Three races remain before the championship field is set. Which drivers' title hopes should you be buying and which should you be selling?
Two obvious buys at the moment are Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, each of whom is on a tremendous hot streak that should carry over into the Chase. Some top drivers have been faltering lately, raising questions about their ability to make a title run. Where does your favorite driver stand?
Before I begin, I want to explain what I mean by my ratings. A buy means a driver's title hopes are on the rise; a sell means his hopes are trending down; and a hold means he's not moving strongly in either direction.
That is, if I rate a driver as a buy, that doesn't necessarily mean I think he's a strong threat to win the championship; it simply means I think his championship prospects are on the rise. He may be a long shot today, but less of one than he was recently.
Or just because I rate a driver as a sell doesn't mean I think he doesn't have a chance at the title; I just think he's not in as good of shape as he appeared to be a short while ago.
"Wild Thing" knows how to celebrate, and he's been doing a lot of it this year. He picked up his series-leading fourth Cup win of the year on Sunday at Michigan, becoming the first driver to clinch a spot in the Chase.
If Busch can win this Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway, he can clinch at least a share of the top seed in the Chase.
With his Michigan victory, "Rowdy" moved into sole possession of first place in the standings. He's not likely to look back any time soon, and he's the best bet out there to displace Jimmie Johnson as Sprint Cup champion at Homestead in November. Buy up as much of Busch's stock as you can.
Johnson came up just short at Michigan in his duel with Kyle Busch in the closing laps, but history shows he'll be a force to be reckoned with come Chase time.
The No. 48 Chevrolet is running about as well as it has all year, and you can bet that Jimmie and crew chief Chad Knaus have a few tricks up their sleeves they're saving for after the checkered flag waves at Richmond in three weeks. Few drivers and crew chief combos as singularly driven to excel as Johnson and Knaus, and for the past five years they've called the Chase their own personal playground.
That said, this is easily the latest Johnson has gone in a season with only one victory, a definite sign that his unprecedented era of dominance may be coming to an end. But the Lowes team is trending in the right direction, making Johnson a definite buy heading into the Chase.
Kevin Harvick already has as many wins in 2011 as he had all last season, but unlike in 2010 he will not be a major factor in the Chase for the Sprint Cup title.
Sure, Harvick will make the Chase with ease, has three wins and will be seeded near the top at the beginning of the Chase.
But consider these stats.
In the past seven races, Harvick has only one top-10, no top-5s and zero laps led. Zero.
He hasn't led all that many laps all reason. In his three wins, he led a grand total of nine laps, and his season total is 130. That's not very impressive.
Sure, Harvick has had a decent year and lucked into numerous wins. But he's not about to seriously challenge Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson for the championship, and I rate him a soft sell.
The past two races have seen Carl Edwards' points lead evaporate and turn into a 39-point deficit as quickly as Edwards does one of his trademark backflips.
Edwards has just one race victory on the season and hasn't been running all that well since June. In fact, he has a mere two top-10s and four laps led in all of July and August.
I'm not ready to give up on Edwards just yet, so hold onto him for the time being. He's been the victim of some bad luck, including an engine issue at Michigan. However, I'm not buying either, as that's just the sort of problem that can derail a Chase run before it even gets started.
At least Matt Kenseth had a colorful car at Michigan to make up for his lack of personality and his habit of running quietly just inside the top 10.
Kenseth played that strategy to perfection in 2003, when he won the Cup title despite scoring just one victory all season.
He has two wins so far in 2011 and is looking as good as he has since 2006, when he nearly won a second championship before Jimmie Johnson ran him down in the last few races of the season.
He's even leading a decent amount of laps, over 400 so far this year, showing the muscle that will be needed to contend with the likes of Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson in the Chase. I doubt that he'll pull it off, but I'm not writing him off yet either.
Jeff Gordon is a rejuvenated man in 2011, driving like he knows time is inexorably against him in his decade-old Drive for Five.
The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has multiple wins this season for the first time since his six-win campaign of 2007. Although he hasn't won since June, he has five top-6 results in the last eight races with 106 laps led and no finishes worse than 13th.
That type of consistency is what's needed to make a strong Chase run, and Gordon and new crew chief Alan Gustafson seem to have what it takes to make a serious bid for the title. I'm buying.
Ryan Newman captured his first Sprint Cup win in over two years at New Hampshire this July, and he's almost assured of a spot in the 2011 Chase.
Whether or not he'll contend for the title is another matter altogether.
Newman has never finished higher than sixth in the final standings, so I'm tempted to put him as a sell simply based on that fact. However, he's been firing on all cylinders recently with four top-5s in the past six races.
"Rocketman" has the talent to run in the top five every week, but consistency has plagued both him and teammate Tony Stewart throughout the history of Stewart-Haas Racing. Undoubtedly he'll have some more great runs but on the whole Newman is a long shot to seriously contend for the title. Still, based on how he's running right now, I'm labeling Newman as a hold.
Like Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch has had a rough couple of weeks. He finished 38th at Watkins Glen, and followed that up with a 34th-place finish after scraping the wall late in the race at Michigan on Sunday.
Unlike Carl Edwards, Busch is at a point where he cannot afford to have any more bad finishes. He's fallen to eighth in the standings after spending most of the year ranked in the top four.
