Sizing Up the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship

By Ryan Isley

It’s that time of year again – the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has gotten to the Chase with only 12 drivers having a chance to walk away as the 2012 champion. Those drivers are:

Driver       Points
Denny Hamlin 2012
Jimmie Johnson 2009
Tony Stewart 2009
Brad Keselowski 2009
Greg Biffle 2006
Clint Bowyer 2006
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 2003
Matt Kenseth 2003
Kevin Harvick 2000
Martin Truex, Jr. 2000
Kasey Kahne 2000
Jeff Gordon 2000



The real question is this – which of those 12 drivers will be the last one standing when the final lap has been run at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 18th? Let’s take a look at some of the contenders, shall we?

Me might as well start with the defending series champion – Tony Stewart. Stewart is in a better position this season than he was last season, when he started 12 points behind the leader. Stewart of course made up that deficit by winning five of the 10 races in the Chase and won the championship by virtue of the tiebreaker over Carl Edwards when the two were tied at the end of the season. While it isn’t impossible for Stewart to repeat the feat, it will be more difficult this season. Stewart is averaging a finish of just 91th in the eight races this season at tracks that will be featured in the Chase (Chicago and Miami-Homestead the only two they have not raced at this season). That average is the worst among the 12 drivers remaining. Stewart finished fourth in the last race before the Chase, but finished 19-32-27-22 in the four races prior. He entered the Chase last season having finished in the top-10 in three of the previous four races.

How about points leader Denny Hamlin? He led the Sprint Cup Series with four wins this season, which earned him the top spot as the Chase begins. Two of those wins came in weeks 24 and 25, giving him a serious boost of momentum heading into the last 10 races. Speaking of momentum, two of Hamlin’s wins came at tracks that are featured in the Chase (Phoenix and Kansas) – the most wins of anyone in the Chase. He also had an average finish of 8.1 in the eight races at Chase tracks earlier this season.

While we are talking about points leaders, what about Greg Biffle? The driver of the no.16 for Roush Fenway Racing would have been the points leader if the points were not reset and bonuses given for wins when the Chase started. Biffle’s average finish of 9.7 this season is a seven spot improvement over last season and was possible because of his two wins and 10 top-5 finishes this season. Biffle also leads the 12 drivers in average finish at the Chase tracks this season by finishing an average of 6.4 in the eight races.

Brad Keselowski has been one of the hottest drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series over the last 10 races with one win, six top-5 finishes and nine top-10 finishes. In the last four races at Chase tracks this season, the driver of the blue deuce has three top-5 finishes, including a win at Talladega. Most people remember Keselowski from tweeted in his car at the 2012 Daytona 500, but he is also a damn good driver.

The one guy that seems to always be forgotten is Clint Bowyer. One of the problems that Bowyer will face is that he was the second worst driver at the Chase tracks this season, averaging a 15th-place finish. The driver of the No.15 5-Hour Energy Toyota can look at recent success to get some confidence, however. Bowyer won the last race before the Chase and had seven finishes in the top-8 in the last nine races.

One driver that always seems to be in the championship discussion but just has yet to find a way to get it done is Kevin Harvick. The new father has just threetop-10 finishes in the last 13 races and has failed to win a race this season. Despite not having the season he probably would have liked, Harvick has averaged better than a 10th-place finish at the Chase tracks this season.

Matt Kenseth is trying to win the championship in his last season racing for Roush Fenway, as he will join Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. The 2003 series champion had an overall average finish of 10.3 this season, but just 15.5 after announcing in late June that he would be leaving Roush Fenway Racing after the season. Kenseth cannot be overlooked, however, because he has the second best average finish at the Chase tracks this season at 6.9.

The newcomer of the group this season is Martin Truex, Jr. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver would qualify as the surprise driver of the year, as he had eight top-11 finishes in the last 10 races to make himself Chase eligible. The surprising stat might be that Truex, Jr. was the fifth best driver as far as average finish at Chase tracks, finishing with an average of 9.8.

And then there is Hendrick Motorsports, who put all four of their drivers in the Chase as five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kasey Kahne all are among the 12 drivers still vying for that Chase title.

I must admit that I was a little bit off when it comes to Hendrick Motorsports when I made my preseason predictions. While I said that Hendrick would dominate and finish with three cars in the top-5, I did not have Kahne in the Chase. I expected him to be one of the first cars outside the field with this being his first season with the team.

With that in mind, let’s look at the driver of the No.5 Chevrolet for Hendrick. After a slow start – he had an average finish of 28th in his first six races this season – Kahne has settled in and taken advantage of being the least talked about member of the Hendrick family. Since those fist six races, Kahne has an average finish of 10.5 with two wins, seven top-5 finishes and 13 top-10 finishes in the last 20 races. When you look at who has raced well at the Chase tracks this season, you would probably need seven or eight guesses to correctly pick who has been the hottest driver of late. That’s right – it is Kahne. In the last six races at Chase tracks, Kahne has finished 7-8-4-1-3-1. Read that again – it is an average finish of fourth. In just the last four races at Chase tracks, Kahne has an average finish of 2.3. Those are the numbers of a true contender.

The other member of the Hendrick team that does not yet have a championship under his belt is the most popular driver in NASCAR – Earnhardt, Jr. The driver of the No.88 Chevrolet finally snapped his 143-race winless streak this season when he took the Dark Knight Rises car to victory lane at Michigan. This was possibly the most consistent performance of Earnhardt, Jr.’s career, as he racked up 10 top-5’s and 17 top-10’s in his second season with crew chief Steve Letarte. Earnhardt, Jr. recorded top-10 finishes in seven of the eight races at Chase tracks this season while averaging a finish of 7.7. The one concern for Earnhardt, Jr. just might be that his two worst performances of the season have come in the last six races.

Gordon was the last driver to make the Chase field and did so by racing his way in with a second place finish in the last race before the Chase. The 42-year-old driver had the worst average finish of all the Chase drivers in races at Chase tracks this season, finishing 13.2 on average. There is a reason that Gordon has lifted the championship trophy and one of those is that in the last 12 races, he has nine finishes of sixth place or better and has finished in the top-3 in each of the last three races.

The driver who had won five straight championships before Stewart unseated him last season – Jimmie Johnson – is back and looking to regain his spot on top of the NASCAR world. Johnson finished the season with three wins but may have had one of the more inconsistent runs in the last seven seasons, finishing three of the final 11 races 27th or worse. Of course it was Johnson who led the most miles in the Sprint Sup Series this season and he did it by a wide margin, topping Hamlin by 242.5 miles led. He was also the only driver to lead more than 900 laps this season, leading 1,033 laps.

Now that I have given you a rundown on all 12 Chase participants, I guess it is time for me to pick my champion. In my preseason predictions, I said that Gordon would tie Johnson by winning his fifth championship. I will stick with that prediction, although I would say you could be safe going with any of the Hendrick drivers.

My final prediction:

  1. Jeff Gordon
  2. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
  3. Jimmie Johnson
  4. Denny Hamlin
  5. Brad Keselowski
  6. Greg Biffle
  7. Kasey Kahne
  8. Tony Stewart
  9. Kevin Harvick
10. Martin Truex, Jr.
11. Matt Kenseth
12. Clint Bowyer



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