Where each Chase driver has his best shot at winning
Three races into the Chase and heading for Kansas on Sunday, it's already looking like it's going to be a three-man sprint to the title between Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. Here's a breakdown of all the playoff drivers -- and where each one has the best chance to win before the checkered flag waves on the 2013 season.
1. Matt Kenseth
It was Kenseth's ruthless dominance in 2003, you'll recall, that inspired NASCAR to adopt the Chase format. That season, he basically had the championship wrapped up with almost two months left in the season. A decade later, Kenseth is once again the driver to beat. He won the first two playoff races and came in seventh at Dover last Sunday. An elite racer on 1.5-mile tracks, he should take at least two more checkered flags in the playoffs. He'll be especially good on Sunday at Kansas (where he won in April), Texas (where he finished fourth last fall), and Homestead (where he has one career victory).
2. Jimmie Johnson (8 points back)
The not-so-secret weapon in Johnson's arsenal during the last seven years has been the Chase schedule. Put simply, he doesn't have a weak track in the playoffs. I expect him to win as many as three more races this season. At Kansas, Martinsville and Phoenix, he has a combined 14 career wins.
3. Kyle Busch (12)
Displaying newfound patience behind the wheel, Busch has emerged as a legitimate title contender. If he can continue to maintain his composure -- and this has been an issue with him throughout his career -- he should have at least a mathematical chance to win his first championship when the series heads to Homestead for the final race of 2013. Busch will be the favorite on Nov. 3 at Texas, where he won earlier this spring.
4. Jeff Gordon (39)
This may be Gordon's last best chance to win another title. So far, the 42-year-old has been steady in the Chase: sixth at Chicagoland, 15th at New Hampshire, and fourth at Dover. Even though he has yet to reach Victory Lane this season, he is always a threat at Martinsville, where he has seven career wins and finished third in April.
5. Kevin Harvick (39)
In his final season at Richard Childress Racing, Harvick has been typically solid in the Chase. His average playoff finish has been 9.9, and if not for a 20th place run at Loudon, he'd be within sight of the leaders. Harvick won at Charlotte earlier this season, so he should have the setup and the speed to contend for another victory there on October 12.
6. Greg Biffle (41)
Biffle has led only two laps in the first three playoff races, but he hasn't finished lower than 16th (Chicagoland). He's been consistent, yet it appears that he doesn't have the speed in his number 16 Ford to overtake Kenseth, Johnson or Kyle Busch. Biffle is usually fast at Texas (where he has two career wins) and Homestead (three career victories).
7. Ryan Newman (48)
Lame-duck drivers don't typically perform well in the playoffs, so it's not surprising that Newman, in his final season with Stewart-Haas Racing, has been quiet in the Chase. He has yet to finish in the top five in the first three playoff races. His best chance of winning will likely be at Phoenix, a one-mile track where he has finished in the top five in five of his last seven starts.
8. Clint Bowyer (51)
Bowyer hasn't been the same driver ever since he was involved in "Spingate" during the regular season-finale at Richmond. Since then, he hasn't finished higher than ninth. Bowyer has excelled at short tracks this season. If he's going to win a Chase race and rise in the standings, it will be on Oct. 27 at Martinsville, where he came in second last spring.
9. Kurt Busch (55)
It was a nice story: the driver from the underfunded, single-car team contending for a championship. Well, the book has closed on that narrative after Busch finished 21st at Dover and took a nosedive in the standings. But look for him to be fast at Charlotte. In the spring race at the 1.5-mile oval, he qualified second and finished third.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (57)
Earnhardt is currently sitting on a 48-race winless streak. He nearly snapped it last Sunday at Dover, but couldn't catch Johnson late and finished second. But I think Earnhardt will triumph on Oct. 20 at Talladega, where he he has won more times -- five -- than at any other track on the schedule. He's still regarded in the garage as one of the top restrictor-plate racers in the sport, and he should shine on NASCAR's biggest, fastest track later this month.
11. Carl Edwards (65)
The regular season points winner, Edwards saw his quest for a first title end last Sunday when he came in 35th at Dover. But he is one of the top drivers in the sport on 1.5-mile tracks, and four of the last seven races take place at these intermediate-length venues. He should be especially good at Texas (where he has three career wins) and Homestead (where his career average finish is 6.0).
12. Joey Logano (66)
Logano has flashed enough speed to win the championship, but his title hopes exploded when his engine failed in the Chase opener at Chicagoland, causing him to finish 37th. He should contend for at least two victories before the season is over. He'll be fast at Texas (where he finished fifth in April) and Charlotte (where he finished in May).
13. Kasey Kahne (78)
This has been a forgettable Chase for Kahne, who many in the garage believe just weeks ago would be a legitimate title contender. He has failed to finish in the top 10 in all three playoff races. If Kahne is going to take a checkered flag it likely will be at Charlotte, where in late May he led 161 laps and finished second. And in 19 career starts at the 1.5-mile track, he has four victories.