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SI.com's predictions for the 2012 Sprint Cup Chase

Chase for the Championship Predictions
Racing writers Lars Anderson, Cary Estes, Dustin Long, Cory McCartney and Tim Tuttle make their picks for the 2012 Chase. (Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below.)
 
Which driver will have a breakout Chase season?
 
Dale Earnhardt Jr. :: Tony Ding/Icon SMI

ANDERSON
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.

ESTES
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.

LONG
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.

McCARTNEY
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.

TUTTLE
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.

 
Who will be the biggest Chase flop?
 
Kevin Harvick :: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

ANDERSON
Kevin Harvick. Harvick hasn’t been happy with his car for the majority of the season. He’s led the second fewest laps among the Chase drivers with 229 (Clint Bowyer has only paced the field for 185 laps), which shows you he doesn’t possess the raw speed he’s had the past two seasons when he’s finished third in the final standings.

ESTES
Tony Stewart. He will be a flop in the sense that the defending Cup champion is held to a higher standard than the rest of the Chase field, and recently Stewart has shown no signs that he is poised for a championship run. Of course the same was true at this time last year, and he went out and won five of the 10 Chase races. But it’s hard to see Stewart pulling a similar revival this year, especially with former crew chief Darian Grubb now calling the shots for Denny Hamlin.

LONG
Tony Stewart. There are those who want to think he’ll repeat his dominance in last year’s Chase when he won five races to claim the title. He’s not going to win five Chase races this time. No one will. Stewart will be viewed a flop by some because they’ll be comparing him to what he did last year, which is unfair. What this Chase will show is truly how remarkable Stewart’s run was last year.

McCARTNEY
Matt Kenseth. He held the top spot in the points standings for seven weeks, but over the last eight races, Kenseth has struggled. He’s averaged a 16.8 finish and has been in the top five just once (Sept. 8 at Richmond) since July 7 at Daytona. Plus, history’s not on his side. Kenseth’s taking his talents to Joe Gibbs Racing next season, and over the last five years, only two of the six drivers who announced they would be changing teams went on to win a race.

TUTTLE
Kevin Harvick. He’s finished third in the championship the past two years, but this year he went winless and had only four top-fives finishes in the regular season. Harvick is a gifted driver in his prime without the horse underneath him to run at the front, and the late-season change of crew chiefs from Shane Wilson to Gil Martin won’t be the answer to his lack of speed. Going fast starts in the shop and Richard Childress Racing suffered a big blow when competition director Scott Miller departed last season for Michael Waltrip Racing, which put Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase.

 
What race are you most looking forward to?
 
Martinsville :: David J. Griffin/Icon SMI

ANDERSON
The season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The only moment in all of American motorsports that rivals the heightened sense of anticipation at Homestead before the engines fire is at Indy 500 when the cars charge to the green flag. Given the parity in the sport this season, I expect at least three drivers to have a legitimate shot at the title in South Florida.

ESTES
Talladega. It is the perfect anecdote to the overdose of dreary 1.5-mile tracks that dominate the Chase. Nobody ever has any idea what might happen at Talladega, which makes it so much fun to watch. The drivers hate having the uncertainty of a restrictor-plate race during the Chase, but it is a great way to shake things up and keep the points race interesting.

LONG
Martinsville. At this race last year Brad Keselowski’s title hopes took a hit. He entered third in the standings, 18 points out of the lead, but was spun late in the race and lost a number of spots. It forced he and his team to take more gambles in the remaining races, which didn’t work out. Will someone’s Chase all but end in Martinsville this time or will his Chase hopes improve?

McCARTNEY
Martinsville. There’s just something about short-track racing, but of late this one has actually been a strong indication of who’s going to be leaving Homestead with the title. In four of the last six years, the winner at the Paper Clip has gone on to claim the championship.

TUTTLE
Martinsville. It’s the oldest (since 1949) and shortest (.526-mile) track on the Sprint Cup schedule, and it brings out the classic style of NASCAR racing that built the sport: part finesse, part bump-and-run and lots of rubbin’. Track position is critical, and it comes with hard racing, plenty of crashes and yellow flag laps (18 cautions for 108 a year ago in the Chase). Aerodynamics and horsepower aren’t as important as car control and tire management. Winner Tony Stewart passed Jimmie Johnson for the lead with three laps to go and Jeff Gordon was third in 2011. They’ve combined to win 12 Cup championships and it says plenty about who wins at Martinsville.

 
What race are you least excited about?
 
Talladega :: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

ANDERSON
Any of the races that come down to fuel mileage. Yes, I’m fudging on this, but I’m simply not a fan of winning races based on fuel mileage. Slowing down to save fuel in the closing laps is hardly my idea of heart-pounding racing. The place where this is most likely to happen -- based on history -- is at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 21.

