NASCAR Sprint Cup: Ranking the 12 Chase Drivers' Chances of Winning It All
Becoming part of the Chase gives credence to the drivers, teams and owners regardless of whether they did it with multiple wins or no wins. It rewards their sponsors for the huge monetary support they dole out each season.
The highly competitive drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series give their all every time they strap themselves into their high-horsepower machines.
Their goal is to become one of 12 drivers who have the opportunity to vie for the trophy that declares them the series champion.
Making the Chase, NASCAR's playoff for its elite series, is the reward for the battles fought on the tracks during the preceding 26-week schedule.
Each Chase seems to have a personality of its own and the 2011 edition will be about consistency more than wins, if you listen to the drivers who will face off for the title.
There are those who still dislike the Chase and believe the driver who is the most consistent and wins the most races during the full 36 weeks should be declared the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.
The flip-side of the coin makes for a building intensity as the pre-season winds down and the 2011 season should be proof positive that it makes for some very exciting racing heading into the Chase.
Only 10 of the 12 Chase drivers will have the chance to stand front and center on the stage at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards Banquet in Las Vegas following the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Just as with racing, second place seems to be the first loser and that is how the drivers feel when they honor the one driver who is the champion of the series even though they were part of the Chase.
In this slideshow, the 12 drivers in the Chase will be ranked for their chance to capture the NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
Will they be able unseat Jimmie Johnson, who has five consecutive titles? Let's take a look and see.
1. Jeff Gordon
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Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, seems to be rejuvenated this season with his new crew chief, Alan Gustafson.
Gordon has had three wins this season, with his last one taking him to No. 85, third in all-time career wins behind Richard Petty and David Pearson.
Despite his 40th birthday, Gordon looks to be in the same championship form he was in with Ray Evernham as his crew chief.
The four-time NASCAR Cup champion looks to be on a run to block his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, from securing his sixth title.
2. Kyle Busch
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Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 Toyota, may not be the most popular driver in NASCAR, but he is certainly one of the most talented.
Busch has four wins to his credit, making him the top seed along with Kevin Harvick when the Chase for the title begins at Chicagoland Speedway.
This Joe Gibbs Racing driver has shown patience and maturity this season, which goes a long way when it comes to good finishes.
He knows this Chase will be all about consistency and besides his four wins, Busch has 13 top-five finishes.
He and his crew chief, Dave Rogers, could well make some magic during the Chase and look for Busch to be a tough title contender.
3. Kevin Harvick
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Kevin Harvick is the lead driver at Richard Childress Racing with his No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet.
This season, Harvick has captured four wins, with the last one being the final race before the Chase at Richmond International Raceway.
Harvick had a bit of a summer slump with his last top-five finish coming in June at Pocono. It was said they were doing some experimenting, but it began to seem more than that.
Harvick just announced the merger of his KHI Nationwide team with RCR. His Camping World Truck teams will be dismantled at season's end, with KHI assets to be sold along with the 80,000-square foot shop.
The driver of the No. 29 has mentally lightened his burden, so that he can concentrate on winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
Look for Harvick to have momentum heading into the Chase and he, like other drivers, knows how important consistent top-five finishes will be.
Harvick, much like Kyle Busch, may be one of the bad boys who will give the other title contenders a run for their money.
4. Jimmie Johnson
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Jimmie Johnson's unprecedented five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championships have proven he can manipulate the Chase format regardless of his performance during the season.
Though he has only one win this year, he has 17 top-10 finishes. Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, have hit some rough spots that have been reflected in radio communications and pit road mistakes.
Johnson displays his calm demeanor and confidence about the Chase, but he has shown some signs that pressure is mounting when he has confrontations with other drivers, especially Kurt Busch.
The Lowe's No. 48 Chevy seems to have gone for more spins this year than normal and most happened when he was running by himself.
You can never underestimate Johnson when the Chase rolls around, but this looks to be the year he will falter and the title will not be his.
5. Kurt Busch
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Kurt Busch, the driver of the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, has only one win this season, but he has seven top-five and 14 top-10 finishes.
Busch hit some rough spots this year and one of his rants over the in-car radio caused Roger Penske to make some changes with personnel that proved to be positive.
Busch has a fiery personality and he will rant to his team when he is running second. He will also get fired up about his not-so-best friend, Jimmie Johnson.
The Penske organization managed to get both of their Dodge teams into the Chase, and Brad Keselowski, driver of the Blue Deuce, seemed to have had a fire lit under him.
Busch has a Cup championship to his credit and Steve Addington, his crew chief, is giving him strong cars on a consistent basis.
