He's not the chalk pick. Most longtime garage observers are forecasting Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson or Kevin Harvick to win the 2010 Sprint Cup championship. Heck, none of the six editors at Scene Daily -- the insider's Bible of NASCAR coverage -- even have the driver that I think will win the title ranked higher than sixth in any of their projections for the final 2010 standings.
So why in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated are we tabbing Kurt Busch to be the man celebrating on the big stage at season's end at Homestead-Miami Speedway? Five reasons:
1. He traditionally runs strong on intermediate-length tracks, and five of the 10 Chase races take place at these venues.
2. At 32, he's in his racing prime and nearly everyone in the garage will tell you he's as talented behind the wheel as any other driver in the sport -- Johnson included.
3. His crew chief, Steve Addington, is widely regarded as a top-5 crew chief. After all, he won more races with Kyle Busch in 2008 and '09 (12) than any crew chief other than Chad Knaus, who guided Johnson to 17 wins over that time.
4. He has the ability to stay in the front at Talladega, which again will be the key race of the Chase. Busch has led laps at 'Dega in the last four events at NASCAR's biggest track, and the best way to avoid the Big One that will no doubt take out several title contenders is to be in front of it.
5. He knows what it takes to beat Johnson. Unlike every other driver in the sport, Busch has gone to Homestead when the points were close and out-raced Johnson for the title. He did in 2004 and it says here he'll do it again in 2010. Yes, he has been struggling over the last few weeks, but he's not worried -- and neither am I. Why? Because he's got a fleet of newly built race cars at Penske Racing that he'll pilot in the Chase that are equipped with the latest and greatest Penske technology.
My final predication: Busch will win one race in the Chase, author several top-5s, and nine top-10s to narrowly beat Johnson for the championship.
Now let's move onto the five drivers, other than Busch, that I'll be closely watching on Sunday at New Hampshire for Race No. 1 of the 2010 Chase:
1. Jimmie Johnson
A here-we-go-again vibe has fallen over the garage, because Johnson is starting to come on when it matters most. Over the last two weeks he's put together back-to-back top-5 finishes for the first time since June. Yes, the champ will not go down easily.
The first Chase race is always important, but I think it carries even more significance for Johnson. If the four-time defending Cup winner can come out of the gate with a top-3 run, it will be positively deflating for every other team in the playoffs. He won at Loudon earlier this year and he's ripped off seven straight top-10 runs at the track. It's hard to see that streak being snapped on Sunday.
2. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin enters the Chase as the top seed by virtue of his series-best six regular season wins. He typically finishes seasons strong, but this team has shown troubling signs of inconsistency for much of 2010. A week before winning at Richmond last Saturday night, for instance, Hamlin finished dead last at Atlanta after blowing an engine.
How will Hamlin do in the Chase? Among the writers who are at the track most weekends, they consider him the most popular pick to win it all, and he was SI's preseason pick. But I get the feeling that he may have peaked too early -- he won five races over a 10-race stretch in late spring and early summer -- and this has proven to be a cardinal racing sin in years past. We'll see.
Hamlin has been hot-and-cold at Loudon. In two of his last three starts he's finished 14th and 15th, but in the other start he came in second. He'll need his pit crew to be flawless on Sunday to have a chance at the victory.
3. Kevin Harvick
I've been skeptical of Harvick's championship chances all season, even though he was the regular season points champ. Why? Because the people I trust most in the sport keep telling me that he simply doesn't possess the straight-line speed in his No. 29 Chevy to consistently outrun the likes of Johnson, Hamlin and -- yes -- even Kurt Busch.
But Harvick will have his best chances to win on shorter tracks like Loudon and at Talladega, a restrictor-plate track where he won earlier this season. He finished fifth at Loudon earlier this year, but this has not been an overly kind track to him in years past. In 19 career starts in New Hampshire, his average finish is 14.3. He needs to do better than that on Sunday.
4. Greg Biffle
Biffle is my dark horse. He's flying under the radar right now because of back-to-back finishes of 30th or worse as heads into the Chase, but don't overlook him. Like all the drivers at Roush Fenway Racing, Biffle has come on over the last six weeks and I consider him a legitimate title threat. He traditionally runs strong at intermediate length tracks and he's very good at New Hampshire and Dover -- the Chase's first two races.
How will he do on Sunday? He won this race in 2008 and I think he'll wind up in the top-5 when the checkered flag waves.
5. Jeff Gordon
It's critical for Gordon to get off to a fast start in the playoffs. You could argue that New Hampshire is his best track in the Chase -- in the last 11 starts at the track, Gordon ranks first in the series in average running position (7.296) and first in laps in the top 15 (2,961) -- and Gordon needs to make a statement that he can run nose-to-nose with the likes of Johnson and Hamlin. Despite finishing third in the final regular season standings, Gordon hasn't led many laps this year and he's yet to win a race.
If he can get to the front on Sunday, Gordon could prove to everyone, and perhaps most important, to himself - that he has the power under the hood and the right setup on his car to be a major player in the Chase this fall. I doubt that he'll be in the title mix at Homestead, but if there's one track that Gordon has the potential to dominate in the Chase, Loudon is it.
My pick to win on Sunday? Gordon.