Tom Bowles
Thursday September 16th, 2010

It's that time of year again, folks. Year seven of NASCAR's playoff format has been widely trumpeted to be the most "wide open" Chase in years. How believable is that? I'll bite on the hype to a certain degree. Reigning four-time champ Jimmie Johnson remains the favorite, but there's enough vulnerability to leave the door open a crack. And the great thing is if he does fall to earth with a thud, the next tier of challengers behind him comprises five, maybe six drivers, who all look about even on paper.

How does this field look heading in? Find out as we handicap each of the 12 postseason participants in our Chase 2010 guide:

Chase History: Fifth appearance, two wins. Best Finish: Third, 2006.

2010 Resume: A career-high six wins (Martinsville, Texas, Darlington, Pocono, Michigan, Richmond) leaves him the No. 1 seed in the Chase. Five of those came after season-threatening ACL surgery this spring.

X Factor: Confidence. A guy without a poker face, Hamlin's emotional attachment to on-track performance has haunted him in the past. But in the face of adversity this year, he's showcased the type of poise and maturity you'd expect from a champion, toughing it out in a car six days after his knee was on an operating table, while failing to get sucked into the ugly depression of a summer slump of DNFs.

Victory Bells Could Ring At: Martinsville. Texas. Homestead. But will it be too late by then?

Potential Black Eye: Dover. He endured five straight runs of 22nd or worse before cashing in with a top-5 finish this spring. Could two in a row be asking too much?

Stat That Matters: 11. The number of top-10 finishes for Hamlin this season, just 11th-best among the 12-man field despite his lofty ranking up top. That's a consistency problem if I've ever seen one: No Chaser has taken home the title with fewer than 21.

Prognosis: The trendy preseason pick to topple Johnson gets his chance, starting with a 10-point lead on his nemesis. The early tracks clearly favor J.J., making the first few races more like damage control for Hamlin. But if he can just keep that No. 11 within striking distance, the package is finally there, top-to-bottom, for him to make enough of a charge that puts pressure on the No. 48 down the stretch. With their driver's growth as a person intact, the pressure comes not from the cockpit but the engine shop: two engine failures in last year's Chase + two mechanical problems the last three races = major reliability questions for Joe Gibbs Racing. Jimmie's engine isn't going to break, so one DNF would be all it takes to derail this otherwise healthy bid for a title.

Bowles Odds To Win: 6-1.

Chase History: Seventh appearance, four consecutive titles, 18 Chase wins (all NASCAR records)

2010 Resume: Five wins make him the Chase No. 2 seed: Fontana, Las Vegas, Bristol, Sonoma, Loudon. Owns back-to-back top-5 finishes the last two weeks at Atlanta and Richmond.

X Factor: Hendrick support. For the first time ever, Johnson heads to the postseason without the off-track love from his teammates. First-second-third in the standings last year, HMS didn't even make the Chase with Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr., both of whom couldn't find Victory Lane if it popped up five feet in front of their face. Add in an inconsistent summer for Jeff Gordon, and for the first time ever the Lowe's team will have little to no extra help from the peanut gallery. Can riding solo in a multi-car world work for them?

Victory Bells Could Ring At: New Hampshire. Dover. Fontana, a 1-2-4 Chase knockout punch that could send everyone else packing far earlier than expected.

Potential Black Eye: Talladega. Johnson's escaped the equivalent of Chase Russian roulette with nary a scratch in recent years. But with three of his four DNFs occurring on plate tracks this season, it's hard to see that type of luck holding out forever.

Stat That Matters: 1,083 laps led this season. This leads all NASCAR drivers and proves this season hasn't been as much of a "slump" for the No. 48 as critics claimed.

Prognosis: For four years running, Johnson has made the Chase his own personal playground, to the point his mere presence in the field is enough to intimidate half the competition out of town. He told Dan Patrick this week crew chief Chad Knaus & Co. are ahead of where they were this time last year, talking five straight titles while acting as if it's as simple as going out and picking up a gallon of milk.

If what he says is true, well, God help the 11-car lineup desperate to take him down. In position to win as early as New Hampshire this Sunday, Johnson knows a solid start is key. A top-3 runs there and at Dover would patch up any cracks in the armor, leaving this team on cruise control and well on its way to accomplishing an unprecedented Drive For Five.

Bowles Odds To Win: 3-1.

Chase History: Fourth appearance, two wins. Best Finish: 4th -- twice.

