NASCAR: Contenders, pretenders prepare to start Chase for the Championship
JOLIET, Ill. – Denny Hamlin has the most wins; Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson have the most experience; and Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon have the most momentum entering Sunday’s start of the Chase for the Championship.
Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer have been the most consistent during the regular season, while Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have been all over the board most of the season.
But starting with the Geico 400 at the Chicagoland Speedway, it doesn’t matter how all 12 got into the playoffs. It only matters what they do in the next 10 races.
A year ago Stewart proved it’s possible to start the Chase ranked last and still win the championship. To do it, however, he had to win five of the 10 races in the playoffs to beat Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker.
Stewart was the longest of long shots a year ago. Although he’s won three times this year, he seems to face tough odds this season since he comes into the playoffs with finishes of 19 or worse in four of the last five races.
Here’s a look at how the Chase should shake out for everyone else:
It’s impossible not to start any talk of championships without mentioning Johnson. He had three wins in the regular season and always seems best prepared for the mechanical and emotional rigors of the playoffs.
He also won a NASCAR-record five consecutive Chases.
Hamlin and Keselowski also have to be considered favorites. Hamlin has a series-best four wins and his team has come on strong in the past month by winning two of the last three races and leading the most laps in the third race. Keselowski is masterful on the mile-and-a-half tracks. With five of 10 races in the Chase coming at mile-and-a-half tracks, that plays into his strength.
Biffle (two wins) and Earnhardt (one) haven’t been overpowering in the regular season, but they’ve stockpiled a lot of top 10s and were first and second in points during the regular season.
If they can stay out of trouble in the playoffs and manage to get at least one win, they could be in contention when the season ends Nov. 18 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Stewart has only two top-five finishes since July 7, but he wasn’t much better a year ago when he started his incredible run during the playoffs. He won’t need five wins this year to repeat, but he will have to find some late-season magic to get things turned around. But if pedigrees count, he will be in contention going into the season finale.
Needs a little help
Clint Bowyer won the final race of the regular season at Richmond to solidify Michael Waltrip Racing as a championship-caliber race team. He, along with Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth, however, need a little help to avoid a disastrous finish that can doom a title run.
Bowyer has finished 27 or worse four times this year; Kahne has been 20th or worse in two of the last five races; and Kenseth has been 23rd or worse in three of the last seven races.
Jeff Gordon earned his way into the playoffs at Richmond when pit strategy backfired for Kyle Busch. But Gordon is bringing a little swagger with nine finishes of sixth or better in his last 12 races. He still will need to take it up another notch by finding a way to closing the deal in the final 50 laps.
Needs a lot of help
Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. made it into the Chase without a win. That has to change if they want to make a real run at the championship.
Stewart didn’t win during the regular season a year ago, but it’s not likely Harvick or Truex will be able to match Stewart’s five wins down the stretch.