Talladega was just as wild and unpredictable as ever, Denny Hamlin was the winner, and we’re now 10 races into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season.
We’ve had eight different winners so far, and two drivers who had won twice, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano.
Accordingly, Harvick and Logano have earned engraved invitations to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The other six winners—Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin—are listed as “likely” for NASCAR’s 10-race playoff.
At this point, there are 16 opportunities left for a driver to win a race and, ostensibly, make the Chase. So this is as good a time as any to break down the last 16 races, predict the winners and tell you which 16 drivers will fight for the series championship.
Kansas Speedway (May 10). Winner: Jimmie Johnson. So far, the 2014 season has been one to forget for the six-time champion, but he comes to Kansas riding a streak of 10 straight top 10s at the track, two of them wins. This is the weekend Johnson breaks through.
Charlotte Motor Speedway (May 25). Winner: Kevin Harvick. May used to be the month Harvick designated as a vacation from Victory Lane, but no more. Overall, he’s had the fastest cars in the Sprint Cup Series this year, and at Charlotte he becomes the first three-time winner in the series.
Dover International Speedway (June 1). Winner: Jimmie Johnson. It’s not exactly going out on a limb to pick Johnson here. He’s an eight-time winner at the Monster Mile, headed for nine. Johnson’s Chase spot would now be secure thanks to a second win.
Pocono Raceway (June 8). Winner: Jeff Gordon. Gordon has had excellent speed in his cars this year—at a variety of tracks—and the Tricky Triangle gives him a great chance to announce his Chase intentions.
Michigan International Speedway (June 15). Winner: Greg Biffle. The two-mile speedway in the other Brooklyn is one of NASCAR’s most exciting, given the high speeds and the variety of racing lines, and it’s also been a playground for Roush Fenway Racing. Biffle has four victories there, his most at any track, and he’s won two of the last three races at MIS.
Sonoma Raceway (June 22). Winner: Clint Bowyer. So you thought Richmond was Bowyer’s best track? Wrong. It’s Sonoma, where the driver of the No. 15 Toyota has five top fives, including a win, in his last seven starts. Bowyer has the tricky road course flat figured out, as does Michael Waltrip Racing, which has won the last two events there.
Kentucky Speedway (June 28). Winner: Matt Kenseth. By the time the end of June rolls around, the Joe Gibbs Racing cars will have caught up to the rest of the field at their bread-and-butter tracks, the 1.5-mile intermediate speedways. Kenseth shows up here, and it’s the start of a late-season surge.
Daytona International Speedway (July 5). Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr. With his pre-eminence on restrictor-plate tracks back in full force, Earnhardt becomes the sixth driver to sweep the Sprint Cup races at Daytona, joining shop mate Johnson, who did it last year.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway (July 13). Winner: Joey Logano. The driver formerly known as “Sliced Bread” carves up the field at the track that gave him his first victory, and this time Logano doesn’t need a thunderstorm to help him get to Victory Lane. Logano becomes the series’ second three-time winner and displays his credentials as a serious contender for the championship.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway (July 27). Winner: Jimmie Johnson. Something usually clicks for the No. 48 team when they visit the Brickyard. The sentimental choice here is Juan Pablo Montoya in a Team Penske car, but it’s hard to moonlight in the Cup series and win an oval race (unless your name is Mario or A.J.).
Pocono Raceway (Aug. 3). Winner: Joey Logano. The kid is on a roll, and he becomes the first four-time winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Denny Hamlin used to be the perennial favorite here, but the recent repave has taken away the nuances that once gave Hamlin a significant advantage.
Watkins Glen International (Aug. 10). Winner: Marcos Ambrose. No other driver at any other track is as heavy a favorite as Ambrose is at Watkins Glen. Quite simply, he can drive it farther into WGI’s high-speed corners and out-brake everyone else in the field. Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski are strong here, too, but Ambrose is the clear winner.
Michigan International Speedway (Aug. 17). Winner: Jimmie Johnson. Six-time finally gets it done at a track that has denied him repeatedly. Lo and behold, Johnson is now a four-time winner, and we’re starting to take his prospects for a record-tying seventh title very seriously.
Bristol Motor Speedway (Aug. 23). Winner: Kyle Busch. All five of Busch’s wins at Thunder Valley came before 2012, and since then, the track has changed significantly, but in this year’s night race at the world’s fastest half mile, Busch finds the key to Victory Lane.
Atlanta Motor Speedway (Aug. 31). Winner: Kyle Larson. The talented rookie uses his rim-riding style to full advantage on the rough asphalt at this intermediate track, which is a driver’s delight. Not only does Larson increase his advantage in the Sunoco rookie-of-the-year standings, but he also cements a spot in the Chase.
Richmond International Raceway (Sept. 6). Winner: Denny Hamlin. If you thought the spring race at RIR was a free-for-all, wait until the fall event. Drivers who haven’t won yet will arrive at the .75-mile short track knowing they have just one more shot to make the Chase. It will be a melee, but Hamlin will prevail.
So let’s review. After 26 races, we have 15 different winners, all of whom qualify for the Chase. The 16th Chase driver is Ryan Newman, who secures his spot as the driver highest in the standings without a win.
It would still behoove you, however, to watch the races, either in person or on broadcast media—in the unlikely event some of these predictions might be wrong.