Just trying to figure who is going to win NASCAR’s 2016 championship is a difficult proposition. Sure there are some favorites, but in this 10-race format anyone can get hot at any time and any one can go cold at any time due to any number of circumstances. At any rate, here’s a look at some hots and nots heading into Sunday’s first Chase race at Chicagoland.
There’s no better way to head into the Chase than with a victory. That certainly makes Denny Hamlin one of the favorites out of the 16 drivers going for the title. Two other things that really make Hamlin the favorite are that he drivers a Toyota, which has won 13 of the 26 races this season, and also that his pit crew has regularly been one of the fastest this season.
I’m not saying Tony Stewart did or did not have a right to be upset with Ryan Newman or vice versa. But what Stewart has done the last two races in knocking out Brian Scott and Newman, Smoke fans can only hope he manages his anger a little better in the Chase. That’s especially true in the Newman case, where Stewart pulled down in front of the No. 31 and took a host of others cars out as well. If Stewart wanted to dump Newman, he should have waited a couple of laps, then got to his rear bumper and did the deed. And I wasn’t really surprised by Newman’s harsh comments about Stewart after the incident. They didn’t seem to be the best of friends before Newman came to Stewart-Haas Racing, so I thought that move was a bit of surprise. Now that Newman is gone, the Newman-Stewart relationship may be back to what it was years ago – a little frosty.
If you want to look for another big favorite here (and my pick to win The Chase), then look at Martin Truex, Jr. This is based on not only having two wins this year, but the fact he could have easily won three or four other races. The other factor that helps Truex is that he has been fast on a variety of tracks – short tracks, the 1.5-mile intermediates, and the superspeedways. I will be surprised if he is not one of the championship four heading into Homestead.
As much of a Cinderella story as rookie Chris Buescher making the Chase is, the cold hard facts just don’t point to him being much of a contender. Buescher got his win at the fog-delayed Pocono race in July and good for him. Nobody gives any kind of win back. But in his other races, Buescher has just one other top five finish this season and no other top 10 finishes. Buescher’s crew chief is Bob Osborne, who knows and understands all the facets of being a winner. He came within one point of leading Carl Edwards to a title in 2011. If Osborne can guide Buescher to the final 12 after the Dover elimination race, then that team would have to consider 2016 a major success, if it hasn’t already.
Some quick hits on some other Chase favorites:
Kevin Harvick – Had 13 top fives and 21 top 10s overall, most of any driver this season. If pit crew issues are solved, will be a real contender.
Kyle Busch – The defending champion has four wins this year and is capable of running off two or three straight victories at any time.
Brad Keselowski – Also had four wins including second most top fives this season with 12.
Joey Logano – He hasn’t been great this year, but has the second most top 10s with 18 and consistency does still matter in these final 10 races.
Chase Elliott – Sure this rookie doesn’t have a win, but he does have 13 top 10 finishes this season and a maturity that a lot of veterans would do well to emulate.
When Jimmie Johnson was running off his five straight titles, it seemed inevitable that would eventually join Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as seven time winners. But now that Johnson has six, and no matter the points format, getting that seventh title will be no easy accomplishment. Johnson has been plagued by a series of issues in recent races, including five finishes of 30th or worse in the last 13 races. You know the team has struggled this year when they talk about having a solid run at Richmond just to get a full and good race under their belts. Johnson may be the wild card in this whole Chase scenario. He is capable of winning anywhere any time. But it’s certainly no given he will be a serious contender either.
The Sprint Cup series heads to Chicagoland for the first race of the Chase, so things will be pretty intense in all areas of preparation as well as on the track. The pick to win Sunday is Brad Keselowski, who has a win and a top 10 in each of the last two races there. The deep sleeper underdog who you might or might not think about pick is Ryan Newman, who has one top 10 and an average finish of 9.5 in the last two Chicagoland races.
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