2010 Resume: Three wins (Talladega, Daytona, Michigan), 17 top-10s, and 23 top-15 finishes make him your regular season points champ by 228 over Kyle Busch.

X Factor: His mouth. DeLana may wear the firesuit in the family, but Harvick has the ego. Cockier than ever, this attitude can actually be helpful: he's an expert at getting inside a driver's head, nearly causing Matt Kenseth to fumble away a title in 2003. Having him anywhere close to the title hunt with this much confidence leaves rivals fighting hard to turn off a 24-hour negative campaign ad shoved in their faces.

Victory Bells Could Ring At: Fontana. Talladega. Phoenix, a track that's typically Harvick's personal playground.

Potential Black Eye: Martinsville. Thirty-fifth in the spring there after winning the pole, he's never finished in the top-5 in 18 starts. How bad has it gotten? A random piece of Styrofoam caught on fire inside his car three years ago. Ouch.

Stat That Matters: 1. That's the number of regular season point leaders who've gone on to capture the Chase (Tony Stewart, 2005).

Prognosis: Harvick is living on extra credit, a phenomenal comeback story after it looked like he and owner Richard Childress were headed toward divorce as late as April. But a contract extension, a new sponsor for '11, and multiple trips back to Victory Lane leave the team with plenty to hang its hat on. The worry I have for this team is peaking too soon. Like most regular season champs, the team has stumbled down the stretch with just one top-5 finish the last five races. That inconsistency is notable because unlike other teams, this one's given 110 percent every time out, never testing and always showing its poker hand on the track each week. We know what cards Harvick's team has already; I just think too many others have been bluffing with a Full House that'll beat RCR's three-of-a-kind juggernaut any day.

Bowles Odds To Win: 15-1.

Chase History: Fourth appearance, one win ('05 as a rookie who missed the Chase). Best Finish: 5th, 2007 - his last year with Hendrick Motorsports.

2010 Resume: Three wins (Richmond, Dover, Bristol) helped cement his reputation as king of the short tracks a mile or less in length. Bristol was part of a NASCAR-record sweep across the board in its top three series (Nationwide, Craftsman Trucks).

X Factor: Eyes On The Prize. In past years, Busch's big problem in Chase school was spending too much time in extracurricular activities: his quest for NASCAR's "AAA" title (Nationwide) helped cause him to miss the Chase last season. Now the owner of an "AA" Truck Series team, Kyle has that on his plate and a limited schedule behind the wheel, where he's currently engaged in a public feud with Todd Bodine. After running second on Saturday, he refused to answer a reporter's question about that race simply because they'd interviewed Todd the week before. Huh? If that's what you're thinking when you exit the car on a good day, can you really squash the distractions in a pinch enough to win that championship?

Victory Bells Could Ring At: Dover. Talladega. Maybe Charlotte.

Potential Black Eye: New Hampshire. Busch has gotten off to some ugly starts there, wrecking in his first Chase in '06, then breaking a suspension after coming in a heavy favorite to win it all in '08. A run like last year's fifth is imperative to keep pace early on.

Stat That Matters: 8. Known for being streaky, that's how many finishes of 34th or worse he has in three previous Chase appearances, an eye-opening 27 percent of his starts. It doesn't matter how much you win, three of these bad boys will kill your title chances.

Prognosis: With all due respect to Harvick's hat, Kyle Busch enters this playoff on fire. Three straight top-5 finishes combine with 1,198 points at the eight Chase tracks the series has visited this season -- more than any other driver -- put him on top of the stats sheet on paper. When this guy's on a hot streak, there's no one better, capable of winning three, four races in a row and beating his competition into submission. But keep in mind there's also a lot of people (Brad Keselowski, cough) who would also like to beat Kyle into the outside wall as payback for some ugly incidents earlier in the year. Can the car hold up? Will the engines hold up? And can new, mature Kyle keep the old, rampaging kill-your-team's-confidence-for-multiple-races from showing up and pulling a public outburst? If all those questions are yes, then he's your 2010 Cup champ. I just don't think we're there yet -- although it'll be close.

Bowles Odds To Win: 10-1.

Chase History: Fifth appearance, inaugural Chase champ in 2004. Also finished fourth behind the Hendrick trio last season.

2010 Resume: Two wins (Atlanta, Charlotte), two poles led to another solid but not spectacular season in Penske equipment. But when he's clicking on all eight cylinders, watch out. He led 530 laps combined at the Coke 600 and Bristol, where a late-race pit call left him second to Johnson.

