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NASCAR Chase for the Championship Preview

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1. DENNY HAMLIN

1. Denny Hamlin
2,012 points; four wins

Hamlin certainly appears to be a changed driver from the one that, along with then-crew chief Mike Ford, cracked under the pressure of a 2010 title fight. Quiet confidence abounds with his No. 11 team, led by the unassuming yet firm guidance of Darian Grubb (you know, the lame-duck crew chief that strapped on a pair and led a team that was an afterthought to last year’s championship). Despite his series-best four wins, only delivering in the clutch will wash away memories of Denny’s monumental collapse two years ago.

by Matt Taliaferro

2. JIMMIE JOHNSON

2. Jimmie Johnson
2,009 points; three wins

Based on their track record alone, you can never count out Johnson and ace crew chief Chad Knaus when the playoffs role around. This season will undoubtedly be no different, and by the way, if you’re making any other team the favorite, you’re not being honest with yourself. That’s not to say the 48 team is predestined to win this whole dog ‘n’ pony show, but make no mistake: This bunch is the favorite. Johnson has won Chases coming from behind, pulling away, winning in bundles and in being consistent. Contrary to popular (and short-sighted) belief, a team doesn’t have to win in spades during the Chase to be crowned the champion. This team probably will, though.

by Matt Taliaferro

3. TONY STEWART

3. Tony Stewart
2,009 points; three wins

For proof that a team doesn’t have to win races in the Chase to be a champion, look no further than Stewart’s 2005 title run. You’ll find he had zero Chase wins and that an 8.7-place average finish did the trick. Ironically, Tony’s 2011 five-win Chase spurt is the performance that perpetuated the “gotta-win-big” notion. Here’s the straight-talk concerning Stewart: He’s not going to win five of the next 10 but he probably won’t get skunked, either. But this probably isn’t his year to earn title No. 4.

by Matt Taliaferro

4. BRAD KESELOWSKI

4. Brad Keselowski
2,009 points; three wins

A little bit DW, a little bit JJ, Keselowski is the breath of fresh air this sport has needed for awhile. Keselowski is a champ-in-waiting — strike that, a multiple-time champ-in-waiting. Somewhere amid the media savvy, the heads-up racing style, the mind games and the raw talent lies an intangible factor that’s hard to pinpoint (thus, its intangibility). BK’s time may indeed be now … and the window may close for a year or so depending on how his Penske Racing organization adapts to its new Ford sheet metal and new factory mates. Don’t be surprised if we see a first-time Cup champ this year.

by Matt Taliaferro

5. GREG BIFFLE

5. Greg Biffle
2,006 points; two wins

Who? Oh yeah, the guy who won the regular season championship — not that NASCAR bothers to recognize the admirable feat. Perpetually flying under the radar, Biffle appears to be the Terry Labonte of his era — a great wheelman who never was viewed among the sport’s elite despite all evidence to the contrary. Of course, to be on par with Labonte, you have to win a Cup title and thus far, that’s eluded him. That said, he stands his best chance this year, with teammate and media-hound Carl Edwards out of the running and BFF Matt Kenseth on his way out at Roush Fenway Racing. Can the points leader after race No. 26 be considered a darkhorse? If so, Biffle’s your man.

by Matt Taliaferro

6. CLINT BOWYER

6. Clint Bowyer
2,006 points; two wins

Michael Waltrip Racing’s much-ballyhooed two-car 2012 Chase effort makes for a great story. And seriously, it’s good to see an upstart operation legitimately delivering the goods in its sixth year of Cup competition. However, let’s be honest: MWR isn’t going to win a title this year … right? Don’t tell that to Bowyer, who is one of only seven drivers on the circuit to cash in for multiple victories this year. And probably one of only seven drivers on the circuit that’ll buy YOU a beer down the street if he pulls a stunner.

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by Matt Taliaferro

7. DALE EARNHARDT JR.

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2,003 points; one win

Even with NASCAR putting the clamps on Hendrick’s bushings (yes, that sounds painful … and just a bit dirty), you have to figure the 88 team has been doing some live-fire testing the last few weeks. Junior’s consistency is unquestioned and, as stated previously, that’s the real key here. Once he’s back at full song expect a return to the fourth- to 10th-place showings that were the hallmark of what’s been Earnhardt’s most successful post-DEI season to date. I’m of the opinion Junior will factor in this Chase — though whether or not he can trade licks with Johnson, Hamlin, et al, down the stretch is somewhat of an unknown.

by Matt Taliaferro

8. MATT KENSETH

8. Matt Kenseth
2,003 points; one win

Let’s get the lame duck thing out of the way first: Yes, Kenseth is out at Roush Fenway Racing at season’s end. And having already been introduced and serenaded in front of the media by his new roomies, it may have an effect in the current neighborhood. However, if any driver/crew chief combo can work past the circumstances at hand it’s Kenseth and Jimmy Fennig. It’s hard to imagine Uncle Jack not at least attempting to over-deliver for the driver that’s been the bedrock of his foundation for the last decade. But it’s also hard to imagine the 17 team actually breaking through with so many other teams running at full bore with no distractions.

by Matt Taliaferro

9. KEVIN HARVICK

9. Kevin Harvick
2,000 points; zero wins

If there’s a Tony Stewart-like run coming in this year’s Chase, you have to figure this is the driver and team to do it. There have been some Kevin Harvick sightings since his reunion with new/old crew chief Gil Martin, and the ceiling is still a ways up. The bigger issue here is whether the 29 team can rise above what seems to be an organization-wide lack of speed at Richard Childress Racing. If the magic that propelled Harvick and Martin to consecutive third-place points finishes is back, this could be a fun group to watch crash the party.

by Matt Taliaferro

10. MARTIN TRUEX JR.

10. Martin Truex Jr.
2,000 points; zero wins

See: Bowyer, Clint; minus the wins. Mikey’s NAPA team has been the little engine that could this season, yet a lack of victories — and there have been opportunities — is worrisome. What Truex, Chad Johnston and the boys have done thus far in 2012 is admirable. However, to win a championship you first must prove able to win races. The ultimate underdog in a back half of a field chock-full of them, Truex will look to Dover as his sink-or-swim Chase moment.

by Matt Taliaferro

11. KASEY KAHNE

11. Kasey Kahne
2,000 points; two wins

Wild card qualifier No. 1, Kahne is a tough one to figure, though he could make some serious noise. This new team at Hendrick Motorsports hit its stride around midseason and has been as consistent as any other since. The thinking on Kahne is that, for years, he’s been an able pilot stuck in eroding situations that were not of his making. That’s not the case anymore. Time for ol’ blue eyes and crew chief Kenny Francis to deliver.

by Matt Taliaferro

12. JEFF GORDON

12. Jeff Gordon
2,000 points; one win

The post-Richmond talk has centered on Kyle Busch and his No. 18 team’s implosion, but credit Gordon and his 24 team: They flat out-raced the opposition down the stretch to the tune of third-, second- and second-place showings. History suggests that teams which “turn it on” late and sneak into the Chase have to take a breath once there, at which point the powerhouses that were stroking go flying by. Hard to imagine this being the case with Gordon and Alan Gustafson, who’ve made their own momentum the way championship-caliber teams are supposed to.

by Matt Taliaferro