Imagine if before this Sprint Cup season began you'd had a choice between two four-driver NASCAR fantasy teams. One consisted of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin. They entered the year having combined for eight career Cup championships (including the past two in a row) and 165 victories. The other lineup was Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Kurt Busch. Bowyer, Truex and Logano had combined for 11 career victories. Busch was on his third team in three years, stuck with the underfunded, single-car Furniture Row Racing outfit, which had managed one win and all of 11 top-10 finishes in 199 starts.
So who you got? Obviously the first team seems likes the logical choice. Even Michael Waltrip -- the team owner for whom Bowyer and Truex drive -- probably would have picked the first lineup. And Waltrip, like most of us, would have been wrong. With one race to go before the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship's 12-driver field is set, none of the drivers on the first team has secured a berth, but all four on the second currently make the cut.
Injuries knocked both Stewart and Hamlin out of Chase contention, and Keselowski's engine failure at Atlanta this past Sunday has him on the edge of elimination. Gordon still has a good shot, but he enters Saturday's race at Richmond trailing Kurt Busch by six points for 10th place in the standings. (The top 10 drivers in points automatically make the Chase.)
On the other side, Bowyer is definitely in the Chase and Logano is in excellent shape. Not only is Logano 16 points ahead of 11th-place Gordon, he has a victory this season, meaning that he will likely be able to make the Chase as one of the two wild cards even if he falls out of the top 10. And while both Busch and Truex could easily lose their berths with a poor showing at Richmond, a top-five finish will probably get them in.
This scenario is good and bad for NASCAR. The good part is that the unpredictability creates excitement. For several years, one of the biggest complaints was that Jimmie Johnson's dominance during his run of five consecutive championships had caused the sport to become somewhat boring. Johnson's recent struggles combined with so many new faces in contention should help spice things up a bit.
The bad part is that this year's Chase will suffer somewhat from a lack of star power, especially if Gordon doesn't qualify. While Kurt Busch, the 2004 Cup champ, will stir interest because of his talent and volatility, there is no question that Bowyer, Truex and Logano simply do not push the attention needle the way that Gordon, Stewart and Keselowski do. (Hamlin, not quite as much.)
This also illustrates the futility of making preseason predictions in a sport where cars are one bad part away from breaking down, drivers are one crash away from being sidelined, and harsh reality can quickly crush even the strongest of Fantasy teams.
1. Kyle Busch (4th previously) -- Even though he has never finished better than fifth in the point standings, it is time to start taking Busch seriously as a championship contender. He has mostly avoided controversy this season and instead is doing his talking on the track. In addition to his four wins, he leads the series in top-five finishes with 11, and is tied with Jimmie Johnson for the most top-10s at 15.
2. Joey Logano (6th) -- Yes, Joey Logano. Ahead of Johnson and Matt Kenseth. Logano has posted six consecutive top-10 finishes and three straight top-fives. Take away the problems that caused his back-to-back 40th-place runs in early July, and Logano would be on a streak of 12 consecutive finishes in the top 11, with an average of 6.3 during those races.
3. Jimmie Johnson (2nd) -- Because most of his problems lately have been out of his control, we're not going to drop the five-time champion very far down the rankings. Still, the fact is that over the past three races Johnson's average finish of 34.7 puts him in Travis Kvapil-land. Better to have issues now rather than when the Chase begins, but this team could use a good run at Richmond on Saturday in order to regain some momentum.
4. Matt Kenseth (3rd) -- His inconsistency is becoming maddening. He has three victories in the past 15 races, but has posted back-to-back top-10s just once during that span. Kenseth has managed only six top-five finishes all season, which is ninth-best on the circuit. In fact, he has fewer top-fives than Brad Keselowski, who probably isn't going to make the Chase.
5. Kasey Kahne (1st) -- In terms of inconsistency, Kahne has been every bit Kenseth's equal this season. Kahne topped the Power Rankings last week after his second-place run at Bristol, which was his fourth top-10 in five races. That should have been a sign that trouble was around the corner, and sure enough, he got caught up in a wreck on a restart at Atlanta and finished 36th. It was the fifth time he's finished worse than 30th in the past 12 races.
6. Kevin Harvick (7th) -- Since winning twice in a four-race span earlier this season, Harvick has mainly been good but not great, as exemplified by his ninth-place run at Atlanta. That marked the ninth time in the past 13 races that he has finished between seventh and 19th, though he does have a pair of runner-ups at Michigan during that stretch.
7. Kurt Busch (unranked) -- Amazingly, Busch is a top-5 finish away from likely securing a spot in the Chase with the single-car Furniture Row Racing team. And he has already posted seven top-fives this season, including three in the past five races. But Busch could have a problem this week at Richmond, where he has only eight top-10s in 25 career starts.
8. Clint Bowyer (5th) -- A blown engine halted Bowyer's streak of consecutive top-20 finishes at 19. He remains second in the point standings despite having only two top-10s in the past seven races. It would be easier to consider him a serious threat for the championship if he wasn't winless this season.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8th) -- Earnhardt hung around the top-10 most of the race on Sunday and finished eighth, but he never led a lap and remains winless this season. Much like Bowyer, he has been solid (his 14 top-10s trail only Johnson and Kyle Busch), but his lack of a victory keeps him from being viewed as a strong championship contender.
10. Jeff Gordon (unranked) -- You could make a case for several drivers landing this final spot in the Power Rankings, including Carl Edwards, who is fourth in the point standings. But Edwards has managed only three top-10s over the past nine races and has finished 18th and 39th in his past two starts. Gordon, meanwhile, has six top-10s in nine races, including two in a row. In terms of momentum, the edge goes to Gordon.