It's been a mad scramble in the 2013 Chase, but a familiar face remains on top.
The end of the long grind of a NASCAR season that culminates in the crowning of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup champion is almost at hand.
With only two races remaining—at Phoenix International Raceway this Sunday, Nov. 10, and the Nov. 17 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway—it appears to be a two-man duel between five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and one-time champ Matt Kenseth for this year's title.
But while it's clear those two run one-two heading into the home stretch, what about the rest of the Chasers (or at least the top 12 from the unprecedented expanded field of 13)? You might be surprised who seems to be packing the most punch at the moment, based on their latest finishes, how they've handled adversity during the Chase and what kind of momentum they're building up toward 2014.
With that in mind, take a look at who currently is wielding the most power in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Clint Bowyer has yet to reach Victory Lane this season.
Previous Rank: 11
Why He's Here: Although currently seventh in the official point standings heading into Phoenix, Bowyer has had a tough go of it in the Chase after his alleged intentional spin in the final regular-season race at Richmond threw the whole deal into a state of turmoil. He's handled it better than could have been expected, to be truthful, but he's never really been a threat to win it, either. And it's questionable that he's been able to build any kind of real positive momentum toward 2014.
Key Chase Moments: He's had only one top-five finish in the Chase, a third at Martinsville long after he had fallen from contention for the championship. He did show resiliency in finishing a respectable ninth in the first Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway, when the post-Richmond pressure on him was enormous. However, he finished 17th the following week at New Hampshire to fall to 10th in the standings, and it's been an uphill battle ever since for a team that hasn't been able to win a single race all season.
Where He'll Finish: He's never run particularly well at Phoenix (site of his famous run-in with Jeff Gordon in last year's fall race) or at Homestead, so it's likely he'll fall to eighth in the final point standings.
Ryan Newman is closing out the Chase—and his run at Stewart-Haas Racing—with a burst of speed.
Previous Rank: 9
Why He's Here: Newman has four top-10 finishes in the Chase, but none higher than eighth (which he duplicated at Dover and Charlotte). When you're going against the best in the business, that's not good enough. He got into the Chase on a technicality and rightly so, being added to the field because of Bowyer's mischief at Richmond. But after a promising start, he hasn't done much with the opportunity.
Key Chase Moments: There were three. He sat on the pole in the second Chase race at New Hampshire, a track where he has done well. But he couldn't parlay that into a quality finish, settling for 16th in the race. Then twin disasters struck at Kansas, where he finished 35th, and Martinsville, where he finished 38th. Those poor finishes killed any chance he had of contending for the championship.
Where He'll Finish: He's 12th in points heading into Phoenix, and that's where he's likely to stay, although he'd love to pick up the 22 points he needs to catch Kurt Busch, his replacement at Stewart-Haas Racing next season as Newman moves over to Richard Childress Racing.
Greg Biffle just hasn't been able to pick up momentum in the Chase.
Previous Rank: 12
Why He's Here: Like several other drivers in this Chase, there never was a sense that The Biff was going to get on a roll and do much in terms of being a true championship contender. It's not all his fault. The Fords from Roush Fenway Racing pretty much have been a tad slower than the Chevys and Toyotas they've had to battle all year.
Key Chase Moments: Biffle's only top-five finish in the Chase was a third early on at New Hampshire. Five of his first eight finishes were between 11th and 16th—not close to good enough to compete with the Chase frontrunners. Most disappointing was the mediocre 13th he registered at Kansas Speedway, a place where he has had success and had hoped to make a Chase statement.
Where He'll Finish: He still has a date left with Homestead, where he has won three times. A win or high finish there should enable him to catch Clint Bowyer and/or Jeff Gordon to finish as high as sixth or seventh in the final standings. That also would go a long way toward forgetting about the failures of this season and building positive momentum going into 2014.
Kasey Kahne's up-and-down season could end on a high.
Previous Rank: 6
Why He's Here: While it's true he's been horrible for the majority of the Chase, Kahne also has a pair of top-five finishes in the last four Chase races heading into Phoenix. So he really is better than his current standing of 13th in the points and just needs more consistency to reflect that and position himself as a true Chase contender in 2014.