Since his win at Sonoma at the end of June, Busch has three top-10s in seven races but also three finishes of 21st or worse. Unless his team gets things turned around in a hurry, it's going to be a painful ending to the year for Busch.
I'm selling whatever stock I have left in the No. 22 team and reinvesting in his teammate (more on that later).
Currently, Junior is ninth in the standings, winless, but 30 points ahead of Clint Bowyer in 11th. He appears to be racing to avoid a catastrophic finish and should be able to make the Chase. However, this won't do when the Chase rolls around if Dale Jr. hopes to seriously contend for a title.
Unfortunately, I think the challenge for Earnhardt will be scrapping to finish in the top 10 in the Chase rather than fighting for the head place at the banquet table.
I wonder whether some weeks Stewart wishes he were still driving for Joe Gibbs, with whom he is speaking in the photo. At least Stewart knew he had a car that could contend for a win most weeks.
The same can't be said for his Stewart-Haas team in 2011. In fact, Stewart has basically admitted that he won't be a factor in the Chase and doesn't really belong.
'Nuf sed. I'm selling Stewart, hard.
Clint Bowyer has made the Chase every year except one since his rookie year of 2006. However, he's in serious jeopardy of missing the Chase for the second time in three years.
I'm not giving up on him yet. In the past few weeks he's overtaken Denny Hamlin in the standings, so all it would take is a win to put him into the second wild card position. In addition, he's a mere 24 points behind Tony Stewart for 10th place in the points.
I think Bowyer is at least a 50/50 bet to make the Chase. Once there he could make some noise as he did in 2007 and 2008 when he finished third and fifth in the championship standings, and last year when he won two races during the Chase. I'm optimistic for Bowyer...but only a little bit.
Brad Keselowski is one of the hottest drivers in the NASCAR garage. Breaking his foot appears to be just what he needed to start running in the front every week: Keselowski has finished in the top three for three consecutive weeks since his scary accident.
By picking up his second win of the season at Pocono Keselowski, he basically guaranteed himself at least a wild card spot in the Chase. However, his recent streak of success gives hope that BK might have a say in the championship conversation. He has six top-10s in the last eight races with 118 laps led and just one finish worse than 15th in that span.
That is the type of consistency it takes to contend with the likes of Jimmie Johnson in the Chase. I wouldn't have predicted it after Keselowski notched just two top-10s during the entire 2010 season, but it appears that the driver of the blue deuce has turned into a legitimate championship contender.
Greg Biffle's best chance for victory and earning a wild card bid to the Chase slipped through his fingers at Michigan. After leading a race-high 86 laps, Biffle lost track position in the pits and lost even more positions as he couldn't fight his way through traffic, eventually finishing a distant 20th.
Biffle still has a shot at making the Chase, but even if he were to make it I wouldn't bet a single cent on him winning the championship. For whatever reason, the No. 16 team seems to find bad luck even on days that start out promising.
Denny Hamlin appears to be the latest victim of the Jimmie Johnson Curse following his title bout with Johnson last fall. He's fallen off the map in 2011 after dominating much of the 2010 season and leading the Sprint Cup Series with eight victories.
Hamlin has but one win this season and is just 14th in the standings, hanging onto a wild card spot by a thread. He's in danger of losing his spot to at least six or seven drivers, and even if he does make the Chase, Hamlin's No. 11 team has given no indication that it's ready to contend for a title.
I'm selling all my stock in Hamlin and then some.
A.J. Allmendinger started out the 2011 season with high hopes for getting his first Sprint Cup win and qualifying for the Chase.
Five drivers have notched their first Cup win this year, including teammate Marcos Ambrose, but not the 'Dinger. He hasn't really come close, with a single solitary top-5 and just 24 laps led all year.
That's no recipe for making the Chase, and even less of one for winning it. I'm selling.
Mark Martin is showing as much life recently as he has all season, although that's not saying much. He scored his second top-5 of the year at Michigan and with a win could certainly claim the second wild card position.
In the last four races Martin has two top-10s and an additional finish of 13th. That's not bad but not great either. The fact that he has led only 25 laps all year doesn't inspire a ton of confidence either.
However, Martin has finished second five time in his illustrious career, so if he manages to make the Chase, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. For now, he's a tenuous hold.
Kasey Kahne has had none to many strong runs in his lone year with Red Bull Racing—which, incidentally, may or may not be competing in the Cup Series in 2012.
Despite good qualifying runs, Kahne's race results have left much to be desired. He's scored just three top-10s in the past 13 races to go along with six finishes of 20th or worse.
Needless to say, that doesn't bode well for Kahne's chances for anything resembling a title run this fall—not that the kid driver with the dreamy blue eyes is likely to make the Chase to begin with.
Yes, Kahne is a definite sell. I'm sure he's already looking forward to that ride with Hendrick Motorsports next year.
Paul Menard, oh what could have been! Denny Hamlin has been doing his best to get you in the Chase, but you stubbornly refuse to take advantage of what he's offering you.
Hamlin's average finish the last two races is 35.5, but Menard hasn't been much better with finishes of 26th and 32nd. Menard currently trails Hamlin by just 18 points, but he easily could have been leading by that much with a couple of good runs.
For whatever reason, Menard hasn't been able to take advantage of Hamlin's bad luck. He still has an outside shot at making the Chase, but as far as being a championship-caliber driver, Menard is a sell.