My overall rankings for the 10-race Chase.
1. Matt Kenseth. He has 5 wins this year, with 4 coming on 1.5-mile tracks. Half the chase races are at 1.5-mile tracks, with additional races at Talladega and Dover, good tracks for Matt. He starts the Chase as the points leader based on those wins. Much of the media has him as the favorite, and so do I, with Johnson’s recent struggles.
2, Carl Edwards. Winner at Richmond, “Cousin Carl” has some momentum. Like Kenseth, he is good at 1.5-mile tracks, Talladega, and Dover, as well as Pheonix. If he is decent at Martinsville, expect the 99 to be in contention to win it all at Homestead. Unlike Kenseth, and many others in this Chase, he has experienced racing at Homestead with the prospect of winning the title, finishing 2nd twice. That experience could put him over the top.
3. Jimmie Johnson. A month ago it was unthinkable the 5-time champion would be this low in these rankings. Since then, he has posted finishes of 40th, 36th, 28th, and 40th. It should be difficult for anyone to suddenly flip a switch and be championship material again, but if anyone can do it, it’s Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. They are very good in the Chase format, winning 5 of the 9 Chases run, with finishes of 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th in the other 4.
4. Kyle Busch. Here’s the elephant in the room. There are questions surrounding Kyle, as usual. Can he be consistent enough to contend for a championship? Is he mature enough? Can he keep his composure in big-pressure spots if he’s in contention late in the Chase? I have a feeling we’ll get some answers in the next 10 weeks. Like Edwards, Busch is riding some momentum, and he’s good at Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover, the first three tracks the Chase will visit. After those races, we’ll know if he’s in it or not.
5. Kasey Kahne. I was hesitant to put him this high, because he was 14th in points, reaching the Chase on a wild card berth. Kahne, though, is another driver very good on those key 1.5-mile tracks, particularly Charlotte and Texas. He’s also had moderate success at Phoenix, Dover, and New Hampshire. Like Edwards, Martinsville is Kahne’s weakness among the Chase tracks. Kahne may be the wild card in another way, as he will likely be consistent enough to contend for a title, like early in the season, or he will lack consistency and struggle down the stretch.
6. Ryan Newman. The 39 team left Richmond thinking a late caution and a bad pit stop had cost them a wild card spot in the Chase. Sunday, of course, they found out with the rest of us that there was more to it. Newman could use his surprise Chase berth as a springboard to a title shot. However, the “Achilles heel” of Stewart-Haas Racing this year has been 1.5-mile tracks, which make up half of the Chase races. The full resources of SHR will be needed to give Newman a shot, and he will have them due to Tony Stewart’s season-ending leg injury. Another negative, though, is that this is a “lame duck” season, as Newman announced Monday he will drive for Richard Childress Racing in 2014.
7. Joey Logano. Like Newman, Logano just barely got in. In fact, there is now speculation that Penske Racing may have asked David Gilliland to intentionally let Logano around to help his points situation at Richmond. (Great, this week’s been crazy enough.) He has some momentum, if you ignore his finish at Richmond, he had a win, 3 top fives, and 5 top sevens in the previous 5 races. Penske Racing won the Chase last year with Brad Keselowski. The 2 car isn’t in the Chase, so all the resources of Penske will be with Logano, not a bad thing to have.
8. Kurt Busch. The 2004 Champion may be a dark horse in this Chase. No one gives the single car team out of Denver a chance. They are the first single car team and the first team based outside of NC to qualify for the Chase. This team, however, has some help. They have a competitive alliance with Richard Childress Racing, and after winning at Darlington in 2011 with Regan Smith, they have been poised to win all year with Kurt Busch, with a 2nd at Richmond, three 3rds, and four additional top fives. He is a “lame duck,” but his team has probably assumed that all year. Expect him to win a race or races in the Chase; we shall see if the underdog team can contend at Homestead.
9. Kevin Harvick. Some writers have him among their top 3, and a couple even have him winning the title. I’ll be different, and coin a new term, as he may be the “lamest duck.” Harvick has been at Richard Childress Racing since 2001 (2000 if you count Nationwide), and is leaving for Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end. In six previous Chase apperances, he has finishes of 3rd (twice), 4th (twice), 8th, and 10th. He has shown some consistency, but he only has 6 top fives on the year. I don’t see that as strong enough to contend for the title.
10. Clint Bowyer. I just can’t see someone with as crazy a week as Bowyer has had going to Chicago and doing well. There also must be some negative momentum, not just from the Richmond incident but also from a couple of poor finishes. Also, after Jeff Gordon got the short end of the stick in the MWR penalties (he’s still not in the Chase), and considering the two have a history, there could be some fireworks (who knows). On the bright side, Bowyer is good at the first three tracks In the Chase: Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior has had a pretty good year, other than the fact he hasn’t found the winner’s circle. He was, of course, leading big at Michigan when he blew an engine. Consistency has been an issue this year, not just for Junior, but for all of Hendrick (never thought I’d say that). In five previous Chase apperances, his best finish is 5th, but not since 2004 and 2006. His best Chase finish in three appearances while at Hendrick is 7th. I don’t see anything here to suggest he will be a contender for the title.
12. Greg Biffle. Biffle struggled for much of the regular season, as did all of the Fords, but put together enough good finishes to make the Chase. “The Biff” did finish 2nd in 2005 and 3rd in 2008, but has never really been close enough to taste the champagne. He won at Michigan in June, but his best finish since the win was 8th, and at a road course. Out of the 8 races at tracks that are featured in the Chase, he had only one top ten finish, and that was a Martinsville, a track he traditionally struggles at. The signs don’t look promising for the veteran to contend late into the Chase.
Chase Schedule: 9/15 Chicago, 9/22 New Hampshire, 9/29 Dover, 10/6 Kansas, 10/12 Charlotte, 10/20 Talladega, 10/27 Martinsville, 11/3 Texas, 11/10 Phoenix, 11/17 Homestead