Tom Bowles
Thursday September 17th, 2009

When people say this year's Chase for the Championship is the strongest in history, they really mean it. As my colleague Brant James pointed out, earlier this week, the 12-car field is composed of four former champions and drivers who have combined to win 282 races on the Cup level. With such depth and no team with a clear momentum advantage, this year's fight for the title trophy is wide open.

Here's a quick look at the strengths and weaknesses of each contender as we go through their odds of finishing number one:

Playoff Seed: 1. 2009 Wins: Phoenix, Darlington, Michigan, Chicagoland.

Strength: Intermediate tracks. Martin has had a handle on the 1.5 to 2-mile ovals this year, winning twice and collecting three top 5s in his last four races there (he ran out of fuel at Michigan to let a fourth slip away). These tracks make up five of the 10 in this year's playoffs, putting him in perfect position to collect at least two, maybe three more wins. Let's not forget the one-mile oval at Phoenix, where he posted a dominating win back in April.

Weakness: Consistency. Hard to believe it's a problem for a man who's contended for the title a dozen times, but twice this year he's had three-race stretches where he finished outside the top 10. If the roller coaster happens once more, he can throw those championship chances out the window.


X Factor: Luck. You could say that for all 12 drivers, but no one excels better at being in the wrong place at the wrong time than Martin. NASCAR's Charlie Brown is almost always a shoo-in to be an innocent victim of a Talladega wreck and tends to have his best seasons ('94, '98) during a year in which someone else is breaking records. It'd be a wonderful story for the 50-year-old to win a title, but if the book hasn't had a happy ending for this long ...

Actual Odds from : 3-1. My Odds: 7-1.

Playoff Seed: Tied for 2nd. 2009 Wins: Pocono (June), Daytona (July), Watkins Glen.

Strength: Talladega. Most drivers dread restrictor plate tracks, but Stewart's turned these places into his personal playground as of late. He's won two out of the last four (including last Fall's race at 'Dega) and has a decent track record in avoiding the "Big One" (missing it in seven of his last eight starts). Putting together another victory during the Chase could gain him over 100 points on a handful of Chasers likely to wreck out.

Weakness: Charlotte. It arrives halfway through this year's Chase and is the pivotal make-or-break race in Stewart's title hopes. He hasn't had a top 5 there in six years, and nearly saw his second championship derailed after a flat tire there in 2005.

X Factor: Rick Hendrick. Stewart-Haas Racing has benefited all year from getting Hendrick chassis and engine support. But with three of its own teams in the Chase, will HMS really put its best foot forward to let another organization beat it in the process? Don't bet on it.

Actual Odds: 2-1. My Odds: 20-1.

Playoff Seed: Tied for 2nd. 2009 Wins: Martinsville, Dover, Indy.

Strength: Experience. After three straight titles, Johnson goes for a record fourth with the confidence his team can get the job done. With a league-leading 1,252 laps led, the No. 48 has spent the summer on cruise control, pulling a go-for-broke attitude on the track while experimenting with setups for the Chase. People say Johnson is slumping as of late, but looks can be deceiving. Keep in mind at the seven playoff tracks we've already been to, he has two wins, six top 10s and an average finish of 9.9. That's no fluke.

Weakness: Fuel mileage. Johnson lost two of the last three Chase races to Carl Edwards' gas tank, and fell short on the last lap twice at Michigan this year. With so many races going green for long stretches, don't be surprised to see fuel play a factor once again ... and for it to continue to be this driver's Achilles' Heel.

X Factor: The pressure of history. Let's not forget, Johnson is attempting to do something no driver's ever done in the sport's 61 years of existence. The second he comes close to breaking the record, expect the press coverage to border on out of control. Can this team handle it? I say yes ... but it's not going to be a cakewalk like last year.

Actual Odds: 2-1. My Odds: 3-1. (My Pick)

Playoff Seed: Tied for 4th. 2009 Wins: Pocono (August), Richmond.

Strength: New Hampshire and Dover. Hamlin holds the most momentum entering the playoffs, scoring two wins and six top-10 finishes since Pocono in August. His Joe Gibbs Racing team got off to a slow start last year, but its not going to make the same mistake twice: engineers have been simulating the first two Chase races for months to ensure their man's a championship contender right off the bat.

Weakness: His emotions. More than any Chaser, Hamlin's a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. When things are going well, it's a huge asset (Hamlin was a trash talker after winning Saturday night, saying Richmond was "his house" and people "better watch out" for his "dangerous" team). But one bad run is all it takes for the Eeyore in Hamlin to bubble to the surface, the type of down-on-your-luck attitude that's not exactly a motivator if the team falls into an early hole.

