By Brian Wiggins and Mark Schafer
Over the next ten weeks there is only one thing that will be on 12 driver’s mind.
They will want to score the most points in as many races as possible as the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season draws to a close. All drivers involved in the Chase want one thing; to be standing at the end of the race at Homestead with the most points and the champion of the 2012 season.
Over the next 10 weeks, 12 drivers will face 10 different tracks trying to best each other and the other 31 drivers that will be on track.
Not all the tracks are the same, some are similar, such as Chicago and Kansas, Charlotte and Texas, but even those are different from each other. Over the next 10 races the drivers will face short tracks and superspeedways as well as several “intermediate” tracks, which are the 1.5 mile tracks that make up most of the Chase.
Here is how each driver got into the chase and where they will start points wise at Chicago:
1: Denny Hamlin- With a season filled with ups and downs, Hamlin enters the Chase as the number one seed heading into Chicagoland. Picking up a win at Phoenix in March, Hamlin won again the next month at the Kansas Speedway. From there, the No.11 team hit a rough stretch in the summer months with a late race crash at Pocono setting the tone to how rough it was for Hamlin. A big win in the night race at Bristol gave Hamlin a shot of momentum which he carried into the following week’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, becoming so far the only back-to-back winner in the Cup Series this season. Looking at tracks Hamlin could win on in the Chase, you can look past Loudon, Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix.
2: Jimmie Johnson- After a lap two crash in the season opening Daytona 500, the No.48 team and Johnson have been a model of consistency through much of the 2012 season, posting 12 top-five’s and 17 top-10 finishes. The team also reeled off three victories over the course of the first 26 races (Darlington, Dover, and Indianapolis). To add to that, they won their first pole since September,2010 at Kentucky (Sparta) Speedway in June. Tracks that Johnson could leave his mark on in the Chase would be; Dover, Kansas, Martinsville, and Phoenix.
3: Tony Stewart- The defending Sprint Cup champion comes into this year’s Chase far better off than he did last time around. Winning two of the first five races, Stewart also laid claim on Daytona’s mid-summer classic for his third and most recent win of the 2012 season. Lately however, the No.14 team has hit a bit of a rough patch with an array of results scattered throughout the field. Stewart will start the Chase tied for second in points, but with little momentum. Like last year, he’s going to need to tap into that magic box to win the championship. Tracks that Stewart could win on in the Chase would be; Chicagoland, Loudon, and Homestead-Miami.
4: Brad Keselowski- The lone driver from Penske Racing in the Chase, the Michigan native matched his 2011 season win total in the first 17 races in 2012 by winning on three different occasions (Bristol, Talladega and Kentucky).Following a second place finish at Michigan, Keselowski climbed to a season best second in points. Although Keselowski was a week-to-week threat to win races, the No.2 team wasn’t prone to bad luck with four finishes worse than 30th. Tracks that Keselowski could win at in the Chase would be; Charlotte, Loudon, Martinsville, and Talladega.
5: Greg Biffle- If there has been one word that has descirbed Greg Biffle in the 2012 season, it would be: consistent. He started off the season with three straight third place finishes and got out to an early season points lead. He dropped as far back as fifth in the standings, but that was it. As the chase neared, Biffle found himself back on top of the points before being reshuffled for the start of the chase. He captured his first victory of the year at Texas in April. Biffle got his second win of the season by being in the right spot at the right time when he captured the win at the second Michigan race. Biffle has combined consistent finishes and a very few number of laps that he didn’t compete to find himself in the chase. Tracks that Biffle could be win races on would be Loudon, Kansas, Texas and Talladega.
6: Clint Bowyer- His days at Richard Childress Racing, Bowyer was known as being a source of consistency. He made the chase three of his five years. In his first year at Michael Waltrip racing, Bowyer brought that same consistency and was able to capture two wins in the regular season, with a wins at Sonoma and the regular season finale at Richmond. The chase could be a strong point for Bowyer, of his seven career victories, four of them have come in the Chase. The win at the short track Richmond and the Road Course of Sonoma has added to Bowyer’s strong suit, MWR has been fast at the mile and a half’s all season which makes him a threat in the chase. Being the two time fall race defender at Talladega just adds another notch in the belt to Bowyer’s team. Tracks to watch out for Bowyer to get a win would be: Loudon, Martinsville and Talladega.
