After 26 weeks it all comes down to the next 10 to determine this year’s Sprint Cup champion. And while it may be said at this time every year, this truly feels like the deepest field in the history of the Chase. Jeff Gordon, who squeaked into NASCAR’s playoff in the final week of the regular season, has just as good a chance as Denny Hamlin, who is red-hot with two wins in his last three races and a Cup-high four wins this season. The points were reset to include three bonus points for each win, so it’s probably only fair to reset the power rankings after the first Chase race. So, instead of listing the 10 hottest drivers, let’s take a look at the championship contenders into Chase race No. 1 at Chicagoland:
Denny Hamlin (2012 points) – During his visit to Concord, N.H., on Tuesday, Hamlin looked loose and relaxed – but he also had a certain air of confidence. He looked focused and ready to finish off what he started in 2010. It was “The Magic Mile” not Chicagoland that was the site of the first race in the Chase two years ago, and while the 1.5-mile tri-oval hasn’t been a particularly kind track to Hamlin (19.2 average finish), don’t look for the No. 11 FedEx Toyota driver to use that as in excuse in his title chase.
Tony Stewart (2009 points) – The defending champion has the field right where he wants them. Outside of a fourth-place finish last week at Richmond, Stewart had previous finishes of 19th, 32nd, 27th and 22nd. That’s a worse average finish over the last five races before the Chase than he had entering last year's playoff. But he turned it all around with a victory at Chicagoland, and given his history there – three wins in 11 starts – it’s a safe bet he can do it again on Sunday.
Brad Keselowski (2009 points) – There might not be a more dangerous driver in Chase. Sure, Hamlin has more wins than any other driver, but Keselowski seems to be a threat to win almost every week. But keep in mind he got hot at this time last year, too, before fading in the Chase. That experience should pay dividends this time around. Chicagoland could be a challenge, as he has just three starts there, but he did finish off one of those with a top-five.
Jimmie Johnson (2009 points) – At the end of July you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone that didn’t think Johnson was on his way to a sixth championship. But since winning at Indy on July 29, which capped off a string of nine top-10s (four wins) in 11 races, Mr. Five Time has had a string of bad luck that has made his team look very mortal. Johnson has never won at Chicagoland, but eight top-10s in 10 career starts should give him enough confidence to right the ship and begin the drive for five six.
Greg Biffle (2006 points) – See what consistency gets you? The best average finish (9.7) on the circuit this year and his reward is a drop from first to fifth in points. But The Biff has been able to find victory lane on more than one occasion this year, hence his six bonus points, and it’s likely to take at least two wins to crown this year’s champion. Given his history, it’s not likely that he’ll be burning tires down the frontstretch at Chicagoland (one top-10 in nine starts), but stranger things have happened.
Clint Bowyer (2006 points) – When talking about a deep field, Bowyer tends to get lost in the shuffle. But with two wins, including last week at Richmond, and a string of strong finishes over the past two months, Bowyer has to be given more respect than what he’s being shown by most NASCAR pundits. He’ll turn heads awfully fast if he can find victory lane this weekend at Chicagoland, a track he’s never won at before but has been very solid at with five top-10s in six starts.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2003 points) – One of only two drivers to have a top-10 average finish (9.9), Junior has shown the consistent piloting needed to make the playoffs. Now he needs to find the next gear to make him a champion. Only Tony Stewart in 2005 has won the Chase without recording a victory in the final 10 races, so it’s likely Junior is going to need at least another win to have a shot at the title. And it could come at Chicagoland, a track he won at, ironically enough, back in 2005.
Matt Kenseth (2003 points) – Since the Chase began back in 2004, Kenseth has found victory lane during the final 10 races of the season only twice. That’s a pretty staggering stat for a guy that has 15 wins since NASCAR adopted the playoff system. Kenseth always seems to find himself running near the front late in races, but he’s going to need to do more than check off top-fives – he had five last year in the Chase and finished fourth in the standings. Getting off to a good start at Chicagoland would be huge, especially given his history there (four top-10s in 11 starts)
Kevin Harvick (2000 points) – It’s hard to believe that Mr. Happy is even in the Chase. No wins, four top-fives, 11 top 10s – all of which rank last among Chase drivers. Yet here he is, with a reset points standing and as good a chance to win the championship as anyone. But how realistic is that chance? Pretty good, actually, considering he has seven top-10s, including two wins in seven-career starts at Chicagoland.
Martin Truex Jr. (2000 points) – Maybe the biggest dark horse in the Chase, Truex should be the most even-keel entering the playoff. He’s not expected to win so he has absolutely nothing to lose. That’s the mindset he needs to take as he gets behind the wheel of his No. 56 NAPA Toyota. No pressure, just drive. Chicagoland hasn’t been a particularly strong track in the past – his best finish was ninth back in 2008 – but this has been an atypical season for Truex, so you can throw history out the window.
Kasey Kahne (2000 points, wild card) – Take a quick peek back to last year’s final 10 races and Kahne could actually be considered the favorite entering this year’s playoff. After a dismal season with Red Bull Racing, Kahne turned it on over the final 10 races, becoming extremely relevant despite being a non-entity as far as the Chase was concerned. Kahne won once and finished in the top-five a total of five times, something he had done only three times in the previous 26 races. He did, however, finish 12th at Chicagoland, a track he owns just one top-five in eight career starts.
Jeff Gordon (2000 points, wild card) – Assuming the bad luck is behind him, Gordon has looked invigorated over the last three months. With just three finishes outside the top-six in the last 12 races, Gordon could be this year’s Tony Stewart. He was determined to not miss the Chase, and now that he’s in it don’t expect him to let off the gas and be satisfied with simply being a participant in the playoff. Chicagoland (win and seven top-10s in 11 starts) should give the 24 team a perfect starting point in his drive for a fifth title.
Rankings and opinions are expressed solely of the writer.