Once we get past all the chaos and controversy surrounding Richmond; it becomes apparent that we still have a championship battle to talk about! Thirteen…yes, thirteen racers will battle tooth and nail for the coveted Sprint Cup trophy and they have ten races to get it done. This chase lacks Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and reigning champion Brad Keselowski but it still features some of NASCAR’s heavyweights. Four champions, six Daytona 500 winners and eight teams make up the 2013 chase field. No one has shown immunity to bad luck this season; not even 5-time champion Jimmie Johnson and I could certainly see this coming down to three or five man race at Homestead, much like what we saw in 2004. It’s going to be a great battle!
1.) Matt Kenseth – 5 Wins & 2003 NSCS Champion
Matt Kenseth has been known to quietly click away solid finishes race after race and have sub-par efforts in qualifying seeing that the “go fast for two lap thing” has never really been Matt’s forte. All that changed when he joined Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Matt has made his presence known and has asserted himself as one of the guys you have to go through if you want to win the championship. It’s almost like Roush-Fenway was holding him back. The Achilles Heel of this team may be the lingering TRD engine issues although they have gotten it under control for the most part. Matt is a top five and top ten machine which is why he’s finished 8th or higher in the standings in nine of the last eleven years. He has proven that he’s fully capable of being a title threat and I’ll be very surprised if he’s not a contender.
2.) Jimmie Johnson – 4 Wins & 5-time NSCS Champion (’06, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10)
The untouchable No.48 team has been vulnerable this year. Their immunity to bad luck has ceased and their rivals are excited to take them on. A recurring thing you heard at Chase Media Day was that drivers thought they can beat Jimmie and they said that with a big grin on their face. This is the guy everybody compares themselves with. If you can beat him, then you definitely have a shot at it! Don’t fool yourself into believing that this rash of bad luck has enervated this team. They have endured their fair share of bad luck in 2013 but it was while they were running up front and for the win so don’t think for a second that they are under performing this year. They just aren’t quite as lucky. If fate was kinder, Johnson could be starting the chase with eight or nine wins. As for momentum going into the chase; Jimmie Johnson doesn’t need momentum. He becomes a winning machine that can do no wrong when the playoffs start. Only time will tell if the this group becomes that indestructible winning machine that all their competitors fear or if the bad luck that has plagued the No.48 carries over into the post-season. One thing for certain is that you can never count out Jimmie Johnson and that elite No.48 team.
3.) Kyle Busch – 4 Wins & Best Points Finish of 5th (2007)
Rowdy Busch. Some love him, many hate him but no one can deny the fact that he’s a heck of a wheel man. Kyle has never fared too well in the chase and last year, he missed out on the post-season by 1pt but went on to score enough points in the ten race stretch that would have given him a 3rd place finish in the championship. The chase is primarily made up of large, high speed banked ovals which bodes well for Busch and his teammate, Matt Kenseth. JGR has excelled at those venues this year with six of their combined nine wins coming at those kind of tracks. Kyle has always had issues handling adversity and it will be interesting to see if he falls apart and makes imprudent decisions should things get tempestuous for him at some point in this chase. I believe 2013 will be the best chase result of Kyle’s career.
4.) Kevin Harvick – 2 Wins & Best Points Finish of 3rd (’10 & ’11)
Kevin Harvick has once again made his way into the chase without many people noticing. “The Closer” not only comes out of nowhere at the end of races but he also has an uncanny way of making his way into the top five in points at the end of the season on multiple occasions without anyone realizing it. I don’t see a championship for Kevin this year but I wouldn’t put it past him. This “lame duck” wants to deliver Richard Childress his first Cup title since 1994 and he’s got one last chance to get it done.
5.) Carl Edwards – 2 Wins & Best Points Finish of 2nd (’08 & ’11)
He’s tied for 2nd, he’s finished 2nd and he’s tied for 1st….guess what comes next? I believe it’s only a matter of time before Cousin Carl, as Kenny Schrader would call him, hoists the trophy in Miami at the end of the season. Carl is one of those drivers who is a champion waiting in the wings. It will come with time. His consistency is what won him the unofficial title of regular season champion and his consistency also helped him stay neck-and-neck with Tony Stewart in 2011. Despite the two wins, Carl hasn’t shown that he can contend for wins on a regular basis but should the other drivers use up their mulligans while he keeps clicking away top 10’s and top 5’s, he may very well find himself in the middle of the title fight.
