Anything can happen during the Chase for the Sprint Cup. At least that’s the way the 10-race battle for NASCAR’s championship is presented. In reality, only a handful of drivers have legitimate chances to win the championship.
The 16-driver Chase begins Sunday with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. With the Bears playing the Eagles on Monday night, this makes the start of the Chase a major sports story in the nation’s third-largest city.
NASCAR has simplified the names for the rounds of the Chase, dispensing with Challengers Round and similar titles for Round of 16, Round of 12, Round of 8, and Championship. But the system remains the same. After three races, the lowest-ranking four drivers will be eliminated from the Chase. After three more, the field is cut to eight. The field will be reduced to four for the championship race.
Defending champion Kyle Busch begins the Chase tied for first place with 2012 champion Brad Keselowski at the start of the Chase because both of them had four wins during the first 26 races this year. Denny Hamlin, Busch’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, starts three points behind the co-leaders after picking up his third win of the year at Richmond last weekend.
Busch and Hamlin are joined by Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, who, with two wins apiece, begin the Chase six points behind the co-leaders.
One unusual aspect about the Chase field this year is that there are only two drivers from Hendrick Motorsports, which used to be a dominant organization. With Kasey Kahne finishing two spots outside the Chase and Dale Earnhardt Jr. sidelined for the rest of the year by concussion symptoms, Jimmie Johnson and rookie Chase Elliott are the only two Hendrick drivers in the Chase. Furniture Row Racing (Martin Truex Jr., Chris Buescher) and Chip Ganassi Racing (Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray) have as many Chase entrants as Hendrick.
Let’s take a closer look at the Chase field.
Buescher qualified for the Chase with a weather-related strategy victory in the Pennsylvania 400. He barely remained in the top 30, which is also a criteria for participating in the Chase. He’s not going to win the Chase.
Austin Dillon, Larson and Elliott provide the Chase with some fresh blood. I’m going to pat myself on the back for predicting that all three of these young drivers would qualify for the Chase this year. In fact, I correctly predicted 14 of the 16 members of the Chase field, with my only omissions being Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher – and nobody outside of Buescher’s family and crew thought he would be in the Chase field.
Larson picked up a late win. Dillon and Elliott are winless. It’s difficult to win the Chase without winning a race. One member of this trio might survive into the Round of 8, but don’t expect any of them to be in the Championship race.
Just as the young guns are unlikely to prevail in the Chase, so are the old guys. Tony Stewart, completing his final year as a full-time driver, is 45 years old. Kurt Busch I 38. Jamie McMurray, who secured the final Chase berth, is 40. Although dismissing the chances of former champions such as Stewart (2002, 2005, 2011) and Kurt Busch (2004) shouldn’t be done hastily, they are both long shots to win the Chase. McMurray is winless this year and only has one top 5 finish.
Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr. and Carl Edwards won two races apiece this season. That would seem to make them prime contenders in the Chase, but they seem to be a notch below the elite drivers this year. Kenseth, the 2003 champion, has just four top 5 finishes. Edwards and Truex, both seeking their first titles, have seven and five top 5 finishes, respectively. Kenseth and Edwards are part of Joe Gibbs Racing, which is the best team in NASCAR, but teammates Hamlin and Kyle Busch are ahead of them this year.
I planned on making this category a top five, but I’m not counting out six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, even if he only has seven top 5 finishes this year. Johnson was part of my preseason top five. The other four drivers in my preseason top five – Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Hamlin and Joey Logano – are also in my pre-Chase top five. The other driver in my top six is Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski, Johnson, Harvick and Kyle Busch have won the last four championships. Before the season, I picked Logano to break through and win the championship. I’m still picking a first-time champion, but, given the success of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyota’s this year, I’m picking Hamlin, the 2010 runner-up and third-place finisher in 2014, to emerge from the Chase as champion.