Look for this Busch brother to be a threat for the series title and a bit of a pain to the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champ, Johnson.
6. Carl Edwards
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Carl Edwards drives the No. 99 Aflac Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. This season, he has only one win and it came at the third race of the season in Las Vegas.
Edwards has shown solid performance with 12 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes this year. His lack of wins could have been attributed to the contract negotiations that were quite consuming for him.
The consistency of this team kept him atop the point standings for a large part of the season. He looks to be get back in form to make a serious run for the title with his Ford FR-9 power plant.
7. Matt Kenseth
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Soft-spoken Matt Kenseth is somewhat of a stealth driver who quietly has gone about securing two wins this season with seven top-five and 14 top-10 finishes.
Kenseth drives the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. Under the guidance of his crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, he shows consistent performance.
He does not have top-five finishes at nearly half of the tracks in the Chase, so it remains to be seen how this 2003 Cup champion will perform during the next 10 races.
Kenseth may be one to watch because you can't discount the RFR drivers who are in the Chase, but given the competition level, it doesn't appear he will capture the 2011 title.
8. Denny Hamlin
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Denny Hamlin was hot in 2010 and looked to be a candidate to dethrone champ Jimmie Johnson, but the best he could do was runner-up.
Losing the 2010 title hit this driver hard in the ego department, and it seems to have spilled over into his performance.
Add far too many engine failures and lots of bad luck, and you have a disappointing season for the driver of the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, though he had 10 top-10 finishes.
Hamlin does have one win, but he had to fight his way to snag the second wild card slot in the Chase. The dominance of Kyle Busch has made him second fiddle at JGR.
Hamlin and his team, led by crew chief Mike Ford, will strive for consistent top-five finishes in the Chase and hope there is a win or two included.
It may be best for the Fed Ex team to spend the next 10 weeks trying to regain the momentum they lost during the last 26 pre-season races. A title for Hamlin in 2011 is not very likely.
9. Brad Keselowski
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Brad Keselowski put the 'mo' in momentum after breaking his ankle in a testing incident. He roared back with two wins and finishes of sixth or better until he got to Richmond.
The driver of the No. 2 Dodge for Penske Racing has three total wins this season. His strength in the races leading up to the Chase made him look as though he would race his way to the top 10.
The race at Richmond didn't go quite as well as planned and he remained 11th in the standings, unable to use his wins for bonus points because he was in a wild card slot.
Keselowski, of course, will go for consistency under the guidance of his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, but count on him to drive as hard as he can and go for wins at each of the Chase races.
The driver of the Blue Deuce could be a spoiler in the Chase if he gets a hot streak going, but in reality, his chance for winning the championship is a long shot.
10. Tony Stewart
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Tony Stewart, owner/driver of the Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy, struggled to make the Chase with a very uncharacteristic winless pre-season.
The driver of the No. 14 had three top-five and 11 top-10 finishes.
The two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion is never one to be counted out. Stewart has 39 Cup victories and 12 of those have come in races 27-36 of a season.
Normally, this driver starts to win in the summer heat, but perhaps he will find his mojo during the later months of the year in the Chase.
Stewart is a hard racer who is fully capable of a strong comeback, but it really doesn't appear he is in good enough form to capture the title this year.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back in the Chase despite his 119-race winless streak. He does have three top-five and nine top-10 finishes so far in 2011.
Things were looking bleak for him with only one top-10 finish in the last 12 races, but his team chose to stay conservative in hopes of locking themselves into the Chase, and it worked.
This season has gone much better than his previous two at Hendrick Motorsports since he was moved to the team led by crew chief Steve Letarte.
The driver of the No. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet has not had a consistent, fast car under him this season and as a result he has only led 50 laps and qualifies poorly.
Now that the team has made the Chase, look for Letarte to be less conservative and hopefully his driver will have a car capable of top fives and even a win.
Junior doesn't look to be a serious contender for the title, but we may just see a 10-week preview of what to expect in the 2012 season.
12. Ryan Newman
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Ryan Newman has out-performed his boss, Tony Stewart, throughout the 2011 season. The driver of the No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet has one win that came at Loudon which is the site of the second Chase race.
Newman built this season on consistency with eight top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. Since the Daytona 500 he has been in the top 10 of the points standings.
It was questionable as to whether he should be ranked last of the 12 drivers and certainly there will be those who disagree.
Given the degree of competition with the top-rated drivers in the Chase, it doesn't seem Newman will be in the mix for those who will contend for the Cup title.
He should continue his consistent runs, but the Chase could be surprisingly good for him or find Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. gaining an advantage on him along with the others.
Tough call on this driver.