7: Dale Earnhardt Jr.- When Dale Earnhardt Jr. got his first win in four years at Michigan International Speedway this year all was right for the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Chevrolet. That day he returned to victory lane and he was able to take the points lead as well. For most of the season Jr. has been able to stay near the top of the points lead, if not in it. His team has had consistent top-five and top-10 runs to compete all year and they have, for the most part, avoided the bad luck of much of their other teammates. Despite being one of the quietest Hendrick Motorsports drivers all years, he and his team has shown Johnson-like championship runs this year. Junior could capture wins at Chicago, Talladega, Martinsville and Texas.
8: Matt Kenseth- It couldn’t have been a better start for Matt Kenseth and his No. 17 Roush-Fenway racing crew. They survived all the elements of the season opening Daytona 500 and drove to victory. From there, Kenseth went on to have a strong first half of the season, leading the points for several weeks and being competitive week after week. The team faded a bit in the second half, still staying strong in points, but his race results became less consistent. It was announced that this is his last season with Roush-Fenway and that could play a role in how well the team does in the chase. Tracks where Kenseth could win would be Charlotte, Talladega and Texas.
9: Kevin Harvick- 2012 wasn’t the year the No.29 and Harvick expected coming off back-to-back third place finishes in the final point standings the past two seasons. With Shane Wilson acting as crew chief, the team started out the season with a second at Phoenix, but from there things were never quite the same as the team failed to reach victory lane. Prior to the Bristol race, the team opted to put the same crew chief that guided the team to the third place finishes, Gil Martin, back on top the pit box. Solid runs at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond have given the team shot in the arm. Tracks Harvick could win at in the Chase would be Chicagoland, Phoenix, and Talladega.
10: Martin Truex Jr.- If there is one thing that the Chases of years past has taught anyone, it’s that wins in the regular season don’t always matter in the chase. That is a good thing for Truex and the No. 56 team. Another good sign is that the team has been fast all year and they have been fast at a majority of the mile and a half tracks, tracks that a majority of the chase is made up of. Despite going winless, so far, in 2012 Truex and crew have put together a strong year. They have been around fifth in points for most of the season and have kept the cars strong week in and week out. Tracks which Truex could post wins at are Charlotte, Texas and Homestead-Miami.
11: Kasey Kahne- When the season started it seemed that Kahne and the No. 5 team might have to worry more about making the Top-35 in owner points then the Chase. Then the Kahne was able to get out of his slump and was able to find victory lane at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte in May. Kahne backed that up with a win at Loudon. However, because of his early season struggles, Kahne wasn’t able to get into the top-10 and points. He still made the chase, by virtue of his two wins, but because he is a wildcard he won’t get the bonus from those wins and will start the chase 12 points out of the lead. Tracks where Kahne could win would be Loudon, Charlotte, Texas and Homestead-Miami.
12: Jeff Gordon- If Jeff Gordon didn’t have bad luck he’d have no luck at all. That adage sums up the 2012 season for Gordon. From a blown motor in the Daytona 500, it was one thing after another than put the team back to a career worst 24th in points after 11 races. Things slowly turned around for the four-time champion, picking up a win at the August race at Pocono, giving him a chance at the Chase wildcard heading into Richmond. After coming back from an ill handling car, Gordon made a late race charge to finish the night second and make the Chase. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the years, it’s to not doubt Gordon. Tracks he could find victory lane at in the Chase would be; Chicagoland, Dover,Charlotte, and Talladega.
Brian’s Chase Race Picks
Chicagoland: Kevin Harvick
Loudon: Denny Hamlin
Dover: Jimmie Johnson
Talladega: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Charlotte: Jeff Gordon
Kansas: Greg Biffle
Martinsville: Jimmie Johnson
Texas: Carl Edwards
Phoenix: Kasey Kahne
Homstead-Miami: Martin Truex Jr.
Mark’s Chase Race Picks
Chicagoland: Denny Hamlin
Loudon: Brad Keselowski
Dover: Jimmie Johnson
Talladega: Clint Bowyer
Charlotte: Jeff Gordon
Kansas: Carl Edwards
Martinsville: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Texas: Greg Biffle
Phoenix: Clint Bowyer
Homestead-Miami: Martin Truex Jr.
