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NASCAR's Next Five Chase Drivers

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The NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers that will win the next five races to earn a playoff spot

Jimmie Johnson — Auto Club Speedway

Wait, “Six-Time,” “Six Pack,” “The Beard,” hasn’t won a race yet this year? How could that be? Fear not 48 faithful, it will likely come to pass this weekend at Auto Club Speedway. Jimmie Johnson had a deceptively fast car and impressive performance at Las Vegas — although a couple guys named Earnhardt and Keselowski dominated the headlines. Johnson led 34 laps in Vegas, and ACS being in his backyard of Southern California, I highly doubt the Lowe’s team will show up “unprepared” as he described their performance in Phoenix. In Johnson’s 19 Auto Club starts, he leads all drivers with five wins, 12 top-5 finishes and an average finish of 5.7. His last win there was in 2010, followed by third- and second-place showings. Look for him to get a win and a spot in Tthe Chase this weekend — then Knaus can get back to building his doomsday machine for September.

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Jeff Gordon — Martinsville Speedway

If there’s one guy who might be ready to assume Richard Petty’s lease on Martinsville Speedway, it’s Jeff Gordon. As far as track dominance is concerned, Petty’s 15 wins (he won every race but two from 1967-1973) is unmatched, but Gordon gave him a run from 1996-2008, when he registered seven wins and four second place finishes. He has eight wins total following a victory on the paperclip last fall, and based on early season performance, the 24 team is ready to notch a win and punch its Chase ticket early. This team has had issues in years past with early season momentum, so if crew chief Alan Gustafson can get Gordon his ninth Grandfather clock, Father Time will gladly smile on the veteran’s chances to contend for a fifth championship in 2014.

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Joey Logano — Texas Motor Speedway

Can we really have six different winners in the first six races? Yes sir, and the No. 22 will be the team to continue that streak. How so, you ask? It’s whatever is between the fenders of the Penske Fords — and I’m not referring to the Roush-Yates monsters that reside under the hood. Team Penske has the new ride height rule scienced out — just as you would expect from an organization that has 15 Indy 500 wins to its credit. While Joey Logano’s record at Texas may not be the best, but his performance last season showed a marked turnaround: a fifth in the spring despite a rear suspension issue found in pre-race inspection, and a third in the fall during the Chase. Penske’s downforce cars are stout, as evidenced in Las Vegas, and I expect the two-car group to be rock solid for September.

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Matt Kenseth — Darlington Raceway

“The Track Too Tough to Tame” will be toppled by the Toyota team of Matt Kenseth in the Southern 500. Wait … I have to wipe the spittle off my monitor after that. While the JGR cars have struggled a bit early this year, I have a feeling they’ll put it together in the coming weeks. And Darlington is a track that fits Kenseth to a tee. He is, after all, the modern day equivalent of David Pearson, who won dancing rights with the Lady in Black 10 times, so expect “The Man in Yellow” to score his second straight win at NASCAR’s original banked speedway. If Kenseth’s No. 20 outfit isn’t money over Mother’s Day weekend, look to his teammate, Denny Hamlin, who leads all active drivers in South Carolina with an average finish of 5.4 — which is nutty in its own right.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Richmond International Raceway

Woah, wait a second … he’s already won. That’s right, I predict Dale Jr. will be the first multi-race winner this year in the Sprint Cup Series, and it will occur in Richmond. Earnhardt won the pole here in 2012, and while last year’s 13th-place run in September might not look that impressive, keep in mind that it was the calm before the championship Chase storm erupted. He finished second at Phoenix and was within a half a lap of winning in Las Vegas before the well ran dry this year. I say he and Steve Letarte get win number two and even more momentum heading into the meat of the season.

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Austin Dillon — Talladega Superspeedway

If you could write a better comeback story for the No. 3 returning to Victory Lane I’d like to see it (actually, a better comeback story would be The King taking Tony Stewart up on his challenge and beating Danica straight-up, but I digress). It wouldn’t be as far-fetched as you may think for the rookie to pull this one off and secure a spot in the Sweet 16. Dillon was running third on the last lap in October when he was up-ended in one of the more unremarkable finishes in the track’s storied history. He won the pole for the Daytona 500 earlier this year, and Talladega loves darkhorse, first-time winners — David Ragan in 2012 and Brad Keselowski in ’09, both in barely-funded efforts, shocked the racing world here. And keep in mind that the last time the No. 3 sat in the winner’s circle in Cup competition was in 2000 at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, with “The Intimidator” at the wheel.

Twist my arm for another far-out pick? Try Casey Mears on for size.

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