X Factor: The Lone Ranger. The one Dodge entry in this year's Chase, Busch will benefit from being his manufacturer's singular focus these next 10 weeks. But how much help can his team and those extra engineers really be? Fellow drivers Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. have yet to score a top-10 finish on the Cup side this season.

Victory Bells Could Ring At: New Hampshire. Kansas. Charlotte. Texas.

Potential Black Eye: Homestead. His last four starts at the season finale: 43rd, 2nd, 43rd, 2nd. Guess what finish comes next.

Stat That Matters: 10.0. A sizzling average start that's second among the Chasers to Johnson's 12.3, Busch carries the lone distinction of qualifying in the top half of the field (22nd or better) in each of the 26 races to date. Starting up front doesn't guarantee anything ... but it certainly helps your chances in an era where track position is everything.

Prognosis: The Penske powerhouse enters the playoffs under the radar, a one-time trendy favorite people have written off once they wilted during the Dog Days of Summer. I'm not. Let's not forget last year, Busch had to deal with a lame-duck crew chief (Pat Tryson) who announced his departure days before the Chase, DNF'd twice in the last four regular season races and still charged back to finish fourth. His rivalry with Johnson red hot -- he called the Hendrick drivers "pretty boys" after they tangled at Pocono -- the man's also the only one gutsy enough to go where others have feared to tread, spinning the reigning four-time champ out of the way if necessary to win it. A finish outside the top half of the Chase would be a shock, and if this team comes out and wins New Hampshire to start -- watch out.

Bowles Odds To Win: 12-1.

Chase History: Sixth appearance, one title under this format (2005). In a bit of a mild surprise, that's the only year he's finished better than sixth.

2010 Resume: One win (Atlanta) was the high point of a sizzling second half: he has 10 top-10 finishes in just the last 13 races alone. That's as many as fellow Chaser Matt Kenseth earned over a full slate of 26.

X Factor: Hendrick Equipment. Stewart will swear until the cows come home he and Jimmie Johnson have the exact same engines and chassis. But when your equipment supplier also has a guy gunning for the title, why give your rival a way to beat you? As it is, the latest horsepower dyno reportedly showed the No. 48 with just a tick more HP than the No. 14. It's those small, subtle differences that could put this owner/driver at a disadvantage if his "vendor" doesn't play fair.

Victory Bells Could Ring At: New Hampshire. Kansas. Talladega. Texas. Wins at two of those four would make it a successful Chase and give him a chance at the big prize.

Potential Black Eye: Charlotte. Nearly the place his title dreams went to die five years ago, an ugly track record includes no top-5 finishes in seven years. Ouch.

Stat That Matters: 18 years. That's the last time an owner/driver won a NASCAR title, the lone modern era upset with Alan Kulwicki at the controls. Let's just say it's a miracle that doesn't happen very often.

Prognosis: After cruising to the regular season points title only to falter when it really counted last year, Stewart pursued a different strategy in 2010: peak at the right time. Knocking the sophomore slump out of the way in early spring, he's spent the summer blazing through the field while steering clear of controversy and letting the younger whippersnappers do the fighting. Can a wiser, older Stewart prevail for title three? The feeling within SHR is they're betting with house money in a down year -- teammate Ryan Newman didn't make the Chase -- producing a "nothing to lose" attitude that makes him a dangerous foe. A dark horse championship contender if there ever was one.

Bowles Odds To Win: 6-1.

Chase History: Fourth appearance, six wins. Runner-up to Tony Stewart for the title in '05.

2010 Resume: A win at Pocono and two thirds in the sport's biggest races (Daytona 500, Brickyard 400) highlighted a year where he did just enough to sneak in.

X Factor: Ford. This manufacturer was winless in Cup for nearly a year-and-a-half before Biffle's breakthrough victory in August. Heading to the first Chase using the FR9 engine full-time, will the extra horsepower hold up over 500 miles at Charlotte and Texas? Poor simulations were also to blame, leaving engineering geeks playing racing Dungeons and Dragons in the backroom catching up. Word on the street is engineers are not quite there yet, leaving Blue Ovals at a constant disadvantage on intermediates.

Victory Bells Could Ring At: Dover. Kansas. Homestead. Quirky fact: he's the only driver besides Johnson to win in five of the last six years of the Chase.

Potential Black Eye: Talladega. Biffle went a dozen starts there before recording his first top-10 finish last spring. He's run fourth and seventeenth since, but I'd hardly call him a restrictor plate expert.

Stat That Matters: 7. Seven of the Biff's 14 top-10 finishes came in the season's first eight races before slumping to seven-for-his-last-18.