X Factor: Kyle Busch. A shocking non-qualifier, Busch has pledged to do everything in his power to help the No. 11 succeed. But when push comes to shove on the track, will the aggressive 24-year-old actually follow through on his promise? Non-Chasers from other teams would move over to let their teammate collect extra points, but don't expect to see that between these two. Busch, more so than Hamlin, is likely to dominate this year's Chase headlines out of the JGR camp.

Actual Odds: 8-1. My Odds: 15-1.

Playoff Seed: Tied for 4th. 2009 Wins: Infineon, Atlanta (Sept.).

Strength: Intermediates. Once again, Kahne seems hooked up on the type of 1.5 to 2-mile ovals he dominated en route to winning a career-high six races in 2006. Texas, California, and Kansas could all give him chances at Victory Lane if the competition doesn't find some way to catch up.

Weakness: His team. Kahne's the only one of four Richard Petty Motorsports drivers to make the Chase, and the other three are simply fighting to survive. Elliott Sadler, A.J. Allmendinger and Reed Sorenson have combined for exactly zero top-5 finishes since the Daytona 500 -- so it's almost like Kahne's pulling dead weight around while trying to contend.

X Factor: Dodge. Just last week, RPM announced a merger with Yates Racing that'll take effect in 2010. That will cause a switch to Ford in the offseason, leaving an awkward "lame duck" situation with Dodge until then. With the team turning its back on the program (and, by all accounts, it was a bitter breakup), what incentive will their current manufacturer have to help out? Any trade secrets Dodge discovers along the way, expect them to go straight to Penske Racing ... and not to Petty.

Actual Odds: 11-1. My Odds: 40-1.

Playoff Seed: Tied For 6th. 2009 Wins: Texas.

Strength: Consistency. In a year in which most drivers have been stuck on a roller coaster, Gordon's been pulling magic out of his hat even during his worst days. His 18 top 10s are tied with Stewart for the series lead, and six runnerup finishes show his resilience despite just 202 laps led since Mother's Day.

Weakness: His body. Back in April, Gordon said the pain in his back that's been bothering him for several years hasn't gone away. An injection in May didn't help, and offseason surgery could even be an option if the veteran wants to prolong his career. For now, he's busy fighting through it; but despite denials it doesn't affect his driving, the No. 24 hasn't been seen in Victory Lane since the pain went public.

X Factor: Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin. Heading into the Chase, Gordon's faced with fighting two sentimental favorites looking to make history within his own organization. Between Johnson's quest for four straight and Martin's quest for his first at 50, Gordon's Drive for Five is taking a back seat in 2009. Expect the No. 24 to give its best, but at some point falling to third on the totem pole is going to take its toll.

Actual Odds: 3-1. My Odds: 10-1.

Playoff Seed: Tied For 6th. 2009 Wins: Michigan.

Strength: Nothing to lose. After following a Michigan win with a late-season charge to the Chase, Vickers' Team Red Bull (TRB) outfit is simply happy to be here. Making its first playoff appearance in just its third year of existence, TRB has already overachieved, even if Vickers winds up falling flat on his face. That type of attitude makes TRB a tough out if its summer momentum and qualifying excellence (six poles) land Vickers as this year's Chase Cinderella.

Weakness: Martinsville. For years Vickers has struggled on the bullrings, and nowhere is that more evident than at this paper clip half-mile. With an average finish of 22.6 down in Virginia, he was 33rd in the Spring and looked absolutely lost on the track.

X Factor: Pit road. Jay Frye has worked hard to get the pit crew up to snuff, but they still make the type of amateur mistakes that'll kill you under the Chase format. One poor pit stop late in a race could cost Vickers a good 50 points; and with the depth of this Chase field, that'll be more than enough to leave him hopelessly behind.

Actual Odds: 20-1. My Odds: 75-1.

Playoff Seed: Tied For 6th. 2009 Wins: Atlanta.

Strength: New Hampshire. The first track on the playoff schedule is arguably Busch's best. He won here en route to taking the championship in 2004 and hasn't finished lower than 6th here in two years. Second at Richmond, the No. 2 is a definite sleeper to sneak up on the field and take the points lead after race one.

Weakness: Homestead-Miami. Once a winner there in 2002, Busch's good vibes in Miami have long since gone away. Two last-place finishes in his last three starts make a cushion on top of the standings a near-necessity down the stretch.

