NASCAR & Auto Racing

Chase prognosis: Handicapping the championship contenders

RICHMOND, Va. - Now that we know, or at least almost know, who’s in this year’s Chase for the Nextel Cup, it’s time to ask the really important question. Who’s going to win it?

Well, as we head into Saturday’s Chevy 400 at Richmond, the final race before the 10-race run to the championship begins, the fact is we keep changing our minds on who we think should be at the top of the list just about every time we think about it.

Who’s our favorite?

Well, let’s save that for last. We’ll start with the driver we think has the most outside chance to win this year’s title, and work our way there.

13 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Yes, we know there will be only 12 drivers in the Chase and Earnhardt Jr. is 13th in the standings. But he’s still mathematically eligible, and you at least ought to let us have a good shot at getting one prediction right.

12 Clint Bowyer

This will be his first Chase foray. The driver of the No. 07 team at Richard Childress Racing hasn’t won a race. It seems Bowyer could take care of that just about any week, but he still has only two top-five finishes all year. We’re just not sure this team is ready to contend for a title.

11 Jeff Burton Halfway through last year’s Chase, this team looked like it was on track for a title. But the No. 31 hasn’t run at the front of the field enough this year to make it a favorite in the Chase. Burton did string together six finishes of sixth or better to start this season, and that’s the kind of consistency it’ll take to surprise us and finish much higher.

10 Martin Truex Jr.

Truex not only got his first win at Dover, that race started a streak of four top-three finishes in five races. If this team throws out something like that early in the Chase, it would make us look bad having it this low. But again, this is a first-time Chase team.

9 Kyle Busch

We won’t lie. We thought this team would fall through the floor after it was announced Busch wouldn’t be back in the No. 5 Chevrolet next year. Since that revelation, this team’s worst finish is 13th. That’s a good trend going into the Chase. But you have to figure this is the Hendrick Motorsports team least likely to win a title.

8 Kevin Harvick

We suspect Harvick might win Saturday to put any Chase doubts to bed – he did that last year at Richmond. And this team did go 13 races from Phoenix to fall Pocono with only one finish worse than 21st. Avoiding disaster is part of winning the Chase. It would be fun to see Harvick in title contention in the final weeks. You know he’d stir the pot.

7 Matt Kenseth

Last year, this team was just running along at a halfway decent clip for most of the Chase and still it was right in it until the end. It went 13 races from first California to first Pocono and didn’t finish worse than 14th. Fans might not like it, but that kind of consistency wins championships in Nextel Cup.

6 Carl Edwards

The thing you like about this team’s chances is that it seems it has been steadily getting better and better as the season progressed, and now looks like it’s back where it was two years ago, right in the sport’s top tier. Edwards won at Bristol in a car of tomorrow race last month, and half the Chase races are with that new car.

5 Denny Hamlin

Sort of like Kenseth with a little bit more edge to him. The reason you have to consider Hamlin a threat to win the championship stems from one amazing statistic. When he lost an engine and finished 43rd at Bristol, it was only the second time in his Cup career he wasn’t running at the finish of a race.

4 Kurt Busch

Busch is going to have the only Dodge in the Chase. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but it could. He has a lot of momentum with no finish worse than 11th in his past eight races going into this week. It might be silly, but could that work against him? You almost feel he is overdue for a bad-luck break or two.

3 Tony Stewart

This was our preseason championship pick, and it wouldn’t surprise us to be right. (Rest assured, we’d claim that pick overrules this one if that happens.) Stewart’s versatility, given the mix of Chase races, appeals to us. But this week’s announcement that his team will go to Toyota in 2008 gives us just enough pause to drop him.

2 Jimmie Johnson

These guys actually could stink up the Chase show. Johnson and his Chad Knaus-led team have a way of putting together ridiculous streaks in this thing, like one first and four seconds in five races last year that sewed up their first championship. If this team doesn’t have more than one Chase DNF – it’s had four this year – watch out.

1 Jeff Gordon

After finishing 41st at Charlotte in May, Gordon reeled off 10 straight top 10s. What was interesting about it was there were times during that stretch when it seemed as if his team was struggling a little. He’s hit a little lull the past few weeks, but we think he’s right when he says that’ll change starting next week at New Hampshire. Get those “Drive for Five” T-shirts ready.