September 18, 2009
Experts' Picks: Chase
My Pick: Jimmie Johnson
Why he'll win: Unlike the previous two seasons, Johnson enters the Chase with little momentum. He's only had one top-10 finish in the last six races, but I think it's still Johnson's championship to lose. There's not a single track in the Chase at which Johnson struggles and his crew chief Chad Knaus is simply the best in the business. No NASCAR driver in history has ever won four titles in a row, but it says here history will be made in ten weeks.
Keep an eye on: Carl Edwards -- Though all of the Roush-Fenway Fords have struggled this season, Jack Roush isn't concerned. I had a long chat with him in Atlanta two weeks ago and he was confident that his team would peak starting in New Hampshire. And Edwards is a bit like Johnson in that he runs well on the tracks in the Chase.
Best of the rest: Kyle Busch -- Now that he doesn't have to worry about points, expect Busch to take plenty of risks and go harder than ever for checkered flags. Don't be surprised if he wins two or three races over the next two-and-half months.
My Pick: Jimmie Johnson
Why he'll win: I keep reading that any idiot can pick him ... so I will, without hesitation. Besides having one of the fastest cars in Cup, as well as one of the best teams, Johnson is money at most of the tracks that make up the Chase. Until somebody beats him, I see no reason to pick against him.
Keep an eye on: Tony Stewart -- Okay, so he's one of the favorites, but let's be honest--nobody is going to win this thing who doesn't have the talent, resources and the team. Stewart's entire career is a testament to his talent. His team's affiliation with Hendrick Motorsports ensures that he will have the resources. And his first-year crew, led by chief Darien Grubb, proved all season that they are capable winners.
Best of the rest: Kyle Busch -- You think the Shrub won't be motivated over the last 10 races? Look for him to put the hammer down starting Sunday at New Hampshire.
My Pick: Jimmie Johnson
Why he'll win: Just because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean it'll never be done. In English, that means the No. 48 is primed and ready for a run at four straight titles. They've led more laps than anyone else this season (1,252), know how to succeed under this format, and slid under the radar in August with a "go for broke" attitude where those poor finishes didn't reflect how they ran. NASCAR may not want it, the fans may not like it, but this team continues to be the one to beat.
Keep an eye on: Mark Martin -- It's hard to call the point leader a darkhorse, but Martin certainly qualifies after the bad luck throughout his career make some hesitant to believe he'll win a title. But the four-time championship runner-up has the best attitude of his career to go with arguably the best equipment. If the veteran can shake 30 years' worth of his own gremlins, the No. 5 team just might be able to give teammate Johnson a run for their money.
Best of the rest: Kyle Busch -- After falling just eight points short of the 12-car field, last year's regular season points champ has something to prove. I wouldn't be surprised if he wins three times, similar to Tony Stewart's late-season surge after missing the Chase in 2006 (the year after winning his second title).
My Pick: Jimmie Johnson
Why he'll win: Yes, the defending three-time champion enters this Chase more flat-footed than any of his other title drives - winless since Indianapolis with just one top 10 in his last six races since - but the 10-race playoffs are still chocked with tracks where he excels. Yes, he is due some bad luck/misfortune after some amazing autumn charges since 2004 (when he finished second to Kurt Busch for the title by eight points). But no, none of these extraneous details will stop him from winning a NASCAR-record fourth-straight title..
Keep an eye on: Jeff Gordon -- Admittedly, it's difficult to declare a four-time champion and yearly contender like Jeff Gordon a dark horse. But his mischievous smile on Thursday indicated he might agree, or at least hope he's taken that way. Gordon's droning level of consistency isn't nearly as compelling as some of the other storylines in this interesting Chase field. But his 12 top-fives and six runner-up finishes (to go with one win) reveal a driver very much in the fray entering a stretch when being in a position to pounce is imperative.
Best of the rest: Kyle Busch --There can be no choice but Kyle Busch. But he might get there with five wins and five DNFs. Busch, like Tony Stewart -- who failed to qualify for the Chase as defending champion in 2006 -- is freed of points-racing pressure and liberated to make victory the only objective every weekend. Stewart won three races that way in 2006. Busch certainly would love to share some podium time with the Chasers and his high risk/reward style will undoubtedly inject him into the weekly discussion among drivers he's making nervous.
My Pick: Tony Stewart
Why he'll win: So, I'm sticking with a front-runner on this one but Stewart is having a magical season as an owner/driver and with a championship in his sites, he will pick up the pace and close out the season with his third Cup championship. Stewart has proven he knows how to win under the old points system with his 2002 Cup title and the current Chase format when to claimed the crown in 2005. Although Jimmie Johnson has enjoyed a record-tying three Cup titles in a row, at some point the streak has to end.
Keep an eye on: Mark Martin -- He's not so much a darkhorse as a sentimental pick. The 50-year-old driver has his last best hope of finally claiming a Cup championship as a member of Hendrick Motorsports. Martin would become a NASCAR version of former NFL quarterback John Elway if he were able to finally win the championship towards the end of his career.
Best of the rest: Kyle Busch -- He missed the Chase by eight points and without having to worry about the points, it allows him to do what he does best which is race for victories. If Busch finds victory lane two or three times during the final 10 races, then 13th place will belong to the driver of the No. 18.
My Pick: Tony Stewart
Why he'll win: Tony Stewart went into a mild slump in the final four races of the regular season, finishing 11th or worse, but don't let that deceive you. He was safely in the Chase by then and he and crew chief Darian Grubb may have been experimenting with chassis setups. For 26 races, Stewart was Sprint Cup's best driver, averaging 9.1 per finish. At the eight tracks in the Chase that Cup has been to previously this year, Stewart has five top-fives. He has the type of up-front consistency that it takes to win the championship.
Keep an eye on: Kurt Busch -- The elder Busch was solid all season and had four of his seven top-fives at tracks that are in the Chase--third at New Hampshire and Phoenix, fifth at Dover and Auto Club in California. Plus, he was sixth at Talladega and eighth at Texas, two more Chase tracks. Crew chief Pat Tryson's decision to leave for Michael Waltrip's team following the season shouldn't be a distraction. The story came out last weekend prior to the race at Richmond and Busch finished second.
Best of the rest: Kyle Busch -- Kyle Busch starts the Chase 13th in points and it's where he'll finish it. He'll drive the final 10 races like he did the opening 26, win first, worry about points later, but even more on the edge because the points will matter even less. Look for Busch to add two or three wins to the four he already has, but the sheet-metal damage total may go up too.

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