|Dale Earnhardt Jr. :: Tony Ding/Icon SMI|
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt has been the most consistent driver of the 2012 season. He’s tied with Jimmie Johnson for most top-10s finishes (17) and his average finish of 9.9 trails only Greg Biffle (9.7). If Earnhardt can maintain that consistency -- and I think he will -- and win one or two races this fall he could capture the first Cup championship of his career.
Brad Keselowski. He was poised to have a breakout last year in his first Chase appearance, but after climbing to third in the standings, he faded badly over the final four races. With another year of experience under his seat belt (it is easy to forget that this is only his third full season on the Sprint Cup level), Keselowski will be in contention for the title until the end. And with a little luck, he just might win it all.
Kasey Kahne. He’s finished eighth and 10th in his previous Chase appearances, although he wasn’t with Hendrick Motorsports then. With the proper equipment, he’ll show what he can do and challenge for the title.
Martin Truex Jr. In his second Chase, and the first since 2007, Truex figures to shine. He’s in a career year, having already tied for his most top 10s (14), and he boasts the best average start (13.3) and finish (11.3) of his nine years in the series. Most importantly he’s been strong on playoff tracks with five finishes of seventh or better, including a second at Kansas.
Denny Hamlin. He’s been in the Chase all seven of his full Cup seasons, and his finishes have ranged from the disappointing and disheartening second by 39 points in 2010 to ninth in ’11 and 12th in ’07. Everybody remembers the late-season mistakes by Hamlin and the No. 11 team that cost him the title two seasons ago; but Hamlin doesn’t need a championship to put that bad memory behind him, just a Chase in which he contends throughout. With crew chief Darian Grubb, who was on the box for Tony Stewart’s championship last year, Hamlin is capable of taking his first Cup title. And he knows how to win -- he has a series-leading four checkered flags this season.