ESTES
Texas. All five of the 1.5-mile tracks in the Chase have deficiencies when it comes to generating excitement, but three of them have the courtesy to be only 400 miles in length. Texas and Charlotte drag out the monotony for an extra 100 miles, though at least Charlotte tries to spice things up a bit by having the only Saturday night race in the Chase.

LONG
None. They’ll all feature their little subplots and subtleties. The key moments might not always be obvious, but they’ll be there throughout these next 10 weeks.

McCARTNEY
Talladega. The restrictor-plate track is a crapshoot and since it was moved to the latter part of the season in 1997, no eventual champ has won there; four times in the Chase era, the victor hasn’t even been a part of the playoff.

TUTTLE
Talladega. The final two laps on NASCAR’s biggest track (2.66 miles) don’t need a green-white-checkered to be wild and unpredictable, drivers across the track searching for the right drafting partner and the fast line, but it’s a high-speed bore until then. Track position means very little -- 29 of the 43 starters led and there were 72 lead changes in last year’s Chase race -- and drivers only race hard to get to the front to see what they have for speed, then fall back and try to stay out of trouble.  It’s not a total waste of the afternoon, but it’s a long afternoon of riding to finally see some good racing at the end.

 
Who is your dark horse title favorite?
 
Brad Keselowski :: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

ANDERSON
Brad Keselowski. Though his team owner Roger Penske has never won a Cup title, Keselowski should have a shot this fall. He’s won three races in 2012 and tends to be a streaky driver, taking checkered flags in bunches. If he gets hot, he could win as many as three times over the final ten weeks of the season.

ESTES
Clint Bowyer. He is carrying some serious momentum into the Chase with five top-10 finishes in the past six races, including a victory this past Saturday at Richmond. And there is no doubt that Michael Waltrip Racing has broken into the upper-tier of Sprint Cup teams, with both Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. in the Chase. That gives MWR more Chase drivers than Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress and Roger Penske, who all have one driver each.

LONG
Kasey Kahne. He’s had the speed most of the year and overcame his slow start to make the Chase. He had seven consecutive top-10 finishes earlier this season with five of those races at tracks that will host Chase tracks. Many fans will overlook him but they shouldn’t. He could very well win this championship.

McCARTNEY
Jeff Gordon. He enters the Chase as the 12th seed and has just one victory in his last 37 starts, but he also heads into the playoff on fire. The last three races he’s been third, second and second and in all has nine finishes of seventh or better in the last 15 events. He’s also bringing back the mustache of his Wonder Boy days.

TUTTLE
Brad Keselowski. He was a surprising fifth in the Chase a year ago and has cemented his elite status among Cup drivers with three victories and fifth in the points in the regular season. Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe are in their second season together and they’ve shown the ability to run better when they go back to a track for the second and third time. That pattern should continue in their second season in the Chase.
 
Who is your favorite to win the championship?
 
Jimmie Johnson :: Tyler Barrick/Getty Images

ANDERSON
Jimmie Johnson. As long as the Chase schedule stays as it is, Johnson will be considered the favorite for the foreseeable future because -- unlike every other driver in the sport -- he doesn’t have a weak track in the playoffs. He’s also had the fastest car for the majority of the season (witness his series-high 1,033 laps led) and he and his crew chief Chad Knaus rarely make mistakes when it matters most. If Johnson doesn’t win the Cup for the sixth time in seven years, I’d consider it an upset.

ESTES
Denny Hamlin. The easy answer -- and probably the smart one -- is Jimmie Johnson. But oftentimes in sports you have to lose a championship before you can win one. That’s basically what happened to Johnson, who lost the 2004 title to Kurt Busch by only eight points before winning his first championship two years later. Hamlin came up just short to Johnson in 2010 and then struggled through a lackluster 2011, but he has bounced back strong this year. With Kyle Busch out of the Chase, Joe Gibbs Racing can devote all of its energy toward securing Hamlin his first Cup championship.

LONG
Greg Biffle. No title contender had a better average finish in the eight events this season at tracks that will host Chase races. He’s been strong for much of the year on the 1.5-mile tracks. He’s also shown an ability to string a number of good runs together. Many will overlook but shouldn’t.

McCARTNEY
Jimmie Johnson. The five-time champ may head into the playoff coming off his worst two-race stretch of the season (34th at Atlanta and 13th at Richmond), but he and Chad Knaus and Co. are made for the tracks that matter. Outside of Talladega (restrictor plates are the Kryptonite to J.J.’s Superman), he’s averaged a 5.7 finish on Chase tracks this season, including a win at Dover. Look for J.J. to move within one of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s record seven titles.

TUTTLE
Jimmie Johnson. He fell to sixth a year ago after an extraordinary run of five straight championship-winning seasons. The performance level undoubtedly produced some additional fire in the belly of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus and it showed in the regular season. Johnson’s 12 top-fives led and 17 top-10s tied teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. for most in the series despite five DNFs. Johnson’s three wins tied Brad Keselowski for second to Denny Hamlin’s four. Johnson and Knaus have everything in place to take a sixth championship.

 

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