Monday, September 8, 2008

Handicapping the Chase

Now that the meaningless first 26 races are in the rearview mirror, it’s time to look at the top 12 drivers and assess each of their chances to win the inaugural Sprint Cup. The three drivers to beat are obviously Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and now Jimmie Johnson with his hot streak. Here’s how the points shake out as we move to New Hampshire.

Kyle Busch – Leader
Carl Edwards – 30
Jimmie Johnson – 40
Clint Bowyer – 70
Jeff Burton – 70
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 70
Denny Hamlin – 70
Greg Biffle – 80
Jeff Gordon – 80
Kevin Harvick - 80
Matt Kenseth – 80
Tony Stewart – 80

Biffle, Gordon, Harvick, Kenseth and Stewart have not won this year, although the No. 20 car has been strong at times. But Stewart and his team can’t be considered contenders with the distraction of his impending departure weighing on their minds. Consider those five drivers out of the running barring a miracle turnaround to their largely forgettable seasons. Bowyer, Burton Earnhardt and Hamlin all have won once this year, but only Earnhardt has been consistent enough to be considered a contender. He certainly has the chance to pour it on at the end of the season, but he must start winning races rather than finishing just in the top 10.

But the true battle remains with the top three. Pay no attention to the slight points advantage going into New Hampshire this weekend. Instead, look at the body of their work. Busch has been unstoppable most of the year and if he continues that early-season pace, he will undoubtedly win the championship and promptly flip the bird to Rick Hendrick and company. But he has been underperforming in recent weeks heading into the Chase, raising the questions of whether his No. 18 is running out of steam.

Edwards has shown flashes of brilliance throughout the year, although he struggled somewhat after losing crew chief Bob Osbourne following his victory at California. Still, the No. 99 is running great at the intermediate tracks that dominate the Chase. But the driver everyone has their eyes on is obviously Jimmie Johnson. Hendrick Motorsports was left for dead this year until Johnson salvaged the season with four victories, including the last two races. He is the two-time defending champion and should be considered the favorite. It appears he and his team are peaking at the right time, so this should make quite an interesting three-horse race to finish.

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