Key Chase Moments: He finished second at Charlotte and fifth at Texas. True to his inconsistent form on the season as a whole, he finished 36th at Talladega and 27th at Martinsville in the two races in between. Throw in a 37th-place finish at New Hampshire after he qualified a promising second, and it's easy to see where this Chase slipped away.
Where He'll Finish: He could finish as high as 11th with strong runs in the final two races, but more likely 12th in the best he can hope for, and remaining in 13th is not out of the question. It kind of depends on which No. 5 race team and driver shows up.
Carl Edwards won the pole at Texas, but his engine went sour during the race.
Previous Rank: 4
Why He's Here: Again, it's not all his fault. The Roush Fenway Racing program seems to have lagged behind those at Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and even Michael Waltrip Racing for much of the season. Drivers can't go fast all by themselves, and Edwards certainly hasn't been able to get it going in the Chase.
Key Chase Moments: His best Chase finish was a fifth at Kansas. His biggest problem was that several times he went fast in qualifying, but his No. 99 Ford couldn't match that speed over the long haul during the subsequent races. Outside of Kansas, where he qualified ninth and notched his only top-five Chase finish, he qualified inside the top nine four other times and finished worse than where he started every time. That included Texas, where he sat on the pole and led 38 laps before blowing an engine and finishing 37th.
Where He'll Finish: He owns two wins apiece in his career at Phoenix and Homestead, so he should finish strong if his RFR Ford engines hold out. There is a good chance he'll catch Kurt Busch to finish 10th overall.
Joey Logano started slow in the Chase, but is finishing fast.
Previous Rank: 7
Why He's Here: Logano would be higher in these rankings and in the actual point standings (where he's ninth heading into Phoenix) if he could only throw out the first disastrous race in the Chase. After qualifying on the pole for that race at Chicagoland Speedway and leading 32 laps, his No. 22 Penske Racing Ford blew an engine, relegating him to a 37th-place finish. Since then, he's made a steady climb back to respectability.
Key Chase Moments: He has finished third twice, at Dover and at Texas; he also registered a fourth at Kansas. Throw out Chicagoland and his average finish for his first Chase is a respectable 9.0. He also qualified sixth or better in four of the first eight Chase races.
Where He'll Finish: Ninth is where he currently is and ninth is where he'll probably remain. He's 18 points out of eighth and should be able to hold off a fading Kurt Busch, who currently is 10th.
The No. 18 team's high championship hopes lingered a while before fading yet again.
Previous Rank: 1
Why He's Here: Well, it took a while longer this year, but Busch and his No. 18 Toyota team eventually frittered away another legitimate shot at Kyle's first Sprint Cup championship. So far, the sometimes-questionable Toyota parts and pieces and engines have held up, but the driver didn't at key moments in the Chase.
Key Chase Moments: After finishing second to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth in each of the first two Chase races, Busch was sitting pretty. He followed that up with a fifth at Dover but then took a big hit when he crashed at Kansas and finished 34th. Then, as he battled to get back in both the race and the Chase title picture at Texas, he first he slapped the wall, then drove all the way back to second at one point before getting penalized for speeding on pit road during a late green-flag pit stop.
Where He'll Finish: Currently fourth in the points, he'll face a strong challenge over the final two races to hold off Hendrick Motrosports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, both of whom have built up some late-Chase momentum. Busch could slip to sixth if his focus wanders now that all title hopes are lost.
Kevin Harvick is on an island at RCR, waiting for a boat out of there at season's end.
Previous Rank: 5
Why He's Here: Although third in the standings heading into the final two races, Harvick's temper cost him big karma points as well as goodwill within the Richard Childress Racing shop when he called owner Richard Childress' racing grandsons "punk-ass kids," following the Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville. Remarkably, he and his No. 29 Chevy team—which he's leaving at season's end for a new ride at Stewart-Haas Racing—overcame the controversy to post finishes of sixth and eighth, respectively, at Martinsville and Texas.
Key Chase Moments: Harvick apologized for his remarks about Ty Dillon and Austin Dillon, but the racing world is left with the impression that he did irreparable harm to his relationship with Richard Childress—to whom he owes pretty much everything in his career. Childress put the unknown Harvick in the No. 29 just one week after the late Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500, and everyone involved deserved a better ending to the story of Harvick's run at RCR. Now they all just seem to want to get it over with and move on.
