After much consternation with cheating being front and center entering the playoffs for NASCAR, it appears we now know who the 12 drivers will be for the Chase. Okay, there’s still some squabbling about whether Penske Racing made a deal to allow Joey Logano to gain a position and win a spot in the Chase. That aside, which one of these dozen drivers is most likely to win the championship?
Last year’s champion, Brad Keselowski, will not be defending his title in 2013 due to not being able to overcome heavy penalties in the first half of the year. However, the drivers who did make the Chase are: Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman.
Lame and struggling drivers out
Before figuring out who could be the champion, first let’s eliminate those who don’t look capable of grabbing the title. We’ll start with the lame duck drivers – those who won’t be back next season with the same car. Why would I remove them from contention? Yes, these are professionals and each man or woman should do their job to the best of their ability; but let’s face it, chemistry is huge in motorsports and I’ve argued in the past that it’s the single biggest reason why teams do well or not. So with that, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick – yes, Harvick too – are out.
Also, let’s eliminate a couple guys who have faltered recently and begin the playoffs near or at the bottom. This may sound blasphemes to Junior Nation but Dale hasn’t had it of late. If you would have asked me after Pocono in early August, I wouldn’t have thought about taking Earnhardt out of contention before the Chase started; but, he had two bad finishes at the Glen and Michigan and even the 13th at Richmond last week was unimpressive. The other driver is Greg Biffle who faded over the last 10 races with only three Top 10s and nothing better than ninth. That’s not going to get it done.
Good, just not good enough
Now, there’s a few, maybe or maybe not teams who should be removed, though reluctantly, from the title hunt consideration. These are very good drivers and more than capable of contending but maybe just lack that something special to bring them to the fore. Joey Logano is one of those drivers. Yes, this is by far his best season and the first time he’s earned a trip to the Chase. He was competitive all year and to tell you the truth, Joey has been on fire over the last seven races, if you do away with the last one at Richmond. Still, he lacks the experience of pressurized playoff racing plus one can’t forget he’s only 23 years old.
Another close-but-no-cigar driver is Clint Bowyer. He’s been very consistent but doesn’t seem to be able to win a race. Bowyer’s had a terrific points year but just doesn’t have that killer ability of a champion to win races when it matters most. This last choice to eliminate from contention is Carl Edwards. Yeah, I can hear it now: ‘Hey Daryle, are you crazy? He just won the last race!’ Yes, he did win Richmond but how about his 18th place at Atlanta and the 39th at Bristol. In the past 10 races, he’s finished outside the Top 10 six times. That’s no way to go into the playoffs.
Consequently, we’re down to four. Choosing here comes down to who is most consistently good and can win races. The next to cross off for the championship are both great drivers and may well win a championship before their careers are over: Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch, who are excellent at winning. However, even with great organizations supporting them, both of these drivers are not consistent enough to win it all. For instance, Kahne has a first and second over the past six events but also has a 34th and 36th. Kyle’s last five events are a first, 31st, 11th, first and 19th.
That leaves us with Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. Both are very capable of winning any race they’re entered in. There’s a conundrum though – two circumstances where each one of these two differ from the other with a weakness. One of those differences between the two drivers and former champs is Kenseth has at times this year been inconsistent. He had the most victories this season but for someone trying to win a championship, he’s had too many poor finishes. Matt had seven races where he ended up outside the top 20. On the other hand, Jimmie has done better with consistency, but … and you knew there was a but … Johnson has had an atrocious last four events with two 40th’s, a 36th and 28th – a dreadful way to end the regular season.
With that said, what’s the tiebreaker? Hendrick Motorsports. They have an incredibly strong system and organization including crew chief Chad Knaus. When the chips are down, nobody is better prepared to win a championship than the #48 Lowes Chevrolet team. In case you’re keeping score, that’s Jimmie Johnson winning his sixth championship.
Drivers, start your engines … and follow that familiar blue car.