The Chase for the Championship, only 6 races away now, is a good time to see which drivers are really in the hunt for Championship and which are just happy to be here.
In this article we will look at drivers in the way you might look at stocks or commodities on the market.
Which ones should you be buying in bulk and who should you be selling quicker than you can say, "Boogity, boogity, boogity." The 2011 season has proved to be one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory with six or seven drivers having legitimate chances of hoisting the Championship Trophy at the end of the season in Homestead.
Kasey Kahne ran a pretty good race for most the day at the Brickyard until a late race incident knocked him out of contention. He currently sits 15th in the points standings and on the outside looking in on the two wild card spots as well.
The next six races will prove crucial to his Chase hopes, but last year over the next six races he only gained one pole and had an AFP (average finishing position) of 19.3. If he has results similar to last year he can go ahead and kiss his Chase hopes goodbye.
Paul Menard came out of last weekend winning his first career race, and what a sweet first win. His family has tried in other series to win at the Brickyard, and to deliver the first win at Indy for his father must have been special. What also must have been special was that with that win he has one of the two wild card spots for the Chase.
Last year over the next six races his AFP was 22.3, but he also grabbed top-five finishes at Texas and Michigan earlier in the season. Look for Menard to be in the Chase when all is said and done, but I just don’t see him contenting with the big boys just yet.
The Biff has had one of his more disappointing seasons, and his struggles in weeks past is what is making me leery of his chances in the Chase. Through most of the season Greg Biffle was not happy with his team's performance, which has led to a switch from Greg Erwin to Matt Puccia at the Crew Chief position.
Prior to the race at Indy he had not finished in the top 10 in the previous six races, with an AFP of 20.3, and these just are not numbers of a guy who is going to prove a real threat in the Chase. With these troubles on track and within the team it is hard to see Biffle even making the Chase. He is a must sell.
Clint Bowyer is man who is having a tough time. The month of July was not good to Bowyer, who only managed a 25.25 AFP, but two of those results were due to crashes. This excuse is only good for a short while, but then he must turn around and show us that he can go out and grab a top 10 or top five finish.
Luckily for Bowyer, the next races have proven to be good to him in the past. He recorded two top 10 finishes in the races at Richmond and Michigan, and had an AFP of 13.3 over the next six races last season. Even though he has shown he can perform, there is something about Clint Bowyer that makes him a hard sell. To me he just seems like a No. 2 driver and not a No. 1, and No. 2’s just don’t win Championships.
Denny Hamlin may have the one of the two wild card spots right now, but he still must be disappointed with the way the 2011 season has progressed so far. Last season Hamlin was on the short list of real contenders to dethrone Jimmie Johnson, but this season he finds himself clinging to one of the final Chase slots.
This lack of performance and the ticking clock is making Hamlin realize that his time to strike is now. The next six races should solidify his spot in the chase, because he recorded a sescond place finish at Richmond and his one win of the season at Michigan. Strong runs here should make him a lock for the Chase. As a serious contender for the Championship it is hard not to give a guy with Denny’s talent and record at the Chase tracks a chance once the points are reset.
Dale Earnhadrt Jr.'s 2011 season can be summed up in three words: Peaking Too Soon. That has plagued the No. 88. He came in to Week 15 sitting third in points and had been in the top five in points for eight weeks, but it has been all downhill from that point on. He currently sits 10th and is on the verge of not making the Chase again.
The next six races do not look like they are going to be much help either, because in the four races at these tracks earlier this season he only had one top 10 finish. Last year's results don’t look any better where he had no top 10s and a 23.5 AFP. All this information does is make me want to cut my loses and SELL, SELL, SELL on Dale Jr.’s chances of even making the Chase, let alone being a contender.
Can you ever count Tony Stewart out of the Championship? The answer to that question is no, which is why I am buying Tony’s chances again this year. He currently sits ninth in points, but he has been flirting with being in or out of the Chase all season long. Stewart is also the only driver in the top 10 who has not won a race this season and this may be a problem for most drivers, but most drivers are not Tony Stewart.
Stewart has never had a season in his career where he has not had a win and I don’t expect 2011 to be any different. Where a driver like Dale Jr. has been in a slump, Tony has slowly been climbing up the standings in recent weeks. Stewart has recorded two top 10 finishes and a 7.75 AFP over the last four races, and this trend should continue, seeing how he had top 10 finishes at Richmond and Michigan. He also chalked up a win last year at Atlanta and is surely going to try to rack up another this year and solidify his place in the Chase.
Ryan Newman currently sits eighth in points and has been one of the more pleasant surprises this season. After only finishing in the top 10 in points one time over the last five seasons, Newman looks poised to have one of his strongest finishes in years. He already has more top five finishes than he had all of last season and is coming off his first win of the year at New Hampshire.