Where He'll Finish: Harvick should be able to hang onto third, but he and his entire current team will part ways at season's end with bitter tastes in their mouths because Harvick couldn't keep his shut.
Jeff Gordon was wheeling right toward title contention until hitting the wall at Texas.
Previous Rank: NR
Why He's Here: Why fourth in the B/R Power Rankings, when he's sixth in the points heading into Phoenix? Because right now Gordon and his No. 24 team are performing way better than the driver-team combos of Harvick and Kyle Busch, who loom ahead of him in the official standings. Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson apparently have discovered something positive that they should be able to carry over into 2014.
Key Chase Moments: Simply getting into the Chase as an unprecedented 13th qualifier was huge for Gordon, who thought immediately after the regular-season finale at Richmond that he was the odd man unfairly left out. Since then, he's mostly made the most of it. Nothing tops his first win of the season at Martinsville, but he failed to capitalize on it the following week at Texas when a flat tire sent him sailing into the wall early in the race and relegated him to a Chase-killing 38th-place finish.
Where He'll Finish: It appears he will battle teammate Earnhardt for the fifth spot in the final standings, although either or both of them could easily catch Kyle Busch for fourth. Gordon hasn't finished higher than eighth since 2009, when he finished third.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs only to turn his second-place finishes into wins.
Previous Rank: 10
Why He's Here: You've got to give credit where it's due. For a guy who hasn't won a race all season and essentially fell out of title contention through no fault of his own when the engine in his No. 88 Chevy went sour in the Chase-opening race at Chicagoland Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. has been remarkably solid with an average finish of 5.9 in the seven races since then.
Key Chase Moments: He's finished second three times in the Chase—at Dover, Talladega and Texas. That gives him five runner-up finishes on the season. He's finished inside the top eight in six of the seven races since the debacle at Chicagoland.
Where He'll Finish: Junior is a good bet now to finish fourth, which would represent the second-highest finish of his Cup career and his best since finishing the career-high third way back in 2003. A strong finish should bode well for a fast start to 2014, but ultimately he'll have to turn some of those runner-up finishes into wins to truly contend for a title.
Matt Kenseth's terrific season isn't over yet, but he has work to do to finish on top.
Previous Rank: 3
Why He's Here: He's a very manageable seven points behind Chase leader Jimmie Johnson heading into Phoenix. He's the only one left with a shot at derailing the Johnson championship train. In his first season driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth already has surpassed all expectations with a series-high and career-high seven race victories.
Key Chase Moments: He won at Chicagoland and New Hampshire to begin the Chase in spectacular fashion. His only slight hiccup came when he finished 20th at Talladega—but even then he led 32 laps and avoided the big wreck. His average finish for the first eight Chase races is 6.1 and includes five finishes of fourth or better, including a second at Martinsville where he usually struggles.
Where He'll Finish: Despite having driven like a champion all year, it appears highly unlikely that Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet team will squander a seven-point advantage in the final two races for the second year in a row. Kenseth seems destined to finish second.
Ride 'em, cowboy! Jimmie Johnson, a.k.a. Five Time, is poised to become Six Time very soon.
Previous Rank: 2
Why He's Here: With a seven-point lead heading into the final two races for the second consecutive season, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus appear more determined than ever to complete the job they left unfinished a year ago. They'll keep a careful eye on Kenseth at both Phoenix and Homestead and no doubt will pit at the first sign of trouble during either race to avoid the blown-tire calamity that derailed their championship hopes at Phoenix a year ago.
Key Chase Moments: By winning at Texas, Johnson broke a tie at the top of the point standings with Kenseth and also earned his sixth win of the season. That could loom big if he needs to win a tiebreaker over Kenseth at the end, which would require Johnson winning at least one of the last two races. He's finished sixth or better in every Chase race thus far except for Talladega, where he led 47 laps and finished 13th. His average finish in the first eight Chase races is a remarkable 4.9.
Where He'll Finish: It seems obvious—almost pre-ordained—that Five Time is destined to become Six Time in locking up his sixth Sprint Cup championship.