After Saturday night’s 400-lap race on the half-mile Richmond, Virginia oval the field of twelve drivers for this year’s NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup has been set.
The Chase starts next weekend at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway and runs for ten weeks through the season finale on November 18th at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Clint Bowyer scored his second win of the year at Richmond followed by Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin with Gordon sewing-up the final ‘Wild Card’ place among the Chase’s twelve contenders.
This is the ninth year NASCAR has determined its champion with its version of a play-off. It’s easy to argue against the new system in favour of the traditional year-long championship which was ground-out relentlessly over ten months and more than thirty races. But times change and the Chase is here to stay and usually it provides more late-season excitement and interest than the traditional method.
NASCAR seeds the twelve Chase drivers by wins with each of the top ten drivers in points receiving three bonus points for each win during the regular season. Two ‘Wild Card’ positions are added to the Chase for the drivers with the most wins among those ranked between 11th-20th in points. Everyone starts the Chase with 2000 points plus the bonus points they’ve earned for each win. Here are this year’s twelve Sprint Cup championship contenders with Motor Sport’s rating of their title chances.
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Toyota (four wins) 2012 points – Hamlin has won more races than anyone else so far this year and battled with Jimmie Johnson for the championship two years ago. Don’t be surprised if he pulls it off this year.
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Chevrolet (three wins) 2009 points – The five-time champion must rate as the favourite. He’s been the man to beat in many races this year and with a little luck he’s entirely capable of winning his sixth championship in seven years.
Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Chevrolet (three wins) 2009 points – The defending champion has had an up and down year but Stewart is a true racer as he showed with his superb performance in last year’s Chase. A very definite contender.
Brad Keselowski, Penske Dodge (three wins) 2009 points – Young Keselowski has quickly established himself as Penske’s NASCAR team leader. He hails from a multi-generation family of Midwestern stock car racers and is a fierce competitor who’s pursuing his first championship.
Greg Biffle, Roush-Fenway Ford (two wins) 2006 points – Ran first or second in the championship all year and is sure to battle to win races. He’s a very capable driver and racer who could surprise.
Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Toyota (two wins) 2006 points – In his first year with Waltrip’s team Bowyer has been very competitive in many races on all types of tracks. He too could spring a surprise.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Chevrolet (one win) 2003 points – NASCAR’s most popular driver has enjoyed his best year in some time, winning once and running at or near the top of the championship through the season. Don’t discount him.
Matt Kenseth, Roush-Fenway Ford (one win) 2003 points – The 2003 champion won this year’s Daytona 500 and has been competitive in many races, also running at or near the top of the points. This is his last of fourteen years with Roush before moving to Joe Gibbs’s team next year.
Martin Truex Jr., Michael Waltrip Toyota (0 wins) 2000 points – A solid competitor in many races but not a likely championship contender.
Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress Chevrolet (0 wins) 2000 points – Another regular frontrunner who took over the legendary Dale Earnhardt’s seat after the latter’s death in 2001. Harvick may surprise us but is not rated among the championship favourites.
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Chevrolet (two wins) 2000 points – In his first year with Hendrick’s team Kahne has been quick in some races, less competitive in others. But he too is not to be discounted.
Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Chevrolet (one win) 2000 points – The four-time champion has been very competitive in many races this year but out of luck too many times. Still, he scraped into the Chase and may figure in the championship battle.
Among those failing to qualify for this year’s Chase were Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. Kyle is as fast as any man in NASCAR but just can’t seem to put it together cleanly and consistently. Edwards dueled with Stewart for last year’s championship but has been unable to win a race so far this year. And Juan Pablo Montoya has had a terrible year with Chip Ganassi’s reshuffled team, stuck in the midfield much of the time and out of the top twenty in points.