NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase: Halftime Report on Hottest Contenders
Time is running short and so are the fuses of the drivers and crew chiefs who have reached the midpoint of the 10-week Chase for the ultimate prize in NASCAR's elite series, the Sprint Cup title.
Round 5 of the Chase is history after the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a track in the heartland of NASCAR that many drivers and teams call home.
Drivers covet a win at their home track, but at this point in the Chase the contenders covet a win anywhere they can get it.
The new point system can take a driver from having a real shot at being the top dog to the depths of being so far down in the standings that title hopes are vanished in one race.
The race at the 1.5-mile Charlotte track did not fail to disappoint with a few surprises, wild pit action and fuel and tire strategy that challenged teams to try and get their cars to the front in the cool, crisp air.
Coming out of Charlotte, the dominating Chase drivers who made the fewest mistakes and finished the best are securing a position in the point standings that just might carry them to the tight title fight.
Let's take a look, in no particular order, at the hottest contenders in the Chase as they head to the high banks of Talladega next week.
1. Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford, may sometimes feel like the "Rodney Dangerfield" of NASCAR.
Kenseth is somewhat of a stealth driver who quietly goes about the business of racing. He is an accomplished Cup driver with 21 career wins and one NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
This season he has won three times, with the Bank of America 500 being his only Chase win, but he has finished sixth or better in four of the five Chase races.
The consistency of Kenseth makes him a potent force out of the Roush Fenway Racing stables who could well be a title contender.
Kenseth moved up two slots to third in the point standings, seven markers out of the lead.
2. Tony Stewart
Heading into the Chase this year, Tony Stewart was winless and wondered if he even belonged in the group of 12 drivers that would contend for the championship.
Stewart then came out of the gate and won the first two races of the Chase. He then followed up with a 25th and 15th place finish before he took the checkered flag at Charlotte in eighth place.
The owner/driver of the No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet seems to have found the speed he was lacking prior to the Chase.
He dominated the first half of the Bank of America 500, but bad timing with cautions and pit stops got him hung up in traffic though it was not his fault.
Stewart rose two slots to fifth in the standings, but he needs to win and finish well to move up from the 24 points he lags behind the leader.
The two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion may continue to rally and move up in points, but competition is very tough with the leaders in the Chase, so a title may not be in the cards for him this year.
3. Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Aflac Ford, continues to sit atop the point standings and looks to be the lead contender to dethrone Jimmie Johnson.
Edwards is the prize driver at Roush Fenway Racing, even though his teammate, Matt Kenseth, is running strong in the Chase.
Edwards has been consistently strong with top 10 finishes throughout the Chase. He has the ability to overcome adverse situations and come out smelling like a rose.
Roush Fenway Racing is at the top of their game with engines and performance which has certainly benefited Edwards, but lady luck has been his friend in a couple races.
This driver almost looks as though he can keep on cruising at the top of the points without winning, but he really needs a win and continued top finishes if he is to secure his first Cup title.
He has the threat of Talladega and Martinsville causing a potential hit to him in points that could seriously hamper his title hopes.
Edwards has the confidence and ability to win a championship, but there are a couple drivers hot on his tail with determination in their eyes who might upset his plans.
4. Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota, roared into the Chase with four wins during the preseason races and the bonus points that go with those wins.
Busch tends to lose his mojo a bit when the pressure of the Chase is upon him, but that could well be changing.
This Joe Gibbs Racing driver was forced to start last at the Bank of America 500 because of an engine change.
Busch was able to take his car to the front and lead 111 laps but had to settle for a second place finish. He moved up four slots in the points to fourth, 18 points out of the lead.
It would hardly be a surprise to see Busch start winning a race or two. He is a driver to watch if he gets his performance more consistent and can finish races in the top five.
His skill at restarts from the lead is excellent and if he has a strong car and clean air, certainly he can be a contender for the title.
5. Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick is ready to bring a championship back to Richard Childress Racing with his No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet.
He is a bit of a street-fighter in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and tends to not lead a lot of laps, but is at or near the front when it counts on the last lap.
Harvick is another driver who came into the Chase with four wins. In the five Chase races he has not won, but he has finished 12th or better with one runner-up finish and two sixth place finishes.
Currently Harvick is second in points, only five markers behind Carl Edwards. He has battled Edwards at the top of the Chase standings.
Harvick may well be the other contender besides Edwards with the best chance of taking the championship status from Jimmie Johnson, but he really needs a win and Talladega might be the place he gets it.
6. Brad Keselowski
Brad Keselowski was one of the wild-card drivers coming into the Chase and now he is the wild card who could upset the apple cart for the top contenders and capture the title if wins come his way.
Three of the Chase races have found the driver of the Penske Blue Deuce in the top five, but a 20th place finish in Dover and 16th at Charlotte caused him to drop two slots to sixth in the points, 25 markers out of the lead.
Keselowski may well be the hottest of the two Penske drivers because of some turmoil with his teammate Kurt Busch and his team.
If this driver catches on fire like he did heading into the Chase, he could well be the spoiler in the Chase. He drives like he has nothing to lose and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, is a risk-taker.
Though the chance of "Bad Brad" winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup title this year is minimal, beware of this young driver if he starts to win.