The only thing Newman has going against him this year is a lack of consistency, but he could make up some ground in the races leading up to the Chase. The four races earlier this season he has three top 10s and has been strong at the Glen and Atlanta in the past. If he records a few more strong finishes at these tracks he may switch from a soft sell to a soft buy, but until then Newman just falls short of really competing with the top drivers in NASCAR.
NASCAR 2011: The Return of the Wonder Kid. This would be how they'd sum up Jeff Gordon’s season if it ended today. Gordon is winning races and getting top fives on a pace that he has not been at for a few seasons. Gordon is in the same category as Tony Stewart in that you just have to buy him if he is in the top 10 in points.
Over the next six races, Gordan will look to close the gap on the top six drivers and try to add another win or two to his resume before the Chase starts. He had a pretty good stretch of races in the Chase last season except for two crash outs in the last 3 races. If he can shore up a few more of these finishes I see no reason why he should not be a serious contender for his fifth Championship.
Looking at the numbers, Kurt Busch is having a similar season in 2011 to the one he had last year. In 2010 he finished 11th in points, but in 2011 he sits in sixth place and only 18 points out, a good race finish out of being in first. So whats different? Maybe it's the new car or the new points system, but Kurt Busch is right in the hunt for the Championship. His AFP is up from a year ago by 3.6 spots so he is showing signs of better consistency and more time spent in the top 10 or 15 positions.
Right now he is a lock for the Chase, and this former champion is poised to make another strong run. Of the races he's run at Chase tracks so far this season he has an AFP of 10.75, which is right where he wants it to be. He has room for improvement, but is definitely a contender for the Championship.
If they made a superhero based on Matt Kenseth, I have a feeling his name would be Captain Consistency. There are certain traits that all great NASCAR drivers have, such as talent, aggression, drive, and consistency, and no one better personifies the last trait quite like Kenseth. He does not have the most wins, top fives, or top 10s, but over the length of the season Kenseth has finished in the top 15 15 times in 20 races.
This record of consistency is what wins Championships in NASCAR, and Kenseth has his sights set on his second Championship. Of the eight Chase tracks that have already had races this season he has two wins, two top 10’s, and an AFP of 12, but if you take out the crap shoot that is Talladega its more of an AFP of 8 or 9. With finishes like these its going to be hard to stop Kenseth from making a run at the 2011 Championship.
Now, on to the most polarizing figure in NASCAR, Kyle Busch. Whether you love him or hate him there is no denying that Busch is having one of his best seasons to date. He has three wins, 10 top fives, and 12 top 10s, which almost matches his stats from last year, but the season is only a little more than half over.
What Rowdy needs to do to win a championship is figure out how to eliminate his really poor finishes. For all the wins he has gained this season he has also had a finish of 32nd or worse. One of these races was due to an engine trouble which plagued all of JGR early in the season, but two of the finishes were crashes. If Rowdy Busch can find a way to finish all the races in the Chase unscathed then there is no reason he should not be hoisting the Championship trophy at the end of the season in Homestead.
Is this finally going to be the year that Kevin Harvick finds that golden horseshoe that Jimmie Johnson's been hiding and uses it to dethrone him? Is there a driver who is more hungry and motivated to take the Championship away from Jimmie Johnson than Kevin Harvick? Well, if the season to date is any indicator then Harvick is pretty close to finding that horseshoe and finally winning the big one. With three wins and six top five finishes, Harvick is sure in the fight for the Championship, but with almost anyone there is still room for improvement.
With as tough as the field is this year he could go for finding his way into the top five a few more times. With that being said, the Closer is in good shape coming into the Chase, having recorded wins at Martinsville and Charlotte so far this season. It will be interesting to see if Harvick can translate that nickname, the Closer, from the end of races to the end of the season, and this is definitely the season to give it a go.
Do I even need to write anything here or just put up a picture of him and his five trophies. Well, I guess it would be rude not to write anything since you the reader have already made it this far. Jimmie Johnson is having another Championship type season, but in all honesty his performance has been down. With only one win, he may seem to be a little off his normal pace, but he sits second in points, which is almost where he wants to be, but not quite.
Even if he has been off his pace slightly, Johnson’s strongest stretch of races is coming up, and those would be those in the Chase. In the eight races run at Chase tracks so far this year he has one win, only one finish out of the top 11, and an AFP of 9. So to say that he likes the Chase tracks would be a bit of an understatement. He is, until someone beats him, still the odds on favorite to win the Chase.
We arrive at the man currently with the points lead, Mr. Carl Edwards. Since he's been ranked No. 1 in points for 14 of the 20 weeks so far this season it would not be a stretch to say that Edwards is having the best season of all the drivers. Having similar stats to that of Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards hasto be a more consistent driver, which is why he finds himself atop the leader boards right now.
With one win, 10 top five finishes, and 13 top 10 finishes Carl has done everything asked of a top level driver. He has only had two 30+ finishes and only three other races outside the top 15. So what must Edwards do win his first Championship? Just keep it up. He has shown good pace at all the Chase tracks, but is going to have to keep his foot on the floor and keep that lead he has had all season.