There are only four races left in this year's Sprint Cup season, including this weekend's tilt at Martinsville Speedway. That means that we're down to crunch time in the championship battle—time for the contenders to make one final push to separate themselves from the pretenders.
Taking home the Sprint Cup is all about momentum at this point. The guys with a chance right now have been doing well already, scoring strong finishes in most Chase races. But more importantly, they're going to carry the momentum they've already established into the final four events, giving themselves a chance to do something special.
These seven drivers are the hottest in the sport right now. Six are in the Chase, while the seventh came painfully close to making it and has run up front almost every week since the cutoff at Richmond in September. Don't be shocked if these guys score top-10s, at least, in all four remaining races:
It's a shame that Busch didn't make it into the Chase, because he'd be doing a pretty decent job if he was. With 190 points scored in the past six races, he's been far and away the best non-Chaser in the field, and although a wreck on Sunday cost him about 20 points that he should've earned with a strong car, he still has four finishes of seventh or better in the Chase.
Kahne may be fifth in points, but with 220 points scored in the six Chase races so far, he's scored the third-most of any driver in that span. Each of Kahne's finishes has been within the top 15, enabling him to hold at least fifth in points since this year's playoffs started in Chicago. A big part of that advantage has come from qualifying; Kahne has a Chase-best average start of 5.5 in the past six races, including poles at both Talladega and Kansas.
Anytime you replace your crew chief with the guy who won last year's title, as Hamlin has with new pit boss Darian Grubb, there's bound to be significant improvement. Through 32 races last year, Hamlin ranked 11th in points, an insurmountable 84 off of the lead; this year, he's third, only 20 points out of first. His highlight thus far came at Loudon, when he led 193 of 300 laps to take his series-best fifth win of the season.
One of the top dark horse picks coming into the Chase, Bowyer's Charlotte win firmly established him as a championship contender. Since the August race at Pocono, Bowyer has climbed from 10th to fourth in points, totaling 10 top 10 finishes in 12 starts and an average finish of 8.8 in the Chase. Like Kahne, Bowyer's success has partially been aided by an average start of 5.5, tied for best in the Chase.
The five-time Chase champion is the best driver in the history of the format, and he and the No. 48 team know how to crawl their way out of trouble when they have to. Take Sunday's race at Kansas, for example—despite spinning out and suffering significant rear-end damage, Johnson's crew kept him on the lead lap while undertaking extensive repairs, and Johnson rewarded them with a hard-fought top 10 finish.
Keselowski opened the Chase with two wins in three starts to carry the lead early on. He still holds a seven-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson with four races left, after scoring top-10 finishes in 14 of the past 16 races. That kind of consistency late in the season is reminiscent of a young Tony Stewart, who used to do most of his best racing once the summer ended.
A mediocre start to the Chase has minimized Kenseth's chances at actually winning the title, but two wins in the past three weeks make him far and away the hottest driver in the sport right now. Ever since his race literally fell apart at Dover, with parts coming off of his car at all turns, he's found a way to avoid trouble when the rest of the field gets into it, as was the case at both Talladega and Kansas.