Thirteen races down, 13 to go. NASCAR’s Race to The Chase is halfway over. Normally, by the time we get here, we have a general idea about who the drivers to beat will be come Loudon in September.
This year, however, the Chase field seems a little more wide open. Sure, there are a handful of drivers you could say are “favorites,” but you can’t exactly say they’re all that far ahead of everyone else.
One could make a good argument that there are seven drivers who have a shot at this year’s title, whether it’s based on this year’s statistics or from previous years. And what about those outside of that group? Well, you can’t exactly count them out either; those final twelve races always see someone surprise us a little.
Kurt Busch wasn’t “supposed” to win the title in 2004. Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin weren’t “supposed” to contend in 2005 and 2006. And Clint Bowyer came from nowhere to mount a charge in 2007.
So, what drivers are the leaders in the club house, and who could turn out to surprise some during The Chase?
Tier One: Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch
These are the likely favorites at the moment. Stewart took the points lead at Dover (even though he has yet to capture a win) with Gordon and Johnson right behind him. Kyle Busch leads the series in wins right now with three.
Between the four of them, there are six wins and 22 top fives so far. By a considerable margin, these four have been the cream of the crop through 2009. Odds say they have the best shot at this year’s title.
Of course, each has obstacles in their way right now. Tony Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing, as good as they’ve been, have yet to win and haven’t battled for a championship together (or at all in the case of the team).
Do they know how to handle the pressures of The Chase? Can they raise their game when everyone else (Jimmie Johnson) does? We can’t be sure of that just yet.
What about Jeff Gordon? He’s been the best of the year to this point, leading the standings for eight races this year. He has been in contention for the entire season, and could have captured top tens in every race this year, if not for bad luck? But, his back has been on the fritz recently, leading Jeff to have medical procedure on it.
Does he have the endurance in him to last the full season? You know the team can give him the fast enough cars, and Jeff’s driving talent is as good as it’s ever been. But can his body hold up?
Kyle Busch leads the series in wins, and is easily the fastest driver in NASCAR right now. He has lead more laps than anyone, and has won more races over the past two years than anyone else in any of NASCAR’s major series. But this year, the younger Busch brother has been either feast or famine.
In races he hasn’t won, he has only one top five, two top tens, and seven finishes lower than 17th (including three lower than 25th). The consistency isn’t there for him so far. Without that, I can’t see him making a real charge, not yet at least.
So, who among this group has the best chance to bring home a championship? I’ll stay away from Stewart and Busch for the time being (Stewart’s team is untested in The Chase, and Kyle Busch is too inconsistent right now).
That leaves J.J. and Gordon. History says Johnson has an advantage (it’s hard to argue against three straight championships). But something tells me that Gordon shouldn’t be slept on.
So long as his back holds up, I think this year could be his, allowing him to ride off into the sunset and retirement (I can’t imagine he’d race much longer if he were to get one more title).
At the moment, I’ll take Jeff Gordon as my champion, with Johnson putting up a big fight for his fourth in a row. But, it won’t be enough.
Tier Two: The Field
The other eight drivers in the current Chase lineup go like this: Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, and Mark Martin.
This bunch is comprised of those that may not be primary title contenders, but if circumstances turn up good for any of them, someone from this group could (and will) make a run at this thing. As I said earlier, there’s always one driver (at least) who isn’t a favorite that somehow manages to make a title push?
So, of this group, who might be able to make such a run? My heart says Mark Martin; he’s easily the “feel good” pick of this group, and he’s with the best team in Hendrick Motorsports. His slow start is a distant memory, and he has steadily climbed the standings to 12th right now.
In typical fashion, Martin has quietly been going about his business; he doesn’t lead a lot of laps, and doesn’t make much noise at races’ start. But, by the end of the day, he’s in somewhere in the top ten. Not bad for guy who FOX gave a rocking chair to four years ago.
Watch out for him to be this year’s “surprise” Chase contender (and he’s only a surprise because he isn’t in that “favorite” group; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he took the title home after Homestead).
Outside Looking In
Finally, there are bout six or seven drivers just outside the top 12 trying to break in. Highlighted be David Reutimann, Kasey Kahne, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others.
While the so-called “experts” like to point out that a vast majority of Chase drivers are already in the top 12 at this point, I’ll remind them Mark Martin wasn’t in 2004 and Matt Kenseth wasn’t in 2005 or 2008/ Yet, both ended up making the Case those years. Hmm, maybe this deal isn’t sealed yet, is it?
I’m liking Kasey Kahne to knock someone out and put himself in between now and Loudon, NH is September. His Richard Petty Motorsports outfit is on the upswing, and this new Dodge engine is only going to help their cause.
Kahne hasn’t lived up to his successful rookie season (which saw everyone and their dog proclaim him as “the next Jeff Gordon”), but he is still one the better drivers going. With a better prepared team this year, a Chase birth is within reach. I believe he’ll grab it.