For the past five years, the primary question when the Chase for the Sprint Cup began was always the same: can anyone beat Jimmie Johnson?
With Tony Stewart finally answering that question in the affirmative last season, this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, the 10-race competition that begins Sunday with the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, seems considerably more wide open. At least half the field has a realistic chance of winning NASCAR’s overall title.
Before counting any of the 12 Chase drivers out of contention, remember two things. First, Stewart didn’t win a race until September last year and emerged the champion. Second, I predicted that Carl Edwards, who tied Stewart for points last season, would win the championship this year. Instead, Edwards did not win a race and missed out on the Chase. (To be fair to myself, I correctly predicted 10 of the 12 Chase drivers, with Edwards and Kyle Busch finishing in the first two spots outside the top 12.)
Let’s break down the 12-driver Chase field, elimination-style:
The 12 drivers in the Chase are Denny Hamlin; Jimmie Johnson; Tony Stewart; Brad Keselowski; Greg Biffle; Clint Bowyer; Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Matt Kenseth; Martin Truex Jr.; Kevin Harvick; Kasey Kahne; Jeff Gordon.
Drivers start with three bonus points for victories, putting Denny Hamlin in the lead, three points ahead of Johnson, Stewart and Keselowski. The exception to the bonus point rule is a driver who finishes outside the top 10 but earns a wild card based on victories; therefore, neither Kasey Kahne nor Jeff Gordon enters the Chase with bonus points.
ALMOST NO SHOT
Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth. Bowyer, with two victories, has been terrific this season. He’s gotten everything out of his car that he can. I simply don’t see him ready to defeat the elite on a regular basis. Truex hasn’t won a race in five years, although he’s come close in recent weeks. Truex may have won in Atlanta a few weeks ago if it weren’t for a late-race caution. I wouldn’t be shocked if Truex reaches Victory Lane, ending his winless streak, but I don’t think he’ll compete for the championship.
Kenseth is the biggest name on this list. He’s tied for seventh in points, but his lone win came at the season-opening Daytona 500. Kenseth is leaving Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing after this season, so it will be interesting to see if he cooperates with future JGR teammate Denny Hamlin as much as he does with current teammate Greg Biffle.
Remaining drivers: Hamlin; Johnson; Stewart; Keselowski; Earnhardt; Harvick; Biffle; Kahne; Gordon.
Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle. Harvick hasn’t won all year and has finished among the top five (four times) and top 10 (11 times) fewer times than any other driver in the Chase. Kahne and Biffle have two wins apiece. Kahne is on the rise, but I don’t think he’s ready to eclipse his three Hendrick Motorsport teammates (Johnson, Earnhardt, Gordon). Biffle has two victories, but I just have a feeling he’s not a threat to win the title. Or, that could simply be me justifying my preseason prediction that Biffle wouldn’t qualify for the Chase.
Remaining drivers: Hamlin; Johnson; Stewart; Keselowski; Earnhardt; Gordon.
Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon. It wouldn’t be shocking if any of these three win the Chase. Stewart, the defending champion, has won three races this year. Earnhardt has 17 top 10 finishes, tying Johnson for the most this year.
Gordon, who qualified for the Chase by finishing second at Richmond, the final race before the Chase, has finished among the top six in nine of his last 12 races. Gordon won the Pennsylvania 400 in August and has been among the top three in his last three races. Gordon and Earnhardt will be two of the fans’ sentimental favorites.
Remaining drivers: Hamlin; Johnson; Keselowski.
The favorites are Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. Hamlin, with his four wins, has had mixed success in recent weeks. He’s finished outside the top 10 in four of his last six races, but he’s won the two races in which he’s finished inside the top 10. Johnson, of course, keeps rolling along. You know he’s determined to regain the crown he lost last season.
Keselowski is the most interesting of the top three contenders. Using boxing terminology, Keselowski has a puncher’s chances – and he’s got a whale of a punch. It’s possible to envision Keselowski winning three races and taking command of the Chase.
I was leaning toward picking Hamlin, but his failure to finish in the top 10 in four of his past six races caused me to back off that selection. Because it’s a wide-open year, I’m going to pick someone outside the top group of favorites.
3. Jimmie Johnson
2. Denny Hamlin
1. Completing a remarkable storybook comeback, including qualifying for the Chase at the last possible moment, Jeff Gordon.