Sixteen teams. Ten races. One Cup. And something about a bunch of nations, but I haven’t made that connection yet. NASCAR’s fourth iteration of a championship format in 11 years will be unleashed on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway when 16 teams begin a 10-week quest to crown the 2014 Sprint Cup champion. It’s been all Hendrick and Penske through 26 races — the organizations have combined for 17 wins — but does a spoiler lurk? (Lurking spoiler alert: Probably not.) Read on for a quick rundown of each nation driver and team.
Driver-by-Driver Chase Preview
Sixteen teams. Ten races. One Cup. And something about a bunch of nations, but I haven’t made the connection yet. NASCAR’s fourth iteration of a championship format in 11 years will be unleashed on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway when 16 teams begin a 10-week quest to crown the 2014 Sprint Cup champion. It’s been all Hendrick and Penske through 26 races — the organizations have combined for 17 wins — but does a spoiler lurk? (Lurking spoiler alert: Probably not.) Read on for a quick rundown of each nation driver and team.
1. Brad Keselowski (2,012 points; 4 wins)
Your regular-season wins leader enters with momentum from a Richmond win. Keselowski proved he was able in 2012, but will likely have to go through the Hendrick juggernaut once again. That said, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe are savvy enough to do so and they’ve got the equipment. Sky’s the limit.
Prediction: Could punch his ticket to Round 2 in the Chase’s first race, where he dominated earlier this season. Regardless, Keselowski deftly navigates the minefield and finds himself one of the four still standing in Homestead. Along with …
2. Jeff Gordon (2,009 points; 3 wins)
Gordon has looked better this year than in any since 2007 when he won six races and finished runner-up in the Chase to a certain upstaging teammate. Speaking of, “Four Time” has yet to win a championship under NASCAR’s Chase parameters, which is concerning. Of course, this gameshow is, well, just that: a gameshow. Therefore, I’ll pun: The price might be right for Gordon this year.
Prediction: On the whole, he’s been the most consistent performer throughout the season. He’ll see it through and find himself as a finalist in South Florida.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2,009 points; 3 wins)
Imagine if it actually happened. You know, it very well could. A blown engine at Chicagoland in last season’s Chase was the only thing that prevented Earnhardt from squaring off with Jimmie Johnson down the stretch. And damn has he been solid this year.
Prediction: Truth is, Junior is a tough one handicap. I’ll say he makes it into Round 3 before bowing out when Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick score wins at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix and Gordon ekes him out on points.
4. Jimmie Johnson (2,009 points; 3 wins)
Imagine if it actually happened ... for a seventh time. You know, it very well could. Dover, Charlotte, Martinsville … there are tracks in each of the three rounds leading up to Homestead where he’s been all but untouchable. I have to believe that aspect of this dog ‘n’ pony show, coupled with a title-tested team, gives the 48 an edge.
Prediction: Sorry to be vanilla, but the Chase schedule just lines up too favorably for J.J. and the boys to not go deep. Yeah, he’s final four material. Then we’ll see how this bunch does when they have to actually win at Homestead and not just settle for a ninth-or-better.
5. Joey Logano (2,009 points; 3 wins)
The other half of Penske’s pair, Logano has enjoyed a breakout season and he could give Hendrick’s four-car three-car bunch fits. There’s really nothing to not like here — the driver is enjoying a career year, he has an experienced teammate and the chemistry with crew chief Todd Gordon is there; plus, the equipment is sterling.
Prediction: Only four will survive the Roulette wheel. Logano very well could, but we’ve already got Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson earmarked for Homestead. And the fourth driver is up next. Logano succumbs in Round 3.
6. Kevin Harvick (2,006 points; 2 wins)
Harvick, as everyone is want to say, has had more pure speed than any other driver throughout the year. And his championship odds went up when Stewart-Haas Racing announced teammate Tony Stewart’s over-the-wall crew would pit Harvick during the Chase. Sold.
Prediction: The pit crew was the weak link and it’s no longer in the picture. He’s an easy choice (in my mind, of course) to join Gordon, Keselowski and Johnson for a media tour/PR blitz the week of Homestead. Hy-Vee groceries take note!
