NASCAR Sprint Cup: 5 Drivers in the Championship Hunt
We're four races into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and I think it's safe to say the championship field has been whittled down to five drivers.
The bottom four drivers are at least 43 points out, too big a margin to make up with just six races remaining in the 2011 season. That group includes Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
I really thought Jeff Gordon, the 10th-place driver, would be in the mix for the title come Homestead. Gordon was enjoying his finest season since 2007, but after a blown engine led to a 34th-place finish at Kansas, it looks like the Drive for Five will have to wait another year.
Gordon fell to 47 points off the lead and would need to reel off six straight top five finishes to end the year to have any chance at overcoming such a deficit.
Three other drivers can also be eliminated.
Tony Stewart came out of nowhere to win the first two Chase races, but he's fallen off the pace at Dover and Kansas and is now 19 points behind the leaders.
Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch have had good years. However, Busch lacks the consistency needed to win the title, and I believe Kenseth would be unable to match the Johnsons and Harvicks of NASCAR down the stretch in the fight for a second career title.
Who does that leave as the top five contenders? Read on to find out.
5. Brad Keselowski
Brad Keselowski had a decent car at Kansas but stayed out on a late caution to gain track position (a common theme in the Hollywood Casino 400).
He made it work and earned another top five result, finishing third to move up to fourth in the standings, just 11 points behind Carl Edwards.
Since August, Keselowski has been on an astonishing tear. In the last 10 races, "Special K" has two wins, seven top fives and just two finishes worse than sixth for an average finish of 5.5.
He's led laps in all but two events during that time.
Without question, Keselowski has been the biggest surprise of 2011. No one expected him to make the Chase or win multiple races, let alone be ranked ahead of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and all but three other drivers at this point of the year.
Keselowski has proved the naysayers wrong time and again, but I'm still not convinced he's a serious title threat and can keep it up for another six races.
He's the fifth best driver right now but isn't quite at the level of the top few contenders.
4. Kyle Busch
The driver of the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota didn't have the day he was hoping for at Kansas, finishing 12th and never quite getting the handling on his car.
Kyle Busch has yet to have a dominating run in the Chase, which is surprising.
I had him pegged as one of the top three contenders for the title along with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, but his early results have been disappointing.
Still, it's far too soon to count him out. Busch is just 20 points out of the lead and hasn't self-destructed as he has in years past when things haven't gone his way early in the Chase.
I think we'll hear from Kyle Busch again before the championship is decided.
3. Kevin Harvick
"Happy" must be happy these days, and just thrilled after a sixth place finish at Kansas in a car that ran like junk for most of the afternoon.
Kevin Harvick is just one point off the championship lead and is finding ways to get it done, even when his car isn't quite right.
And with four victories in 2011, a lot of things have gone right for the No. 29 team this year.
Harvick has put together a nice season one year after coming up just short in the title hunt. Unlike Denny Hamlin, who has imploded after winning a series-high eight victories in 2010 and finishing second to Jimmie Johnson for the championship trophy.
Harvick has shown impressive staying power, and he figures to be in the picture when the season winds down at Homestead in November.
2. Carl Edwards
Where in the world did Carl Edwards come from?
After running 18th-21st for the majority of the race, Cousin Carl parlayed pit stop strategy into track position and somehow made it stick to come away with a top five finish.
The finish allowed him to assume sole possession of the points lead.
Despite having just one win on the year, Edwards is putting together his best season since his near-championship run of 2008.
Edwards is the only driver to score top 10s in each of the first four Chase races. If he can continue to avoid bad finishes and make the most out of challenging days, he could be celebrating the first Sprint Cup championship of his career six weeks from now.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Still, this is the guy to beat.
Jimmie Johnson, otherwise known as Superman, Iceman, Five-Time and many other nicknames denoting dominance, completely blew away the field on Sunday.
He led 197 of 272 laps en route to his second victory of 2011.
For much of the year, things weren't quite right for the No. 48 team. Johnson's only victory was a fluke at Talladega, and he had led for the most laps only twice all season.
The last two races changed all that.
Johnson finished second at Dover after leading the most laps (for the sixth consecutive race at the Monster Mile), and no one could touch him on Sunday afternoon at Kansas.
Johnson is still four points out of the lead, but if I was Carl Edwards or Kevin Harvick—or any other driver in the Chase—I'd be plenty worried now.
The driver of the No. 48 is back on his game, and we're in the Chase. It's Jimmie time!
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