This weekend marks the beginning of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' Chase for the Cup, a 10-weekend playoff event in which the series' top 12 drivers will fight for its championship.
For the past four years, Jimmie Johnson has dominated this event, winning every Chase from 2006 on.
But this year looks to be a little different. The perceived strength in the No. 48 team that has been there in years past isn't as readily apparent to casual observers. Meanwhile, a handful of other drivers appear ready to step up and assume the position atop the standings.
So who's got the momentum heading into the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and who's lagging towards the back? Let this slideshow be your guide. Roll it!
“When we’re complaining about finishing ninth…” Harvick’s is still the team to beat, in my opinion. They’ve been consistent all year, and it’s not as if reseeding has put them 100 points out of the lead. Almost anything appears possible for the top RCR team this year. Dale Earnhardt would be proud.
And yes, complaining about a top-10 finish is a pretty good position to be in coming into the Chase.
Hamlin gets second place based on his Cup-leading six wins thus far this season. But a rash of mediocre finishes before the Richmond win have me concerned about them. Sure, they were great at the beginning of the year, but we haven’t yet seen any guarantees that they will be for the final 10 weeks.
Then again, if a hot and cold team gets hot at the right times, i.e. now, does it really matter how they were doing beforehand? This is the advantage of the Chase—the ability to ditch poor midseason runs as long as you can put it together at the end.
I think that this is the year where the No. 18 crew finally puts it all together. Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers have worked well together all year, and Busch’s ability to exhibit patience while racing against teammate Hamlin at Richmond, waiting to pass him clean instead of muscling in, will be a strong virtue in the Chase.
After missing the playoffs for a year, they'll also finally have the chance to reflect on the Chase mistakes they made with Steve Addington at the helm. Mistakes that turned them into a mediocre team after running strong throughout the 2008 regular season.
Maybe we’re all just hoping that he doesn’t win a fifth title so intensely, that we believe this team is doing worse than they actually are. They do have five wins, after all. They just haven’t exhibited such dominance as we’re used to yet.
Of course, Johnson and his crew have overcome adversity before, and there's no reason they can't do it again. But the middling performances of his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates—two of whom were not even close to making the Chase—has me wondering just how much magic they're going to need to win it all this year?
It can't be all driver performance issues at HMS, can it?
Momentum is starting to show up on Edwards’ side, an ironic proposition as Edwards commented during the Richmond race weekend that he used to scoff at the notion of momentum. While the wins have not yet come, Edwards has scored 150 or more points in seven of the past nine races. The lone exceptions were a 12th place, lead lap finish at Bristol, and a 10th place finish at Richmond in which he led 95 laps from the pole.
They’re not the No. 99 team of two years ago, but they’re getting it together. They could be this year's "surprise" team, a la Greg Biffle two years ago or Clint Bowyer in 2007.
No, he hasn’t done anything lately to compare to the single-digit finishes he exhibited at the beginning of the season. But do keep in mind that of the past 17 races, Kenseth has finished in the top 20 in 16 of them. Only twice all year has he failed to score 100 or more points in any given race.
That could make a huge difference in a 10-week stretch where you don’t want to have any mulligans.
It's the same sort of run he had going on when he won the 2003 championship with a single victory.
You want another solid stretch of runs? From Dover to Richmond, the past 15 races, "Smoke" has had 11 top 10 finishes, a dominant win at Atlanta, and only two finishes outside the top 20. He also managed to lead a lap in eight of those 15 races, showing he can put his car up front.
But like Kenseth, "Smoke" needs to show the ability to win more events if he's going to be a legitimate title threat. Richmond was a blah performance, uncharacteristic of this team as of late. But one has to worry about whether this team spent it all trying to get there instead of saving something for the end.
Telling statistic of the week: Of the first 11 races of the season, Gordon led nine—five times leading 92 laps or more. In the latest 15, he has led five times, never for more than 47 laps. That’s not championship material, especially heading into the Chase.
Were he to have been leading the points and won a championship that way, it'd have been comparable to Jenson Button's Formula 1 title last year, where he won the majority of early races, but finished towards the end of the points for the rest of the season.
It's really too bad—the advent of the Chase format stole championships from Gordon in 2004 and 2007, and this year we should be witnessing a record-tying attempt at a seventh title. It just wasn't meant to be.
Both of the older Busch brother’s victories came in the first half of the regular season. Since dominating the Coca-Cola 600, he’s led only five races, with a high of 60 laps led at Michigan two events after that one. Thankfully for them, the Chase is chock full of the 1.5-mile tracks that were their bread and butter early on in the season. But can they display the same form?
If not, at least Roger Penske has dogs in the fight for each of the three championships in which he currently campaigns race teams. Brad Keselowski is all but guaranteed the Nationwide Series title at this point, while Will Power currently leads the IZOD IndyCar Series standings with two races to go.
I honestly keep forgetting he’s in the Chase. Good for them, but only leading three events in the second half of the regular season does not make a title contender. (Especially since their 11 laps led at Richmond were due to hedging their bets under a caution for rain. If the rain gets heavier, they win. It didn’t.)
But I can't think of a better feel-good story than if Burton were to win the first couple of Chase races, like Greg Biffle did two years ago, and get in the fight. It'd be a lot more interesting to see two RCR cars dueling with the two Joe Gibbs cars for the victory.
Richmond was a disaster for the only Roush team to have won a race thus far this season. The past eight races have seen as many finishes outside the top 25 (three) as they have top five runs. Too inconsistent!
The real question becomes whether or not Biffle will remain the only Roush driver to take a Cup win this year. Matt Kenseth hasn't won since February of 2009, while Carl Edwards hasn't since Homestead in November of 2008. From the fall Atlanta race of 2008 to the spring California race last year, Roush cars driven by Edwards and Kenseth won five out of six events. Since then, it's been one hell of a dry spell for those two. At least Biffle's made it to victory lane.
Nice job racing your way in, but four fourth place finishes as your best output of the season don’t exactly do anything besides incite Chase critics who think too many drivers have an undeserved shot at the title.
They do have a point. When has this team really established itself as a legitimate title contender all year? Richmond was one of their best races of the season, and they couldn't hold on. Thanks for playing, though.
That's all for this week's Sprint Cup power rankings. Again, the Chase for the Cup begins this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, with the Sylvania 300. Be sure to watch. Thanks for reading!