7. Carl Edwards (2,006 points; 2 wins)
Driver and crew chief won’t allow a “lame duck” tag to drag this bunch down. They still don’t possess the ponies needed to take down Hendrick or Penske, but Edwards and Jimmy Fennig will carry the team further than you might think.
Prediction: Three and Out. Martinsville will be their undoing. Then we get to see how the Gibbs experiment turns out.
8. Kyle Busch (2,003 points; 1 win)
Busch has been imploding over the last month and a format such as this demands focus and a level head. As well as performance. He’s shown none of the above since Indy.
Prediction: Busch is going to park it behind the truck and take his whiny little ass to the bus after Round 1. (h/t: Dave Rogers)
9. Denny Hamlin (2,003 points; 1 win)
Hamlin has seemingly tripped himself up in Chase crunch time in the past, and his Joe Gibbs Racing equipment has been a step behind the two you-know-who’s all season. Can they find it over the last 10 weeks? Doubtful. And Hamlin alone can’t carry the team.
Prediction: Survives the first round by not screwing up. Doesn’t survive the second, when the cream starts rising.
10. Kurt Busch (2,003 points; 1 win)
Shocked NASCAR Nation in the inaugural Chase when he didn’t know what he was doing. Does the fact he knows too much hurt him now? In all honesty, it might. Busch is in only because he somehow managed to win a Grandfather clock five-and-a-half months ago. It wasn’t very pretty before that, nor has it been pretty since.
Prediction: Give him props: Kurt can wheel it, therefore I’ll slot him through Round 1. That’s where this bundle of fun ends.
11. Kasey Kahne (2,003 points; 1 win)
Kahne has the Hendrick horses to make a play for this thing, but has grossly underperformed all season. In fact, the Atlanta win was only his third top 5 of the year. Read that again and remind yourself that he’s piloting the best automotive equipment with a roof in North America. There is no magic switch.
Prediction: Kahne is gone before we even realized he was in. First round exit.
12. Aric Almirola (2,003 points; 1 win)
The storybook win in July’s Daytona race was great, but the Chase isn’t run on 10 restrictor-plate tracks. Yeah, it’s fun seeing an organization with the name “Petty” on its marquee make the big show, but we have to be realistic here.
Prediction: My idea of realism may differ slightly from yours. Almirola escapes the first round (after others implode), makes a go of it in Kansas, but is overwhelmed by the big boys in Charlotte and Talladega and makes his exit after Round 2.
13. AJ Allmendinger (2,003 points; 1 win)
Everyone loves an underdog, but this isn’t March Madness and Allmendinger is not the Dayton Flyers. He won on a road course and, for some inexplicable reason, NASCAR doesn’t have one of those in the Chase.
Prediction: One & Done. Cinderella never liked my type anyway.
14. Matt Kenseth (2,000 points; 0 wins)
Running a close second to Junior in the “most difficult to handicap” department, Kenseth isn’t going the season without a win, right? Right? He’ll most likely need it to advance to the final four, but I’m getting ahead of myself. If there’s any one driver in the Gibbs camp who can rise above his team’s deficiencies and carry the car, it’s Kenseth.
Prediction: He will rise. He will carry. His strength will give out at the hands of Gordon, Keselowski, Harvick and Johnson in the third round.
15. Greg Biffle (2,000 points; 0 wins)
Made the Chase on the strength of a commanding 19th-place showing in Richmond. That should tell you all you need to know.
Prediction: Seriously, does NASCAR need these bottom two teams in its playoff? Wasn’t 10 … hell, even 12 … about right? Couldn’t the sanctioning body pull a 2013 and give this spot to Larson or something? Oh, I forgot, this is where I’m supposed to make a prediction for Biffle … but I won’t because I believe I’ve made my thoughts on the matter very clear.
16. Ryan Newman (2,000 points; 0 wins)
Only two top-5 finishes for Newman thus far this season. Obviously, that will not get it done. And how a driver with only a pair of top 5s is even deserving of a Chase bid is beyond me.
Prediction: Despite my belief that he has no earthly business being in the Chase (best finish this year: a lone third-place run in Kentucky), I think the visit to Loudon will catapult him into Round No. 2. That’s where we lose the potential for such a warm and media-friendly personality representing the sport as its champion