NASCAR's new championship format is designed to open the window of opportunity for more drivers to have a shot at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup. It's supposed to make things more unpredictable, and for prognosticators like myself, it's just that: harder to predict.
Gone are the days where you can pick the Chase field simply by standings and maybe a few inconsistent Wild Cards that tend to make regular visits to victory lane. This year, a win with a top-30 standing is about all a driver needs to make the Chase, which means that there could be a real underdog or two in championship contention.
In the past three years, David Ragan, Marcos Ambrose and Regan Smith would have made it in 2011, Ambrose in 2012, and Ragan in 2013. They might not have made it past the first ("Challenger") round, but they would have made it nonetheless.
That makes this year's Chase field much harder to predict.
Let's start with the drivers that are easiest to guarantee and move into the question marks:
These drivers tend to win multiple races each season and should lock up Chase berths early in the season. It won't be a question of "if," just "when."
Jimmie Johnson - Pigs could fly; unicorns could come out the N.H. woods; Johnson could go winless this season. However, that would be most unlikely. It would be a first in a 12-year career that's turned out six championships and included at least two wins in each season. He'll win races, he'll make the Chase, and he'll be there at Homestead in a position to win Number Seven.
Kyle Busch - Like Johnson, Busch has never gone a full season without at least a race win. He seemed to take a big step forward last year when it came to his consistency, and a new system that puts more emphasis on wining will cater to Busch's aggressive approach.
Matt Kenseth - By leading the series with seven wins last season, Kenseth exuded an immediate chemistry with his new team at Joe Gibbs Racing. It's hard to imagine he'll go from seven wins to zero, but it wouldn't be unprecedented (Carl Edwards went from nine to zero from 2008 to '09).
Tony Stewart - A healthy Stewart wins races. He's entering his 16th season and he's won at least one in each of the first 15 years, it stands a chance that trend continues.
Denny Hamlin - This seems to be somewhat of a Hail Mary for a lock, but Hamlin's win at Homestead last year kept alive his streak of eight straight seasons with a win to start his Cup career. He also won the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday, so it looks like his 2013 back injury is (no pun intended) behind him.
These drivers aren't a guaranteed to win a race, but have each shown the ability to win with regularity.
Kurt Busch - The shift to a new team is always a question mark. That said, considering Busch made the Chase with the underfunded, single-car team at Furniture Row Racing, he should be better with an organization that's just two years removed from a championship. He could be a top contender this year.
Kevin Harvick - With the media's spotlights shining on teammates like Stewart, Kurt Busch, and Danica Patrick, it's likely that Harvick will quietly be one of the most successful drivers in the field. He's finished third in three of the last four Chases, which means he could be a big beneficiary of the new Chase system that resets the standings before the final race.
Carl Edwards - There are seasons when Edwards has looked like he could unseat Johnson as the top driver in NASCAR, and there are seasons like 2012 when he doesn't even make the Chase. He did finish first in the regular season in points last year, so if he can race with that consistency, he'll be in the Chase. However, he needs to get back to his 2008 dominance, when he won nine races, if he's going to win a title.
Brad Keselowski - In winning a championship at the age of 28 in 2012, Keselowski looked like he could become the next big thing in NASCAR. He followed it up by missing the Chase. He'll need to get back to winning races (he didn't win one in 2013 until October), if he wants to get back to elite status.
Kasey Kahne - He's not the most consistent driver, but Kahne's won two races in four of the last six seasons. That will get him a Chase spot this year.
Some of these drivers will win races, others will simply be among the top in points among the non-winners. Most should make the Chase, but they might not all earn the luxury of a clinching win.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - He's won just one race in the last five years, but has reinvented himself into one of the more consistent points racers in the series. That will get him into the Chase, but he'll need to start winning if he wants to contend for the championship.
Clint Bowyer - The controversy at Michael Waltrip Racing seemed to take some of the wind out of Bowyer's sails during last year's Chase, but he seemed recharged at the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour. He didn't win a race in 2013, so he'll need to get back to victory lane this season or be forced to battle it out for the few remaining spots in the Chase.
Jeff Gordon - The new system doesn't cater well to Gordon's current production, as he has just seven wins in the last six seasons. However, he's still one of the better drivers in the history of the sport. Regardless of how he got into the 2013 Chase, Gordon has finished in the top-10 in the standings every year since 1994 with the exception of 2005 (when he finished 11th).
Joey Logano - He's still only 23 and made his first Chase last season, so Logano is definitely on his way up. He's won a race in each of the past two seasons and should take another step forward this year.
Greg Biffle - No one ever circles Biffle as a preseason favorite, but he tends to make most Chases (five of the last six). The new format could cater to someone like him, because while he's not dominant enough to lead the points, he could pick up a couple timely wins to help advance through the Chase Grid.
These drivers will be in contention either via a consistent points season or the likelihood of a single win. If they don't win, they might not have the points to make it into the Chase.
Ryan Newman - He probably deserves a little more respect than this, but Richard Childress Racing hasn't been that strong in recent years and it's yet to be seen how Newman will do with the shift to the new team. It's hard to give him better odds of winning the championship than any of the 15 drivers listed above, but he'll certainly contend for a Chase spot.
Brian Vickers - He won at the July race here at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2013, and his perseverance since Red Bull Racing folded in 2011 paid off with a full-time ride this year. He'll be the second car out of Michael Waltrip Racing behind Clint Bowyer, and with MWR moving up the charts, that could make him a perennial Chase contender.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - The 2013 Rookie of the Year closed the season with three top-10s in the final 11 races after putting up zero in the first 25. It took him a year to get comfortable in the Nationwide Series before winning back-to-back championships, and while he's hardly a title favorite, he could at least make strides toward making the Chase.
Marcos Ambrose - The road-course ringer won't be anywhere near the top of the standings, but if he dominates Watkins Glen for a win, he'll likely sneak into one of the last spots in the Chase.
Jamie McMurray - Unlike Ambrose, there's no specific track at which McMurray will be a favorite. However, he's a classic example of the kind of driver that could make the Chase in the new, win-and-you're-in type format.
It's worth recognizing two rookies that will likely be mainstays in the Sprint Cup Series for the next couple decades. They didn't make the list above because it's difficult to predict the success of a rookie, but both will be Chase contenders once they get up to speed.
Austin Dillon - The grandson of team owner Richard Childress isn't just in the seat because of his family connection. He's won titles in both the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series and will start his rookie season on the pole at the Daytona 500. He's the favorite for Rookie of the Year,considering his success and his equipment at RCR.
Kyle Larson - At the age of just 21, Larson's rise has been meteoric. He didn't win a race last year in the Nationwide Series (although he finished first and second in his two Truck Series starts), but his ability is undeniable. He might be more of a developmental project than Dillon, but he could still end up being the more successful driver in the long run.