer almost spoiled the rookie’s playoff hopes, but his points cushion was strong enough to earn his first Chase bid.
Championship Odds: Average. It’s rare to consider a winless driver a real threat in the championship battle, and even more rare to see a rookie in the mix, but Elliott’s tale is a little different than others in both categories. Despite only being a rookie, Elliott has shown the prowess of a veteran throughout the year, and while he’s yet to make his way to victory lane, Elliott has been in contention for more wins than many of the drivers above him in the playoff field. If Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports team can hit on the right combination in the Chase, he could just shock the paddock.
16) Jamie McMurray
How He Got Here: Points racing. That’s it. Jamie McMurray tallied only one top 5 and nine top 10s throughout the season, but minimized his mistakes and completed 98.9 percent of all laps ran to sneak his way into the Chase on consistency. He’ll join teammate Larson to put Chip Ganassi Racing’s entire organization into the Chase for the first time in company history.
Championship Odds: Low. For the second-straight year, McMurray snuck his way into the Chase field on points, but it could be argued that he’s ran worse this season than he did last year before a first-round exit at Dover. Could McMurray go on a run and surprise the field? Certainly. He’s a Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 champion. However, nothing seen from McMurray’s No. 1 team this year gives any reason to expect that sort of run.