6.) Joey Logano – 1 Win & Best Points Finish of 16th (2010)
Penske Racing got one driver in the chase this year…and it wasn’t Brad Keselowski. Joey Logano has truly impressed me this year with his tenacity and the way he and this No.22 camp have handled adversity. Joey has won the pole for the first chase race and he seems to have found his niche in the form of large, high banked ovals. Lucky for him, that’s 50% of the chase races. He will win at least one race in the chase in my opinion and I see him as a dark horse. You wouldn’t normally look at Logano as title threat seeing that he’s never gotten a top 15 points finish but he could surprise a few people. His inexperience in this kind of situation may be what hurts him in the end though.
7.) Greg Biffle – 1 Win & Best Points Finish of 2nd (2005)
I doubt Greg Biffle can win the championship this year. He has spent the majority of his season around 8th-10th in points and I don’t expect that to change in the chase. He only has three top five finishes in the first 26 races and ten top 10’s. Those are the lowest numbers of anyone in the top 13 in points right now. The Fords seem very strong at Chicagoland so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win one of the 1.5 milers but other than that, I really don’t expect Greg to make much noise in the chase this year.
8.) Clint Bowyer – 0 Wins & Best Points Finish of 2nd (2012)
Would I be exaggerating if I said this guy has a lot of attention on him going into Chicagoland? I thought not. Clint Bowyer and his race team have been the headline on every major news outlet this week for all the wrong reasons. He was grilled by multiple ESPN reporters, booed by fans at NASCAR Contenders LIVE, harassed by thousands of incensed people on Twitter and even criticized by his fellow competitors. His integrity has been called into question after a spin that many believe to be deliberate and his intentions with seven laps to go were incontrovertible to most but Bowyer denies it. Clint says that all this negative attention has him determined more than ever to win it all. The usually loquacious Clint is ready to just put that helmet on and go to work. He has spent most of 2013 near the top of the standings despite failing to reach victory lane. I don’t think all this drama will affect him while he’s racing. I wouldn’t bet against it hurting his team though. Distractions are never a good thing in sports. I would say Clint can be a contender just like he was in 2012 but some disgruntled drivers that didn’t take too kindly to what went down may make sure that a championship for the No.15 doesn’t happen this year. It will be interesting to see how Bowyer is treated by other drivers once we get to racing at Chicagoland..
9.) Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 0 Wins & Best Points Finish of 3rd (2003)
Dale Jr. has consistency but he isn’t up there mixing it up for victories every week like his teammate Jimmie Johnson and even Kasey Kahne are. They need to take it up a notch if they want to hold their own against Johnson, Kenseth and Kyle Busch in this chase. If they can’t do that, then I don’t see Jr. getting anything higher than 5th or 6th this year.
10.) Kurt Busch – 0 Wins & 2004 NSCS Champion
Here we have the first “single car” team to ever make the chase. Despite their strong technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, they are still considered a single car operation. Do not make the foolish mistake of underestimating Kurt Busch or this well funding race team though. The tenacity and raw talent of this proven champion is undeniable and he can most certainly win the championship this year….if he had a better pit crew. When the pressure’s on, the No.78 crew almost always drops the ball and costs Kurt valuable spots. NASCAR is a team sport and if you have a pit crew that isn’t getting the job done, it doesn’t matter if you have a Dale Earnhardt caliber guy wheeling the No.48 with Junior Johnson on top of the pit box…you still won’t win. They have two crew guys so hopefully, he doesn’t encounter as many costly issues on pit road. If his pit crew can get it together, Kurt can be a serious threat for the championship before he departs for Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of the year.
