Racing writers Lars Anderson, Cory McCartney, Bruce Martin, Brant James, Tim Tuttle and Dustin Long make their picks for Sprint Cup's second season. (Send comments to email@example.com)
Which driver will have a breakout Chase season?
Kevin Liles-US PRESSWIRE
Tuttle Kyle Busch. Though he's had several strong regular seasons, he's underperformed in all of his four Chases. Busch is winless in those 50 races and his top finish was fifth in 2007. He'll put those seasons behind him with a win or two and finish in the top three in the points. Busch's growing maturity has shown on and off the track this season and he should understand the benefits of keeping his cool in the Chase.
McCartney Brad Keselowski. It's not just because he's the only first-timer in the playoff field. Seriously, who has been hotter? Before his 12th place at Richmond, Keselowski hadn't finished outside of the top nine since mid-July and along the way picked up two wins and six top-10s. He's also won on two of the Chase tracks (Kansas and Talladega) and took the pole at Charlotte. Don't expect any jitters from Brad K.
Martin Brad Keselowski. He easily secured one of the two wild-card positions with three victories, and would have been seeded higher had he made into the top 10. Keselowski has become one of NASCAR's best drivers in the last six weeks. His team is peaking at the right time and should be a factor in the Chase.
Anderson Jeff Gordon. Hard to peg a four-time champion for a "breakout" Chase, but this will be Gordon's best shot at winning a title under the 10-race playoff format -- something he's never done. I expect him to win at least one race, consistently finish in the top 10 and be a significant factor in the season-finale at Homestead.
James Kyle Busch. A breakout from the point position doesn't seem like such a feat, but Busch has foundered in previous Chases. He's been undone by mechanical issues, misfortune and, subsequently, his lack of mental toughness, but outwardly, he seems more prepared to contest a first championship. Granted, a placid facade isn't such a feat during good times, and he's had plenty this season. Busch's reaction to the inevitable first bit of adversity will go far in revealing his real title prospects.
Long Kyle Busch. Provided he can get through the first couple of Chase races without any issues, he could finally contend for a title.
Who will be the biggest Chase flop?
ASP/Cal Sport Media
Tuttle Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior and crew chief Steve Letarte started strongly in their first season together, but they barely held on to 10th in the points to make the Chase. Earnhardt had one top-10 -- ninth at Pocono -- in the final 12 races. The rest were 14th or worse. Earnhardt's three top-fives, including second places at Kansas and Martinsville in the first 13 races, are a distant memory and the Chase is a very difficult environment in which to turn the season around.
McCartney Kurt Busch. The former Chase winner (2004) has qualified for the playoff six times, has wins in seven of the final 10 tracks and he's coming off consecutive top-five finishes. That being said, is there anyone who feels like Busch's head is in competing for the championship right now? Until he can prove that he's able to put his feud with Jimmie Johnson aside, it's hard to imagine Busch contending.
Martin Dale Earnhardt Jr. His team has been in a tailspin since the end of June and barely made it into the Chase. Don't expect much from NASCAR's most popular driver as he makes his first appearance in the Chase since 2008.
Anderson Dale Earnhardt Jr. For the better part of two months, Earnhardt has been a mid-pack driver. He and his crew chief Steve Letarte keep saying they're saving their best cars for the Chase, but in the first seven years of the playoff format, no driver who has floundered over the summer has come on strong in the fall. Don't think that trend will change over the next 10 weeks.
James Dale Earnhardt Jr. While legitimate title contenders discussed momentum and how to grasp it in the final regular-season events, NASCAR's most popular driver was forced to mull defending one of the final two transfer spots. His performance -- no top-fives in his last 13 races -- didn't allow him any other options. In the Chase for the first time since 2008, he begins in 10th position, 12 points off Busch's lead. That distance seems further considering the fact that Earnhardt hasn't won a race since that same campaign. But there is a glimmer. Tony Stewart won a championship without a Chase victory in 2005, and Earnhardt has finished well this season at several Chase venues.
Long None. Certainly with the expectations on Jeff Gordon, he could be if he doesn't challenge for the title.
Race you're most looking forward to?
Stephen A. Arce ASP/Icon SMI
Tuttle Martinsville. It's old school NASCAR racing, short track nudging and banging at its best. Sprint Cup's foundation was built on Martinsville and similar tracks and it brings great tradition to the Chase. Double-file restarts have added a wilder dimension to the final 20 laps.
McCartney Talladega. Typically, I'm not fond of the restrictor-plate track being in the playoff; it's too much of a wild card to say it should have an impact on who wins the title. But in the age of the two-car draft, it should lead to some of the most interesting racing of the Chase. Who will team up with who? Will title contenders be willing to push each other, a la Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in April? It should be riveting.
Martin Phoenix. The next to last race in the Chase has been a great indicator of who will win the championship. Last year, Denny Hamlin's pit stop gamble failed and allowed Jimmie Johnson to dramatically cut into Hamlin's advantage. The following week, Johnson was able to win his fifth-straight championship in a dramatic three-driver battle that also included Kevin Harvick. Phoenix, and not the final race at Homestead, is where the championship is decided.
Anderson Homestead-Miami. There's nothing in NASCAR that can match the buzz and excitement level you sense on pit road in the minutes before the engines fire at the Chase's finale at Homestead. One of the most challenging aspects of this sport is its duration: 36 points-paying events. But the nine-month grind is also what makes the last race so special.