Prognosis: Always Ford's forgotten man, Biffle's bidding to be the first to score titles in each of NASCAR's top three series: Cup, Nationwide and Trucks. He's done better than you think, scoring two-podium point finishes and nearly half of his career wins during this stretch of races. But while teammate Edwards heads in with momentum, Biffle stumbled to 36th and 32nd-place finishes that had him questioning whether the No. 16 team was even worthy to make the playoffs. His track record on intermediates is also suspect: just one top-5 finish on the 1.5-to-2-mile ovals that make up half of this year's 10 races. It all adds up to good, but not great, and championships don't get won by cars that always get a B on their report card.

Bowles Odds To Win: 40-1.

Chase History: Sixth appearance, three wins. Best Finish: 2nd -- 2007.

2010 Resume: No wins, but 10 top-5 finishes helped lead him to a third-place finish in the regular season standings, 230 behind Kevin Harvick.

X Factor: Jimmie Johnson fatigue. For more than four years now, Gordon's had to watch on the other side of the shop as his former protégé runs circles around him in wins, titles, karma and political correctness. Frustration came out in public in the form of a few ugly scrapes at Texas and Talladega, but as always, it was the No. 24 that got the short end of the stick. When will the tide turn?

Victory Bells Could Ring At: Texas. Crazy that's his best shot, since Gordon was winless there for 17 years until breaking through with his last career victory in April '09.

Potential Black Eye: Talladega. Once a track firmly in the No. 24 car's wheelhouse, he's endured five straight finishes of 19th or worse since sweeping both races in 2007.

Stat That Matters: 813. The number of laps led by Gordon without scoring a victory. If that stat holds, it's the most in the modern era since Harry Gant's 1,169 back in 1981.

Prognosis: This year's big Chase disappointment. Who would have thought five years ago Johnson would finish off the Drive For Five championships before his mentor? But that's where we're at within a Hendrick program that's clearly tilted the way of the No. 48. The shocking drama with Gordon this season is how he really should have four or five victories, yet fumbled them away through a series of poor pit strategy calls, driver mistakes (like missing pit road at Darlington), or simply getting outdriven late in races. No more does the No. 24 car strike fear into drivers' hearts on the track, and lately the frustration of a career-high 55-race winless streak has taken its toll -- just two laps led and one top-10 finish the last five races is some ugly foreshadowing. Still without a primary sponsor for next year and saddled with a crew chief in Steve Letarte that's a shell of mentor Chad Knaus, last year's third-place finish is likely the ceiling for a program in need of more retooling than you might think.

Bowles Odds To Win: 75-1.

Chase History: Fifth appearance, runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in 2008.

2010 Resume: No wins, but two poles in the last two months cap a nine-race streak of top-12 finishes entering the Chase.

X Factor: Getting to Victory Lane. Edwards has one of the longest droughts among the five winless participants: he hasn't tasted champagne since a season-ending victory at Homestead in '08. In the 61-year history of NASCAR, the sport has never had a winless champion, and only Tony Stewart has captured the Chase without one over the final 10 races. I think I know what he needs to do now...

Victory Bells Could Ring At: Kansas. Fontana. Texas.

Potential Black Eye: Talladega. He fails at Russian roulette there more than most: only one top-5 finish and 15 laps led in a dozen career starts.

Stat That Matters: 6. That's the number of races he's led this season, tied for the lowest among Chasers (Matt Kenseth). Fact: Entering the month of September, Mattias Ekstrom and Boris Said both had more laps led on the year than Edwards' six (he's since boosted that number by leading 127 at Atlanta and Richmond).

Prognosis: Edwards entered '09 a media darling, the prohibitive favorite to topple Jimmie only to crumble under the weight of expectations and slump to 11th. Can he turn the tables in '10, all but forgotten under the weight of Ford Racing's struggles until a late summer surge put him back on the radar screen? In a way, that creates a no-lose situation this fall, although chances at a title are just not in the cards just yet -- putting up some wins on the board is far more likely. But the man who flipped Keselowski this March is bound to have enough speed to keep things interesting no matter where he finishes each week.

Bowles Odds To Win: 14-1.

Chase History: Fourth appearance, two wins. Best Finish: 6th -- 2008.

2010 Resume: Five top-5 finishes, 13 top-10s and zero DNFs are the perfect recipe for a postseason bid under this system.

