After three weeks into the Chase, we know one thing for sure and that's that we know anything for certain.
...(I'll pause while you read that over again.)
Usually, at three weeks into the Chase, the contenders have started to weed themselves out from the also rans. Whether it's the change in the scoring system or just an even field of drivers, that hasn't happened this year.
Nine of 12 drivers sit within a competitive 19 points of first. Who will win is up for debate!
Let's start with the few things we can take for granted. These are the guys that have already headed back to the garage:
- Denny Hamlin's already 68 points back, hasn't finished better than 18th in the three Chase races and, aside from a win at Michigan, he hasn't been the same driver he was last year at any point in 2011.
- Ryan Newman needed a strong showing here at NHMS, where he's been great over the years. After a good start in the SYLVANIA 300, he finished a lap down in 25th place and, at 41 points back, he won't make that ground back up.
- With an apology to all of Junior Nation, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the third and final Chaser no longer on the track for a championship. Optimism shone through the clouds for the 88 when he kicked off the Chase with a third-place finish at Chicagoland. Keep in mind, however, that several drivers in front of him ran out of gas and he has just two top-10s in the last 15 races (that finish included). Sorry to all those clinging on to hope, but a championship run isn't under the hood of the No. 88 this year.
Other than those three, you could make a case for anyone that they're a legitimate title contender.
-Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards lead the points and have been models of consistency all season.
-Tony Stewart won the first two races before slipping to nine points back at Dover.
-The Busch brothers, Kurt (-9) and Kyle (-15), put together strong runs at Dover, with Kurt taking the win, to reaffirm their presence.
-Brad Kesewloski and Matt Kenseth are tied at -14, where they look to play their usual snake in the grass role of sneaking up when you're not looking for them.
Lastly, there are the two cars from Hendrick Motorsports that have combined for a total of nine championships. Jeff Gordon's never won under the Chase format and is the farthest back at -19, but he's been having one of his best all-around seasons in recent memory.
Then, there's this guy Jimmie Johnson that everyone was hoping to discount, until he dominated at Dover and finished second to jump within 13 points of the Chase lead. I've been told that, according to sources, the No. 48 car can be dangerous this time of year!
In a muddled field of Chase traffic, the only thing that we can determine for certain is that nobody will be running away with the championship. For NASCAR, that was the whole idea of the Chase, right?
It originally designed the format to maintain excitement throughout the last race of the season. It's also redesigned the cars to be uniformly similar, and, this past season, revamped the points system. The redesign in the points was intended to make it easier to score, and while some thought it would hurt drivers with poor finishes (Hamlin can attest to that), it also ensures that the top finishers aren't able to pull to far away from the pack.
Stewart is a great example of someone that won two Chase races, but, thanks to a poor finish at Dover, he's now only gained three points on Harvick from where they began the Chase.
So go ahead, make a case for why your favorite driver will win this year. It's far from me to argue that you'll be wrong (unless it's Dale Jr., as I mentioned). Consistency is even more paramount in the new format than years past. When it comes to consistency this late in the season, as much as some might want to ignore, no one is better than the No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson.
He's still the car to beat this time of year, but there are eight other contenders right now that are making a great case it could be any one of them. Until that checkered flag flies at Homestead, I have a feeling we just won't know who will get to hoist the Sprint Cup trophy.