Okay, so this one's about a week late. The nature of this article is to predict the winners of the final nine races of this Sprint Cup season, otherwise known as the Chase for the Sprint Cup, that will determine the champion from a pool of 12 potential drivers. In fact, I'm working with a list that I wrote up a while back, which does include Brad Keselowski as my predicted Chicago winner (I swear.)
Still, it doesn't hurt to use the first race as a gauge to see whether or not you need a total rewrite. And except for Jeff Gordon's inexplicable stuck throttle sucking a lot of wind out of the No. 24 team's sails, a lot of this list hasn't been altered whatsoever.
So without further ado, let's take the lessons we learned at Chicago and apply them to the rest of the season. Who's going to take the final nine race wins and who will they beat to do it?
Bowyer led six laps to finish 10th at Chicago, starting his Chase on the right foot by moving up to fifth in points. He took the race win at Loudon to start the 2010 Chase, although serious penalties effectively ended his title hopes. Keselowski will carry his momentum from Chicago into New Hampshire, while Stewart falls just short of defending last year's victory.
Johnson has won four of the last seven Dover events, including the one this June, and there seems to be no reason why he can't add a fifth. Truex has been knocking on the door of a victory all season, and should come close to his first win in half a decade at the same track where he scored his only Sprint Cup win.
Busch, meanwhile, will try to pick up the pieces after falling out of the Chase with bad luck at Richmond.
Good luck predicting a Talladega race, ever. It seems unlikely that Tony Stewart will go the entire Chase without winning another race, so here's where the win comes: his second superspeedway victory of the season after taking the checkers at Daytona in July.
He'll edge Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski at the line to do it, and this time they won't wreck like in spring 2009—but most other Chasers will.
Johnson takes his second win of the Chase in a Hendrick Motorsports 1-2 finish, while Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle follows them to the line and reaffirms his strength on the 1.5-mile "cookie-cutter" ovals.
Don't be shocked if Roush and Hendrick cars make up the entirety of the top five at the de facto home track of most teams.
Biffle and Kenseth have both been strong on cookie-cutter ovals all season; part of the reason why they both clinched Chase spots so early, but Truex will be raring to make up for watching Denny Hamlin beat him at Kansas earlier in the year.
Powered by the momentum of a strong Dover finish, this should be the weekend that finally sees him break into victory lane.
Johnson, Hamlin and Gordon are all equally strong at Martinsville, so predicting that one of these three will take the victory is kind of a gimme. The only question is which one takes the victory; it'll be close, but Johnson should snag the win—his third of the Chase—while Hamlin prepares to make a late challenge for the title.
After flying under the radar in the first half of the Chase despite earning the first seed, Hamlin's fifth win of the season will come at Texas as he attempts to convert momentum from his strong Martinsville finish.
Bowyer will fall just short of taking his second win of the Chase, while Keselowski will score another strong finish to stay in the title hunt.
Much like Martinsville, the two longest-tenured Hendrick Motorsports drivers will battle Denny Hamlin for the victory, but this time Hamlin comes out on top as his late-season charge continues.
This sets up a battle between Johnson, Brad Keselowski and a surging Hamlin for the championship at Homestead.
For the first time since 2007, and only the third time ever, every driver to make the Chase will have scored at least one race victory over the course of a season when Kevin Harvick closes the year out by beating Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the line at Homestead.
But everybody else is focusing on the three-way title fight between Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, which ends with...
...Hamlin as bridesmaid once again, Johnson coming home third and Keselowski taking the championship despite winning only the Chase opener at Chicago. Unlike Carl Edwards' run last year, the scattered success of his rivals will enable Keselowski to earn Roger Penske his first Sprint Cup crown.
His consistency, a hallmark of the second half of his season, will make the difference. His top fives and top 10s pile up to defeat the five wins between his two opponents, while his ability to avoid the inevitable "big one" at Talladega certainly helps.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.