The off week between Bristol and Atlanta gives us a chance to look at what might come in the Chase for the Championship. Unlike prior years, instead of predicting who will or will not make the Chase, we're already able to look ahead to who might win it.
While the NASCAR Nationwide Series was rubbing fenders north of the border in Montreal, some of this season's Chase drivers were spending a rare week off contemplating the final 13 races that would hopefully see them lift the Cup. There are three races remaining until the final 10-race Chase for the Championship, but this season looks as though the field for the Chase is virtually set. Assuming Clint Bowyer does not have two early crashes in the next three races, we'll assume that the Chase field is set.
Here is how we see those 12 drivers faring over the final 10-race sprint to the finish.
Kyle Busch Typically drivers who score the most wins often win championships. Busch is tied for the third-highest win total so far this season with three. His best stretch of the season were the six races from the Subway Fresh Fit 500 in April to the Autism Speaks 400 where he scored six-straight top-10 finishes along with two wins. His dominating style then went missing, but his speed has been showing up more and more as the season wears on. Busch may be peaking at the perfect time to come out of the Chase gate on his best form of the season.
Kevin Harvick Consistency is the other major quality that can win a championship beside wins. Harvick has been a model of consistency in 2010. In addition to three wins, he's racked up 11 top-fives and 16 top-10 finishes so far. Harvick always seems to show up as races wind down, and he usually becomes a factor in the finish. The Chase format rewards a short 10-race sprint to the end, and wins. If Harvick and the No. 29 team can continue their consistency, and win a handful of times during the Chase, they could be your 2010 champions.
Jimmie Johnson Johnson is on par with Denny Hamlin with five wins so far in 2010. Since the Chase rewards wins more than season-long consistency, Johnson still has a tremendous chance to win another championship. Despite being ninth in points right now, the bonus points for wins when the Chase field is set will move him higher in the order. Johnson has to move beyond the bad luck he's experienced this year. With four DNFs recorded to this point, he has more than any other Chase driver. He will be punished if that trend continues in the Chase sprint.
Tony Stewart Stewart tends to get better as the season progresses. He hasn't recorded a win yet in 2010, but his finishes have improved with five of his 13 top-10 finishes this season coming in the last six races. If Stewart wants another championship though, he'll have to find Victory Lane, and do it in the Chase races. Stewart is never one to write off, but without recording some wins, he also can't be named the favorite. He will start deeper in the Chase due to his lack of wins so far, so he needs some victories soon.
Jeff Burton Similar to Stewart, Burton has been dragged down by mistakes, costing him victories and points throughout the season. Countless times we heard Burton on the radio to his crew complaining of mistakes made on pit road costing him valuable positions. He has just four top-fives on the record so far this year, but he has consistently been scoring top-10 results at 12 on the season. The team needs to step up its performance to move Burton into the top-five more often, and only then will they have a realistic shot at challenging for the title in these playoffs.
Kurt Busch Despite being 10th in the points currently, Busch makes the upgrade column because of his recent performances. He's only won two races so far this season, but has recorded 14 top-five finishes so far, tying him for second in top-10s of the Chase bunch. Three of Busch's top-10 finishes came in the last five races. The other two results in that span were both DNFs. If Busch can get over those poor results, he should stand a very good chance of climbing higher up the Chase standings. He may not a favorite to win the title, but he is likely to produce a good fight.
Jeff Gordon The thing holding Gordon back the past few seasons has been his lack of victories. He may be second in points, but with no wins he could fall down the order pretty quickly when the field is reset. If Gordon can't find his way into Victory Lane in the remaining races, he will not be a competitor for the Cup. Gordon only recorded two top-10 results in the last five races, but the five-race stretch before that netted him five straight top-fives. Gordon has every reason to finish high in the standings, but if he wants to finish first, he must find a way to win.
Denny Hamlin Hamlin is tied with Jimmie Johnson as win leader among the Chase participants. His five wins signal his mastery of the season, but that was a few months ago. He hasn't visited Victory Lane since June, nine races ago, and only managed to score three top-10 results since that victory. Hamlin looked like 2010 would be his year to win his first championship, but his form leading up to the Chase has been questionable. If the team can figure out what has been keeping Hamlin away from the winner's circle, he could light the Chase on fire. His recent lack of strong finishes, three finishes 15th or worse in the last five races, could signal a rough ride ahead in the Chase races.
Clint Bowyer The likelihood of the driver 12th in points winning the Cup is very small. Bowyer turned in solid work to earn himself a spot in the lucrative Chase, but due to just snagging the final position, he may be too far behind in order to capitalize. Anything could happen, but Bowyer hasn't won a race and has only four top-five finishes so far this season, that is tied for the lowest of the Chase competitors. Bowyer's goal will be to haul himself as far forward as possible, and be in a position to capitalize should any of the favorites falter.
Carl Edwards With no victories in 2010 it is amazing that Edwards is currently fourth in points. His position is a result of his haul of top-15 and top-20 results. Instead of giving up or recording a DNF, Edwards soldiered on and made respectable days out of horrible conditions. Still, without a win and just one second-place result, it is tough to see Edwards taking the Cup. His recent finishes have been outstanding, six top-10s in the last seven races, but that may not be enough to overhaul the Chase points leaders when the point totals are reset.
Matt Kenseth Kenseth has had a quiet 2010. He hasn't won any races and only notched five top-five finishes so far. The Ford-powered teams haven't been the fastest cars for the majority of the season, but Kenseth still put himself into the Chase. In the last two races, Kenseth bagged two of his 10 top-10 finishes this season, but prior to those races he spent nine races locked out of a top-10 result. Ford has a mountain to climb if they intend to make a serious charge for the Cup. There is little doubt that Kenseth would be able to make use of any step up in performance, but it is tough to see that being enough to win him his second title.
Greg Biffle Biffle, unlike his teammates, has recorded a victory this season. He also scored four of his 14 top-10 finishes in the last five races. Like Clint Bowyer though, Biffle is so far down the standings that his chances of working himself far enough forward to truly contend for the championship are very slim. Biffle could be likely to carry his strong recent performances forward into the Chase, but he will have to be dominant in order to win the championship, and that is something neither Ford nor Roush Fenway Racing has done yet this season.