Monday, September 06, 2010

COMMENTARY: This Is Anyone's Championship

The last time NASCAR entered its Chase for the Sprint Cup with this many unanswered questions was… well… never. In fact, the 2010 edition of NASCAR’s playoff season appears to be the most unpredictable yet, with no less than a half-dozen legitimate title contenders.

Kevin Harvick has been like the Rock of Gibraltar this season, combining the consistency needed to stay atop the point standings with an ability to win multiple races. After nearly leaving Richard Childress Racing a year ago due to unhappiness with the team’s performance, Harvick looks like a new man in 2010. He is happy, confident in his equipment and supremely focused on the job at hand. Make no mistake about it, the road to the Sprint Cup championship will lead through RCR’s Welcome, NC, shops.

Jeff Gordon has done everything but win this season, and aside from a map to Victory Lane, he and crewchief Steve Letarte have everything they need to contend for the championship. Consistency has been their stock in trade this season, but consistency alone will not be enough to earn them the Sprint Cup. Gordon must win races to be a legitimate title contender, and there’s no reason to think that he won’t. The DuPont Chevrolet has been too close, too many times to go 36 weeks without a checkered flag.

Defending series champion Jimmie Johnson has appeared downright vulnerable in recent weeks, plummeting to the bottom half of the Top-10 and failing to crack Victory Lane since a late-June win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Has the Lowes Chevrolet team finally lost its Golden Horseshoe? Or has crewchief Chad Knaus spent the last two months experimenting with new setups for the Chase? A solid, third-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday night provided a much-needed surge in confidence, and if you think Jimmie won’t be a factor for his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup title, you haven’t been paying attention in any of the past four seasons.

Both Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin briefly wore the mantle of “Most Likely To Dethrone Jimmie” this season, but neither have shown the consistency necessary to actually get the job done. It will take more than a two or three-race hot streak to prevail in the upcoming Chase. In fact, Johnson’s past performance indicates that a Top-5 average finish may be required during the 10-race stretch, in addition to two or three wins. Can Busch and Hamlin regain their lost momentum? Right now, it appears not. But things can change, and fast.

After Race 11 of the season at Darlington, Tony Stewart looked like the walking embodiment of the Sophomore Jinx. He was 18th in points, running horribly and looking like nobody’s bet for a Chase berth. Since then, his Stewart-Haas Racing team has strung together 11 Top-10 finishes in 14 starts -- including an impressive first win at Atlanta -- and climbed from 18th to fourth in points. He’ll begin the Chase with a bit of a deficit to both Johnson and Hamlin, but if Smoke can continue his remarkable string of Top-10 finishes and win another race or two, he could be a title contender. "At this stage last year, we were pointing downhill," said a confident Stewart after his Atlanta victory. "Now we're pointing uphill."

If Stewart’s start to the 2010 season was bad, Carl Edwards’ was horrendous. As recently as New Hampshire in late June, Edwards was locked in a nip-and-tuck battle with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. just to make the Chase. But while Junior faded, Edwards surged, putting together seven Top-7 finishes in his last eight races to climb to fifth in points and clinch a spot in the playoffs. He’s still not winning races – his last victory came in the final race of 2008 – but Edwards is clearly peaking at the right time.

Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle have had similar seasons; quiet but steady. With only one win between them, they’ll have to make a little more noise in the Chase if they hope to be true title contenders. But veteran drivers generally find a way to get the job done come title time, and all three are capable of seizing the postseason momentum with a win in the early weeks of the Chase.

And finally, can Kyle Busch finally find the consistency necessary to be a title contender? NASCAR’s most controversial driver folded like a house of cards in last year’s Chase, but lessons learned in 2009 may serve him well this season. He obviously has the ability to string together multiple wins come Chase time, but his all-or-nothing style leaves him prone to occasional finishes in the back of the pack. Kyle is just one of many unanswered questions with the 2010 Chase looming less than two weeks away.

Last Sunday night's Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway provided a good look at what may lie ahead. Five different Chase drivers took a turn at the front of the field, with some falling victim to various maladies -– blown engines, cut tires, pit road miscues and the like -- while others stepped forward to contend for the win. Expect more of the same in the Chase, with multiple drivers taking their shot at the Brass Ring, but only one ultimately able to grab hold. The Las Vegas odds makers still have Johnson as the man to beat, but even the four-time defending champ admits that this is anyone’s title.

"When you look around... we're going to have a really exciting Chase," he said. "There are a lot of teams coming together right now."

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