Brian’s Chase Surprise: Jeff Gordon- In 2012, we haven’t seen a whole lot out of the four-time Cup champion. But lately, Gordon and his team have found some consistency which helped them qualify for the final wildcard spot in the Chase. In Gordon’s past eight races, he has finishes of; 6th, 5th, 1st, 21st (Watkins Glen last lap spin), 28th (Michigan engine failure), 3rd, 2nd, and 2nd.
Not saying Gordon is going to win the championship from 12th in points, but I surely wouldn’t rule it out after his surge for the Chase—something many said he couldn’t do, either.
Brian’s Chase Disappointment: Matt Kenseth- Leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the year, it’s going to be difficult for Kenseth to compete for the championship. Although his team has stated they’re committed to their driver, the fact of their past champion driver leaving may be enough to force an uphill battle through the final 10 races.
Not to mention, during last year’s Chase where the team was so consistent they couldn’t muster up a win. I don’t see that being any different in 2012.
Brian’s Pick for the Championship: Jimmie Johnson- After not really having a chance to defend his fifth consecutive title during last year’s Chase, the No.48 will bounce back to win it in 2012.
Over the course of the season, Johnson’s consistency has only been matched by his Hendrick Motor Sports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Unlike Earnhardt Jr. though, Johnson’s ability to win in the Chase isn’t questioned.
One thing that many have pointed out over this season is that the No.48 team appears to be stronger than ever. While that’s debatable, there’s no denying that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have their eyes set on taking the Sprint Cup trophy back to Hendrick Motorsports.
Brian’s 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup Predicted Order:
1: Jimmie Johnson
2: Greg Biffle
3: Denny Hamlin
4: Jeff Gordon
5: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
6: Brad Keselowksi
7: Kevin Harvick
8: Martin Truex Jr.
9: Tony Stewart
10: Kasey Kahne
11: Clint Bowyer
12: Matt Kenseth
Mark’s Chase Surprise: Clint Bowyer- Don’t overlook the season that Michael Waltrip Racing has had. There has rarely been a race in which a Michael Waltrip Racing car hasn’t been in contention to win. While Martin Truex Jr. has had a little more consistent results all season, the No. 15 car of Bowyer has the results to show that Truex doesn’t.
Bowyer has wins and more importantly much needed Chase experience. That is why Bowyer made the list and Truex hasn’t. While Truex Jr. has made the Chase once, back in 2007, the previous three Chases for Bowyer, coupled with the strong runs of MWR all season will give the boost that Bowyer could use to make a run at the championship that no one else expects.
Mark’s Chase Disappointment: Kasey Kahne- There is one driver, every year, that makes the Chase and fails to meet expectations. This year that driver might just be Kasey Kahne. His two wins in the season showed how strong his team can be, but all the other runs for the season just haven’t been that strong.
Kahne’s team has been bitten by the bad luck bug all year, and while they were able to make it into the Chase the bugs don’t seem to be fully out of the system for the No. 5 team. Having just two bad races in the Chase will take a team out of it, and having two bad races seems very possible for Kahne’s team.
Mark’s pick for the championship: Jimmie Johnson- It was a horrible start for the season for Johnson, but they turned bad luck into very good luck. The team faced minor set backs at the beginning of the year, but since then they have been on a roll and have returned to championship form, where they weren’t for most of last season.
Counting in the fact that the team feels like they lost the championship more than they let someone else win it, the No. 48 team enters the Chase with a chip on their shoulder and that chip is dangerous for the rest of the field.
Johnson has had a few mechanical failures in the season, which could come back to bite them in the chase if those show up again. If the engines and cars hold together, though the rest of the competition seems to be lacking. Biffle and Hamlin will be the challengers to Johnson, but he has been able to out run them for most of the season, when he avoids mis-haps.
Mark’s 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup Predicted Order:
1. Jimmie Johnson
2. Denny Hamlin
3. Greg Biffle
4. Clint Bowyer
5. Jeff Gordon
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
7. Brad Keselowski
8. Tony Stewart
9. Kevin Harvick
10. Martin Truex Jr.
11. Matt Kenseth
12. Kasey Kahne