X Factor: The Busch-Tryson breakup. After two years together, crew chief Pat Tryson announced last week he'd be heading to Michael Waltrip Racing in 2010. That came as a total shock to Busch, despite the fact their relationship been on the skids for most of the last 12 months. Visibly angry over the move, can the driver zip his lip and stay professional for most of the next 10 weeks? When the going gets tough, expect Busch's mouth to get going ... and that could put his title bid on the skids.

Actual Odds: 9-1. My Odds: 90-1.

Playoff Seed: Tied For 9th. 2009 Wins: None.

Strength: Intermediates. Carl's been shut out of Victory Lane this year, but I'll say it again, looks can be deceiving. An oil cooler failure at Atlanta this September resulted in his first finish outside the top 15 on those ovals, a sign this driver knows where his bread and butter is come Chase time.

Weakness: Ford. Edwards is the best hope for a Blue Oval crowd enduring their worst season in over 25 years. Winless in Cup since California in February, the Blue Oval's 24-race drought is its longest since 1982-83. A new engine might help stem the bleeding, but all indications are it won't come to Edwards and Greg Biffle until they might already be too far behind.

X Factor: Carl's broken foot. The win in the Nationwide Series on Sept. 11 proved this injury isn't much of a problem for him behind the wheel. But at tracks like Martinsville, where you're constantly working the pedals, it could possibly put him at a disadvantage over 500 laps. With every week, he'll come closer to healing, but one "foot fault" is all he'll need to give away a shot at the title.

Actual Odds: 8-1. My Odds: 25-1.

Playoff Seed: Tied For 9th. 2009 Wins: None.

Strength: "Points Racing." To race fans' chagrin, the aggressive Colombian toned down his style in favor of a more conservative effort to make the Chase. That resulted in just two top-5 finishes but more than enough top 10s (12) to rack up the points he needed. The team says now that it's in the Chase, the car is capable of turning it up a notch ... but if the team struggles, the driver's now capable of ending up 12th instead of on the back of a tow truck.

Weakness: Inexperience. You'd think that wouldn't be a factor for a guy who's won in every form of racing he's competed in. But believe it or not, even the best still get nervous (a speeding penalty that cost him a win at Indy was a prime example). Fighting for a title in stock cars is breaking new ground for the open-wheel convert, and the pressure of the competition is bound to cause one too many mistakes.

X Factor: Horsepower under the hood. Despite the success of the No. 42 team at Earnhardt Ganassi, no other team with ECR engines made the Chase. All alone fighting resources of multi-car giants like Hendrick and Roush, Montoya will find the extra preparation by those other teams leaves him at too much of a disadvantage over the long-term.

Actual Odds: 15-1. My Odds: 40-1.

Playoff Seed: Tied For 9th. 2009 Wins: None.

Strength: Some Cinderella mojo. Biffle waltzed through last year as a surprise title contender, winning the first two races while remaining a pesky threat to Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards until the last few weeks. Finishing third in points, this former Nationwide and Truck Series champ knows the team can turn it on even after a third straight winless regular season.

Weakness: No mojo whatsoever. Let's face it, the Biff hasn't been a threat up front since running out of fuel at Michigan in June. He barely squeezed into the 12-car field and has struggled in virtually every phase of the game on ovals: short runs, long runs, pit stops, restarts, you name it.

X Factor: Matt Kenseth. Watching his best friend on-track lose his spot in the 12-car field had to hurt Biffle. But Kenseth and Biffle work together as well as anyone in the business, and with nothing to fight for over the next 10 weeks, the '03 champ will do everything he can to help Biffle out. But with the No. 17 car running 30th every week, I don't really know how much help it can be...

Actual Odds: 15-1. My Odds: 100-1.

Playoff Seed: Tied For 9th. 2009 Wins: None.

Strength: Martinsville. In five short track starts this season, Newman has yet to finish outside the top 10. He was sixth at Martinsville in the Spring, but it's the lone track in the Chase he could eke out a win in a season that's surely deserving of one.

Weakness: Inexperience. People forget that despite an overhaul of personnel, Newman's driving for a car that struggled to simply qualify for races last year. Now it's in its first ever Chase, but the work put in to get there seems to have left the team all worn out. Newman and crew chief Tony Gibson also have their differences on strategy, and any disagreement during the Chase could be fatal to already faint title hopes.

X Factor: Hendrick. See Tony Stewart above... and if Stewart isn't getting top-level chassis, you can only imagine how bad things might get over at the No. 39.

Actual Odds: 15-1. My Odds: 150-1.

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