11.) Kasey Kahne – 2 Wins & Best Points Finish of 4th (2012)
Kasey Kahne was my pick to win the title back in March and I wouldn’t be surprised if he proved me right. If fate was kinder (and if Kasey was more aggressive), he could have at least five wins right now. He has four runner-up finishes this year; three of which came down to half a second or less. He also crashed while leading Michigan, Darlington and while going three wide for the lead with two laps to go at the July Daytona race. Kasey’s kindness on track though may pay dividends during the chase when he’s racing around guys not in the running that remember his courtesy while racing them earlier in the year. On the flip side, it may also tempt drivers his battling to use him up not thinking there will be any repercussions. In my eyes, Kasey can win the championship this year if the stars align.
12.) Ryan Newman – 1 Win & Best Points Finish of 6th (’02, ’03 & ’05)
Ryan wasn’t a chaser until Monday night which seemed crazy until Jeff Gordon had to go and outdo him by being added to the chase as the 13th seed less than 48 hours before the first chase race! Ryan is motivated and motivation always seems to have an uncanny way of giving a driver a few extra horsepower. Can he hold his own against Busch, Johnson and Kenseth? I doubt it but be assured that the Rocket Man will go all out and leave nothing on the table before his release from Stewart-Haas Racing. Ryan has been fired and replaced because Gene Haas believes Kurt is a better driver. He’s also been called an ogre, had an airborne car land on top of him, been cheated out of his 18th career win, knocked out of the chase before being put back in two days later and even watched his good friend and current owner break his leg in a Sprint Car crash….yeah; it’s been an interesting year to be Ryan Newman to say the least. He will make some noise in this chase probably by winning at one of the flat tracks that he;s always so good at and I see him having his best points finish since 2005.
13.) Jeff Gordon – O Wins & 4-time NSCS Champion (’95, ’97, ’98, ’01)
Well, who saw this coming? You aren’t supposed to be here! One of unluckiest guys in the garage got a once in a life time break Friday when he was added to the chase as a 13th seed. It would be an auspicious time for Jeff to go buy a lottery ticket right now…although he obviously doesn’t need it. I am hoping that he somehow goes on a tear in the chase, becomes a contender and that we go to Homestead with Kansas Clint and 4-time 1-2 in points. In reality though, I don’t see Jeff making much of an impact on the 2013 chase at all. He is fully capable of being a 5-time champion talent wise but all the pieces team and luck wise just aren’t there. This was a nice gesture by NASCAR but Jeff’s team is not championship caliber in 2013….I think he will spend the last 10 races in the back half of the chase field.
My Three Championship Picks
Kasey Kahne: Why Kasey? I have liked what I’ve seen out of him this year with the speed he’s shown on both 1.5 milers and short tracks. I also like the chemistry he has with long time crew chief Kenny Francis. When it comes to the best driver/crew chief combos in the garage; these two are near the top of the list. Kasey is also able to keep a level head in difficult situations and get all he can out of the car without risking his whole race; necessities for a championship hopeful. Bad luck and JGR drivers running him over has been his only noticeable weakness in 2013.
Kurt Busch: You want to talk about determination? You want to talk about someone that will drive their guts out and finish 10 spots higher than the car he’s driving should? That would be Kurt Busch. That No.78 has been blistering fast at every kind of track this year; they have no bad track. Kurt has completely changed as a person and for the better. No longer does he act churlish towards the media, fans and his team when things get rough. In fact, he’s become one of the most optimistic people out there when things go awry. If Furniture Row wasn’t trying to resolve their pit crew issues, then I’d be counting Kurt out but they’ve already replaced a front tire changer and tire carrier. If Kurt has a solid pit crew, he can win it all.
Jimmie Johnson: Do I really need to say why? You can never count out 5-time and like I said earlier, his win column could be in the double digits this year if it weren’t for bad luck. Like always, he is fast everywhere and his team is solid as a rock. Performing at a super-human level during the chase is something embedded deep within the DNA of everyone on this race team. Chad Knaus is very fastidious and will make sure everything that he can possibly control is in his control. Jimmie doesn’t need momentum to be on his side. He doesn’t even need a good start to the chase. Nothing phases the 5-time champ and that’s why he is one of my three favorites to win the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship?
Feel free to post your picks below or to comment on mine!