The 26th race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is over, and the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set.
We’re about to get our first look at NASCAR’s new Chase format, which features three elimination rounds and a one-race dash for the title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Sixteen drivers are eligible for the championship in the expanded Chase, 13 by winning races and three because of their positions in the standings.
But in that field of 16, who are the top contenders for the title, and who will simply be fortunate to survive and advance through increasingly rigorous elimination rounds?
Here’s my take on the 16 championship hopefuls:
THE TOP SIX
1. Brad Keselowski—With a series-best four victories this season, Keselowski is the top seed in the Chase for good reason. Last year’s post-championship swoon brought the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford back down to earth. He and his entire team have been working like demons this year to regain their form, and they’ve succeeded. Two of Keselowski’s victories this year have come on 1.5-mile speedways (Las Vegas and Kentucky), and there are five such tracks in the Chase. Kez also won at Loudon, host site for the second Chase race. The team has a test scheduled at Martinsville, where Keselowski has never won, to shore up the effort for the final three-race elimination round.
2. Jeff Gordon—With three wins in the bank, Gordon is having his most enjoyable season in Sprint Cup racing since his last championship year, in 2001. His No. 24 Chevrolets have been consistently fast, as he showed in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond, where Gordon was runner-up for the second time this year. The only thing that gives us pause is Gordon’s uneven performance at Chase tracks where the series already has run this season. The four-time champion won at Kansas, and finished second, fifth and seventh at Texas, Phoenix and Charlotte, respectively. But Gordon ran 26th at Loudon, 15th at Dover, 12th at Martinsville and 39th at Talladega, which hosts an elimination race. That’s a bullet he’ll have to dodge.
3. Joey Logano—Like Keselowski, Logano has been consistently fast this year as he grows into the talent fellow drivers have been touting since his teens. Logano has collected three of his six career wins this year, and the Chase schedule plays to his strength. If Logano survives the first two elimination rounds, and there’s every expectation he will, he comes to tracks where he has excelled this season. Logano finished fourth at Martinsville, first at Texas and fourth at Phoenix in the first races at those tracks this year. Sounds like that trio of tracks could punch his ticket to the final race.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.—In relative terms, Earnhardt has been stress-free since winning the Daytona 500, but that’s about to change. Enjoying his best season since his six-win effort in 2004, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte have set an enviable standard of consistency this season (a 10.3 average finish through 26 races), and that may be enough to carry them through the first two rounds of the Chase. To win the title, however, Earnhardt will have to get past Texas, where he made his worst mistake of the season and finished 43rd. He’ll likely have to add a fourth win to his total, too.
5. Kevin Harvick—There’s no doubt Harvick has had one of the fastest cars in the series at a wide variety of tracks. With perfect execution, he could have won eight races this year, rather than the two he did win. Pit road has been an issue for the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team. So has bad luck, some of it self-inflicted. Harvick has one of the best minds in the garage in crew chief Rodney Childers, but if the team can’t iron out the glitches during the Chase, Harvick won’t win his first championship, no matter how fast his cars happen to be.
6. Jimmie Johnson—The six-time champion gets the nod here simply because he’s a six-time champion, and Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus perform at peak level on the Chase tracks. But in the last couple of months, Six-Time hasn’t been looking much like a potential Seven-Time. The No. 48 Chevrolet hasn’t been as fast as the Hendrick team cars of Gordon or Earnhardt, or as fast as the Fords of Keselowski and Logano, for that matter, but it’s never safe to write Johnson off when the Chase rolls around. He’s the only driver to have qualified for every Chase, and he’s the only driver to have won it more than twice.
THE BOTTOM 10
7. Matt Kenseth—The 2003 Cup champion hasn’t won a race this season, and unless his luck changes radically, he won’t win a second title. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas simply don’t have the power under the hood to match the Fords of Penske or the Chevys of Hendrick and affiliates.
8. Kurt Busch—The winner of the inaugural Chase (2004) made the playoff on the strength of his win at Martinsville, but Busch’s season has been riddled with inconsistency. This is no knock against crew chief Daniel Knost, but when you’re up against combinations like Brad Keselowski/Paul Wolfe and Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus, it’s hard to win a title with a rookie on the pit box.
9. Carl Edwards—The driver of the No. 99 Ford has two wins this year, but his lame-duck status and the lame-duck status of crew chief Jimmy Fennig don’t bode well for a championship run. Besides, the Roush Fenway Fords haven’t found the speed that has propelled the Penske Fords to the front of the field.
10. Kyle Busch—See the notes on Kenseth. And remember, as long as Kansas is a Chase track, Busch will have trouble advancing past the second round.
11. Ryan Newman—The driver of the No. 31 Chevy hasn’t won a race in his first season with Richard Childress Racing, but he has been consistent enough to survive a round or two in the Chase without getting to Victory Lane. If the team continues to improve, Newman could be a factor.
12. Kasey Kahne—On the strength of his banzai run at Atlanta, Kahne secured his Chase spot, but can he and crew chief Kenny Francis mount a consistent enough effort to contend for the title? The team tested at Chicagoland and should get off to a strong start.
13. Greg Biffle—Those who think “limping in” is just a poker term didn’t see Biffle’s performance at Richmond, where he managed to secure the last Chase spot by seven points over Clint Bowyer with a car than handled like a dump truck. Richmond notwithstanding, the Roush Fenway cars have been more consistent of late, just not consistently fast enough to win a championship.
14. Denny Hamlin—See the notes on Kenseth and Kyle Busch. The straight-line speed simply isn’t there. About the fastest things in the JGR camp right now are the mechanisms in the air guns.
15. AJ Allmendinger—Unfortunately, from Allmendinger’s standpoint, there aren’t any road courses in the Chase. Given that Dover is his best oval track, however, Allmendinger could survive the first elimination round.
16. Aric Almirola—The driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford has but two top fives this season—not a good omen for the Chase–but he does have an average finish of 10.3 on the three 1.5-mile speedways that get a return visit in the Chase (Kansas, Charlotte and Texas).