X Factor: Poor pit work. Without a victory in 2010, Burton's followed the protocol of his famous quote, "putting himself in position to win" before his crew has let him down late in races. At Darlington, he ran over the air hose and got penalized. At New Hampshire, he stayed out on old tires when others pitted, leaving him a sitting duck. Some bad luck hasn't helped, either: a wreck with Kyle Busch at Charlotte combined with a cut tire at Martinsville to take more wins away.

Victory Bells Could Ring At: New Hampshire. Dover. Homestead, leaving him a dangerous threat should he get to the season finale within striking distance.

Potential Black Eye: Kansas. Auntie Em! Auntie Em! Teach Jeff how to drive instead of running straight into a tornado (two top-10s, five laps led in nine career starts).

Stat That Matters: 43. The senior citizen in this year's field, Burton notching a championship would make him the oldest to hoist the trophy since Dale Earnhardt in 1994. With Mark Martin on the outside looking in, this 17-year vet is clearly the sentimental favorite.

Prognosis: My unofficial formula has Burton this year's early Chase Cinderella for two reasons. 1) He'll get off to a hot start, my pick to win New Hampshire after dominating late before the bad pit call described up top. Then, we head to Dover, where this team was second in the spring and has won during the playoffs before (2006). 2) Burton knows how to top-10 you to death, the most consistent among all the 12 Chasers not named Johnson. No one expects this team to do much of anything, but didn't the other Cinderellas (Clint Bowyer in '07, Greg Biffle in '08, Juan Pablo Montoya last year) come out of nowhere? The only problem is that all of them faded down the stretch, but at least Burton will make the highlights these first few weeks.

Bowles Odds To Win: 20-1.

Chase History: Sixth appearance, one win. Best Finish: 2nd -- 2006.

2010 Resume: Started the year with five runs of eighth or better, then held on for dear life ever since.

X Factor: Confidence. Never mistaken for a cheerleader, I nicknamed Kenseth "Eeyore" last year because when things don't go well, this quiet type sounds like he's off chewing thistles in the Hundred Acre Wood under a rain cloud. Honest to a fault, he admitted in public recently the team is in the Chase only because it avoided DNFs.

From his Saturday press conference: "Seems like we average usually around a 12th place finish, and certainly that's not going to win the championship over 10 races." He should have been waving the white flag of surrender the whole time...

Victory Bells Could Ring At: Dover -- if they're really, really lucky.

Potential Black Eye: Everywhere. This team hasn't been clicking on all eight cylinders for months.

Stat That Matters: 3. That's the number of crew chiefs he's had this season, from Drew Blickensderfer to Todd Parrott to Jimmy Fennig. At this rate, a fourth isn't out of the question; winning the title with that much turnover would easily be a NASCAR first.

Prognosis: Considering the circumstances -- just four top-10 finishes over the last 19 races of the regular season -- how Kenseth made the Chase was near-miraculous in itself. Off to a strong start early, a victory at Martinsville was stolen by an unfriendly tap off Jeff Gordon's front bumper, putting a damper on a strong start in which he nearly wound up the points leader through six races. This team has never quite been the same since, limping to the finish line under a format that's never really been this driver's Cup of tea to begin with.

Bowles Odds To Win: 500-1.

Chase History: Third appearance, one win. Best Finish: 3rd -- 2007.

2010 Resume: Only four top-5 finishes, but three straight top-10s were enough to hold off Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Mark Martin for the final spot in the field.

X Factor: Last on the totem pole. Bowyer has spent much of this year lagging behind the accomplishments of teammates Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, who also made the Chase. When you're third-best on your own team, can you make that leap to championship contender in just 10 weeks?

Victory Bells Could Ring At: New Hampshire. Kansas. Martinsville. But I don't expect him to cash in on any of them.

Potential Black Eye: Dover. Never a top-5 finish in nine career starts. Already 60 points behind Hamlin heading in, he can't afford to lose more ground again in the Chase's second playoff race.

Stat That Matters: 2. Bowyer's number of career victories over 171 starts are one less than the number of his career playoff appearances. Not exactly the type of numbers you put up on the fridge with pride, especially when every other Chaser has at least 14.

Prognosis: Always the underdog, Bowyer knows how to make Chase consistency work for him: he's 2-for-2 on finishing inside the top-5 in points. But when it comes to taking home the title, can you really put all your faith behind a winless 12 seed? One of the sport's future stars, he's at about the point Denny Hamlin was two years ago: a talented, moody work in progress that stops short of Victory Lane. He'll climb that mountain eventually, just not this year.

Bowles Odds To Win: 40-1.

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