NASCAR Sprint Cup: A Reason Each of the Top 25 Drivers Could Win the Title
As per usual before the traditional Easter off week, the Sprint Cup points standings are chock full with both shocking surprises and vast disappointments.
While Carl Edwards leads Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick after eight races, drivers such as Paul Menard and A.J. Allmendinger seem to be on the verge of breakout seasons. Meanwhile, 2010 Chasers Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle may need to make a charge very soon in order to reach the top 10 via consistency rather than relying on wins to earn one of two "wild card" spots.
Without further ado, here are 25 reasons for 25 drivers—a reason each of the top 25 drivers in the Sprint Cup points standings could take the title come November.
25. Bobby Labonte (-117)
Bobby Labonte has experience with claiming a Sprint Cup championship, winning the title in 2000.
However, a return to the top 20 in the points standings seems highly unlikely. After pushing Trevor Bayne to victory in the Daytona 500 in February, the Texan has just one top-15 finish in the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Toyota since then: a 13th-place result at Bristol last month.
Labonte will need a lot of luck down the stretch in order to make the Chase.
24. Joey Logano (-116)
The addition of Kentucky Speedway to the Sprint Cup schedule in July could prove beneficial, as Joey Logano's won the last three Nationwide races at the 1.5-mile track.
Winning at Kentucky may prove to be Logano's only hope to make the Chase this season, provided that less than two non-Chasers win races before Chicagoland in September. The youngster posted his first top 10 of the season in the No. 20 Toyota last weekend, earning a 10th-place result at Talladega.
23. Jamie McMurray (-114)
While McMurray has struggled this season, the Sprint Cup Series travels to Charlotte next month, Daytona in July, and Indianapolis in August—all tracks the No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team won at last season.
McMurray is in the same boat as Logano at this point; win, and hope the top 10 in points keep on winning. His only top-10 finish came after winning the pole at Martinsville earlier this month, ending with a seventh-place result.
22. Jeff Burton (-110)
Due to his early struggles, Burton will need to rely on his trademark consistency even more. A win to snap his 85-race drought would help matters as well.
The No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet is still looking for its first top-10 place of the season, with a best finish of 11th-place at Texas earlier this month.
21. Marcos Ambrose (-107)
Ambrose could boost one of the best starts of his career by winning at either Infineon or Watkins Glen, a pair of road courses where his Australian V8 Supercar experience has come in handy.
The "Tasmanian Devil" has shown that his move to Richard Petty Motorsports was a smart one, with a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas at March and a sixth-place finish at Texas.
20. David Ragan (-104)
In what could be a make-or-break season for David Ragan, he could continue his run of two top 10s in the past three races to make what could be a surprise run for the title.
After a late-race penalty cost the young Georgian a shot at the Daytona 500 with drafting partner and eventual winner Trevor Bayne, Ragan and the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford have recently resurfaced with an eighth-place finish at Martinsville and a seventh-place finish after winning the pole at Texas.
19. Martin Truex Jr. (-103)
If Martin Truex Jr. wants to give Michael Waltrip Racing a first-ever Sprint Cup title, he will need to stay out of trouble and log more top-10 finishes.
Truex's second season under the MWR umbrella has seen some growth from the No. 56 Toyota team, with a sixth-place finish at Las Vegas the highlight of the season thus far. However, the New Jersey native's day was cut short by crashes at both Martinsville and Texas earlier this month.
18. Kasey Kahne (-101)
For Kasey Kahne to make his one-year stay at Red Bull Racing worthwhile, the No. 4 Toyota will need to break a string of bad luck by putting together consistent finishes.
After tallying three top-10 finishes in the first five races of the season, Kahne has struggled with a 39th-place finish at Martinsville, a 21st-place finish at Texas, and a fiery 37th-place finish at Talladega.
17. Denny Hamlin (-100)
Denny Hamlin desperately needs to return to his dominant consistency that made him a legitimate threat to win the Sprint Cup title last season, as hopes of winning a championship this season begin to fade.
Hamlin has just one top-10 finish in 2011, a seventh-place result at Las Vegas in March. The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team has struggled to lead laps as well, pacing the field in four of eight races this season.
16. Greg Biffle (-74)
Greg Biffle can put himself in prime contention for a Cup title if he can build upon two consecutive top 10 finishes entering the off week.
After just one top-10 finish in the first six races, the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford finished fourth in Texas and seventh last week in Talladega, leading laps in both races. If he can continue this, Biffle will bring his team into the Chase in short order.
15. A.J. Allmendinger (-69)
While A.J. Allmendinger's statistics are far from flashy this season, his ability to finish races has him in a much better spot than in years past. The major key for him is to stay consistent, with a win or two to silence any doubters.
Despite just one top-10 finish (ninth at Phoenix), the driver of the famed No. 43 Ford has seven top-20 finishes in the first eight races with no DNFs.
14. Mark Martin (-69)
For the veteran to earn his first Sprint Cup title, Mark Martin's key is very similar to Allmendinger's: stay consistent and earn a win or two to solidify himself as a contender.
