1. JIMMIE JOHNSON
Hendrick Motorsports, number 48
Chevy. Regular-season finish: 2nd
WINS: 1 TOP 5s: 11 TOP 10s: 17
September 18, 2011
BOTTOM LINE: After slumping earlier this season, the five-time defending champion is peaking at the perfect moment: He has finished in the top five in six of the last nine races. Johnson should win at least two races in the Chase—most likely at Dover (Del.) International Speedway on Oct. 2 and Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on Oct. 30—and charge to a sixth title.
2. CARL EDWARDS
Roush Fenway, number 99 Ford.
Regular-season finish: 3rd
WINS: 1 TOP 5s: 12 TOP 10s: 17
BOTTOM LINE: Inside the Cup garage, Edwards is considered the top racer on 1.5-mile tracks. With five of the 10 Chase races at those intermediate-length venues, Edwards should be in title contention entering the season finale at Homestead (a 1.5-mile layout). His biggest obstacle will be avoiding the Big One at Talladega—something he wasn't able to do when he lost the title to Johnson by 69 points in 2008.
3. JEFF GORDON
Hendrick Motorsports, number 24
Chevy. Regular-season finish: 4th
WINS: 3 TOP 5s: 10 TOP 10s: 14
BOTTOM LINE: A four-time Cup champion, the 40-year-old Gordon has never won a title under the Chase format—but this season he has his best chance. He has more victories already this year than in the last three combined (one). Gordon should be particularly fast at Martinsville (where he has seven career victories) and Phoenix International Raceway (where he won in February).
4. KYLE BUSCH
Joe Gibbs Racing, number 18 Toyota.
Regular-season finish: 1st
WINS: 4 TOP 5s: 13 TOP 10s: 16
BOTTOM LINE: Busch tied with Kevin Harvick for the most regular-season wins, but he has never performed at a high level in the 10-race playoffs. In his four previous Chases, his average finish in the final standings has been 8.25. His biggest problem? A lack of patience behind the wheel. If he can become as cunning and calculating as Johnson, Busch could very well win his first title.
5. MATT KENSETH
Roush Fenway, number 17 Ford.
Regular-season finish: 6th
WINS: 2 TOP 5s: 7 TOP 10s: 14
BOTTOM LINE: Many veterans in the Cup garage believe that Kenseth will be the driver who ends Johnson's title reign. Why? Because like Johnson, Kenseth almost never beats himself by wrecking and always gets the most out of his car. Look for him to be strong on the 1.5-mile tracks.
6. BRAD KESELOWSKI
Penske Racing, number 2 Dodge.
Regular-season finish: 11th
WINS: 3 TOP 5s: 6 TOP 10s: 10
BOTTOM LINE: After a quiet first half of the season, Keselowski turned heads in August, winning twice and ripping off two other top three runs. The 27-year-old former Nationwide champ seems to improve with every race. Watch him closely on Oct. 23 at Talladega, where he won in 2009 in his fifth career Cup start.
7. KURT BUSCH
Penske Racing, number 22 Dodge.
Regular-season finish: 7th
WINS: 1 TOP 5s: 7 TOP 10s: 14
BOTTOM LINE: Aside from his feud with Jimmie Johnson—which still has not been settled—Busch has had a relatively quiet season. But the 2004 champ is capable of reeling off 10 solid races. Busch's best shot at winning the title will be to string together one top five finish after another.
8. DALE EARNHARDT JR.
Hendrick Motorsports, number 88
Chevy. Regular-season finish: 10th
WINS: 0 TOP 5s: 3 TOP 10s: 9
BOTTOM LINE: Earnhardt returns to the Chase after a two-year absence—but the expectations for the sport's most popular driver are low. Earnhardt still hasn't won a race since June 2008 and has been a middle-of-the-packer for much of '11. But he's always a threat at Talladega, where he has five career wins.
9. RYAN NEWMAN
Stewart-Haas Racing, number 39
Chevy. Regular-season finish: 8th
WINS: 1 TOP 5s: 8 TOP 10s: 13
BOTTOM LINE: It would be an upset if Newman seriously contended for his first Cup title, but he'll most likely be the driver to beat in the second Chase race, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. All Newman did at that 1.058-mile oval in July was sit on the pole, lead a race-high 119 laps and cruise to the checkered flag.
10. KEVIN HARVICK
Richard Childress Racing, number 29
Chevy. Regular-season finish: 5th
WINS: 4 TOP 5s: 7 TOP 10s: 13
BOTTOM LINE: After winning three of the first 12 races of 2011, Harvick had only two top fives over a string of 14 events. But after a convincing win last Saturday in Richmond, it appears Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin have again found the proper balance in their car. If they can keep it, the driver nicknamed the Closer may produce a surprise stretch run.
11. TONY STEWART
Stewart-Haas, number 14 Chevy.
Regular-season finish: 9th
WINS: 0 TOP 5s: 3 TOP 10s: 11
BOTTOM LINE: Stewart didn't qualify for the Chase until last Saturday at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, where he finished seventh. This has been a disappointing season for the two-time Cup champion—he has yet to win a race—and even he has admitted that he'd be surprised if he is much of a factor in the Chase.
12. DENNY HAMLIN
Joe Gibbs Racing, number 11 Toyota.
Regular-season finish: 12th
WINS: 1 TOP 5s: 4 TOP 10s: 10
BOTTOM LINE: After winning eight races and finishing second in the points race to Johnson in 2010, Hamlin looked poised to dethrone the champ at the start of this season. But it's not going to happen. Hamlin has fought a poor-handling car for much of the summer, which is a problem that rarely is fixed quickly in NASCAR.