James Phoenix. It is to the Chase what the Alps are to the Tour de France. The true contenders divest themselves from the peloton for the glorified parade to Homestead.
Long Phoenix. The track has been repaved and reconfigured and some drivers are saying that this race, the penultimate one in the Chase, is the true wild card because no one will be able to go off notes from previous events there.
Race you're least excited about?
Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
Tuttle Dover. The Monster Mile hasn't had much passing for the lead in the closing laps in the past five races. Matt Kenseth led the final 32 and won by 2.1 seconds in May. Jimmy Johnson and Kyle Busch each led the last 35 laps in their 2010 wins and Johnson was in front for the final 225 in his Chase victory in 2009. You have to go back to the first 2009 race, when Johnson passed Tony Stewart with three to go to win, for an exciting finish.
McCartney Homestead-Miami. Last season we had three drivers within 46 points of each other battling for the title, but more often than not the final event of the season has been anticlimactic; more a victory parade than a race. Maybe we'll be in for another tight finish, but history tells us otherwise as the leader has had at least an 86-point advantage at the finale in three of the last four years.
Martin Kansas Speedway. With all due respect to my friends at this track, it's just another one of the 1.5-mile ovals that dominate the Chase schedule. And because it falls in the first half of the Chase schedule, this track determines the drivers who will drop out of contention more than those who will ultimately battle for the title.
Anderson None. I'd like to see a road course event in the Chase, but other than that, I think the schedule is fair and compelling.
James Talladega. It's a roulette wheel with race cars. A game of chance shouldn't have the opportunity to ruin a title run built on skill and execution.
Long None. You never know what is going to happen at any of them. If you did, there'd be no reason to run the races.
Who is your dark horse title favorite?
Kevin Liles-US PRESSWIRE
Tuttle Brad Keselowski. He went from a nonentity in the Race for the Chase to championship contender with three wins in the last 14 races. In the final nine, Keselowski had two victories, a second, third, sixth, seventh and ninth to build up serious momentum. He and crew chief Paul Wolfe, in his first year in Sprint Cup, probably don't have the experience to win the championship, but they'll make a run at it.
McCartney Denny Hamlin. At one point it looked like many an expert's preseason favorite wouldn't even make the Chase, but when he needed to, he rattled off three consecutive finishes of ninth or better to win the wild card, building nice momentum going into the playoffs. A year after coming oh-so-close to knocking off Johnson, Hamlin isn't dealing with anywhere near that kind of pressure. That makes him dangerous.
Martin Matt Kenseth. Seeded fourth in the standings with two victories, Kenseth has had a quiet season because of his under-the-radar demeanor. But don't be fooled by the lack of attention. He has all the qualities of a contender.
Anderson Kurt Busch. Though Busch's No. 22 Dodge doesn't possess the raw speed that Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards all flash, Busch is capable of stringing together 10 consecutive top-10 finishes. Even if he doesn't win a race, that could be enough to win the championship.
James Jeff Gordon. He has three wins, has made history on a weekly basis and as he attempts to take back his legacy from the force he unleashed upon Sprint Cup, he'll be a legit contender.
Long Matt Kenseth. Everyone is overlooking him. Don't fall into the trap.
Who is your title favorite?
Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
Tuttle Jeff Gordon. He roared into the Chase with a win and two third-place finishes in the last three races and has two wins, six top-threes and 11 top-10s in the last 14. He's clicked with crew chief Alan Gustafson in their first season together. Gordon's last championship was in 2001 and a decade later, he has the speed in the Hendrick Motorsports' Chevrolets to win his fifth.
McCartney Jimmie Johnson. There's a reason he's been so unbeatable on the 10 tracks that make up the playoffs. At seven of those venues, Johnson's average finish ranks among the top three for active drivers, something none of his challengers can equal. Just like the last five seasons, this one will end with confetti raining down on J.J.
Martin Jimmie Johnson. Until proven otherwise, this is the driver the other 11 in the Chase will focus on because no driver/crew chief/team combination understands what it takes to win under this format more than Johnson and his crew. And while it would be great to pick a new champion such as Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick or Carl Edwards, until someone is able to beat Jimmie's team in the unique Chase format, he remains the championship favorite.
Anderson Jimmie Johnson. The five-time defending champ is our pick at the magazine to win the championship. The schedule sets up beautifully for Johnson -- he doesn't have a weak track in the Chase -- and he's once again peaking at the perfect time. It says here he narrowly out-races Gordon, Edwards and Kyle Busch to win the Cup in the closest championship battle since the Chase format was adopted in 2004.
James Jimmie Johnson. He is the king until he is the king no more. Having won five straight titles under various circumstances and scenarios, he enters the playoffs on a spate of strong finishes with more experience winning titles than anyone else in the field. He's one big trophy away from being in position to tie NASCAR's once-unattainable milestone of seven championships, which is shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. And he figures to approach all that with less pressure than most of his Chase competitors. Celebrating his 36th birthday at the Chase opener in Chicago on Saturday, he figures to have several title runs left in him.
Long Jeff Gordon. It's hard to go against the speed he's shown and his ability to get to the front. Track position is critical and he qualifies well, giving him a head start in some races. Also, his pit crew has been solid. The pairing of Gordon with crew chief Alan Gustafson could lead to a title.
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