Martin has three top-10 finishes this season, the most recent of which coming as part of the wild photo finish at Talladega last weekend (eighth place). His only DNF came at Texas, when a crash ended his evening at lap 213.
13. Jeff Gordon (-61)
For Jeff Gordon to join teammate Jimmie Johnson among the ranks of five-time Sprint Cup champions, he will need to string together a run of top-10 finishes, rather than alternating them with poor results.
After breaking a lengthy winless streak with a victory at Phoenix in February, Gordon didn't return to the top five until a fifth-place finish at Martinsville. After a 23rd-place result at Texas, Gordon finished third as part of the photo finish at Talladega last weekend.
12. Tony Stewart (-55)
A two-time Sprint Cup champion, Tony Stewart could certainly make a run at a third title by continuing to log top-20 finishes and lead laps.
The driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet has seven top-20 finishes in eight races this season, the most impressive of which was at Las Vegas. Stewart led 163 of 267 laps on that March afternoon to earn a second-place finish.
11. Paul Menard (-53)
The surprise of 2011 thus far, Paul Menard needs to maintain the quiet consistency he has shown all season if he wants to pull off the ultimate upset and win a Sprint Cup title.
In his first season as driver of the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, Menard has already attained career highs with two top-fives and three top-10s. Other than a 38th-place result at Martinsville due to overheating, Menard has finished in the top 20 in the rest of the schedule thus far.
10. Clint Bowyer (-50)
If Clint Bowyer continues his streak of four straight top-ten finishes, he'll definitely be a threat for the Sprint Cup title as the season wears on.
After ranking 24th in the standings after four races, Bowyer has rocketed up 14 positions in the standings due to a seventh-place finish at Auto Club Speedway, a ninth-place result at Martinsville and runner-up finishes at Texas and Talladega.
9. Juan Pablo Montoya (-49)
Juan Pablo Montoya could become the first international Sprint Cup champion with wins on both ovals and road courses.
The "ovals" portion has eluded Montoya over the past four-plus seasons, mainly because of two dominant performances at the Brickyard spoiled in 2009 and 2010. Montoya owns a win each at Infineon Raceway (2007) and Watkins Glen (2010).
8. Matt Kenseth (-43)
If Matt Kenseth can emulate the 2003 season in which he won one race en route to a Sprint Cup title under the old system in a Chase setting, he'd pull off something truly historic—and he's in position to possibly do it this year.
Before he was caught up in one of the few wrecks at Talladega, Kenseth had rattled off four straight top-ten finishes—punctuated by a win at Texas that snapped an over-two-year-long losing streak.
7. Ryan Newman (-42)
If Ryan Newman can make ridiculous saves like he did last weekend at Talladega, he can keep his team in the hunt for a title.
Even though Newman finished 25th at Talladega, his sheer driving ability kept the No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet from falling further down the running order and losing precious points.
6. Kyle Busch (-38)
Even though "Rowdy" Busch lost four positions last weekend after being caught up in the typical Talladega mayhem, his ability to run up front could eventually offset poor finishes and DNFs in the long run.
Other than a 35th-place finish last weekend and a 38th-place finish at Las Vegas, Busch's only finish outside the top 10 was a 16th-place mark at Texas. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has four top-5 finishes, more than any other driver.
5. Kurt Busch (-28)
Meanwhile, Kyle's older brother, Kurt, could ride the wave of consistency towards a second Sprint Cup title.
In his first year behind the wheel of the No. 22 Dodge, the former No. 2 team has eight top-20 finishes in eight races this far, his best performance in the form of a fifth-place mark at Daytona.
4. Kevin Harvick (-27)
The most important move in Kevin Harvick's arsenal is the last-lap pass, a move he used to win at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville. Combined with his five top-10 finishes in the No. 29 Chevrolet, Harvick may be on his way to giving Richard Childress Racing its first Sprint Cup title since 1994.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-19)
After a 24th-place finish at Daytona to start the season, Junior's worst finish has been a 12th-place result at Auto Club Speedway. Additionally, he helped push teammate Jimmie Johnson to victory at Talladega last week in what could be considered "Little E"'s best restrictor-plate finish in quite some time.
2. Jimmie Johnson (-5)
Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 crew are five-time defending Sprint Cup champions. That's enough reason to consider them as a threat for a sixth title.
1. Carl Edwards (Leader)
Carl Edwards continues to run up front after sweeping the final two races of 2010, allowing him to return to the top of the points standings on three different occasions already this season.
Following a second-place finish at Daytona, Edwards and the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford crew finished 28th at Phoenix after involvement in a crash set them well behind the lead. Thus far, it appears to be the team's only hiccup, with one win, three top-fives and five top-10s in the six races that have followed.
If crew chief Bob Osbourne can continue to direct his team towards consistent finishes, Edwards may be celebrating a Sprint Cup title with the Homestead-Miami Speedway fans in November.
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