The twelve team field for NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup is set, so naturally it is now time to start making guesses at which of the drivers will eventually walk away with the trophy in Miami.
The ten remaining races offer a little of everything (well, almost everything, as NASCAR's post season still lacks a road course event) the Martinsville paperclip, the flat 1-mile oval at New Hampshire, five intermediate tracks, the odd balls of Phoenix and Dover and the behemoth that is Talladega Superspeedway.
In this first part we go through first five of the championship deciding events, looking back with history, hindsight and statistics so, hopefully, we can all get some idea of who will emerge victorious.
New Hampshire – The opening track of The Chase has recently been host to two rain shortened races with surprise winners, Joey Logano winning last June and Kurt Busch a year before that. The last two chase races at the venue went to Greg Biffle last year, and Clint Bowyer in 2007, and while Bowyer could be on form again (especially after a promising showing in Richmond) he is out of The Chase, Biffle and his Roush teammates have suffered a severe dip on form this year. The wealth of statistics NASCAR releases for the track, put pre-Chase leader Tony Stewart firm favourite, with him having led nearly a quarter of laps in the last four NHIS Chase races. His nearest challengers are likely to be Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin, who has the best average finish of all the Chase runners, and the momentum from his Richmond win that may well put him over the line first.
Dover – Just about every statistic NASCAR can come up with says it should be a Roush Ford in victory lane for the AAA 400. Greg Biffle, the winner of the race a year ago, has the best finishing record, the best average running position and the highest number of fastest laps. Matt Kenseth has the most laps led at the track and Carl Edwards has the most net passes of anyone. This might be the race when Roush awaken from a season that's been in hibernation since March, but the race in May probably points more reliably to the drivers with the best chance of victory, when Jimmie Johnson won from Tony Stewart. As for the best non-chaser, aside from Matt Kenseth, look for Martin Truex Jr. in his best chance to grab a win in his last season for EGR.
Kansas – The first intermediate track of The Chase presents us with the same battle as Dover – Roush versus Johnson. Again Biffle and no.16 team have the best finishing and equal best running record. Equal with Jimmie Johnson that is. In years past these 1.5 mile ovals have been Roush's playground, but this year the mantle has slipped and several teams have tried to grab it. The models of consistency that are Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are there, but so are two of the more surprising teams to have won through to The Chase. Kasey Kahne is a sometime master of the 1.5 miler, with his recent hot form at Lowe's and his late season win at Atlanta as the best testimony. Joining him a dark horse amongst the Chase contenders is Michigan winner Brian Vickers, whose Red Bull team's form on similar tracks had been the lynch pin of his run to the Chase.
Fontana – Same song second chorus. The second cookie-cutter track of The Chase, predictably, enough suggests that that results could be similar to Kansas, with the same teams likely to show well. The only minor differences may be that Jimmie Johnson, ominously, is historically stronger here than Kansas, as is Kasey Kahne. The Roush teams are also statistically well placed again, and could have good Chase if either Biffle or Edwards can find the form that has evaded them this year.
Charlotte – Erm. Same song third chorus? Again, another D-shaped oval brings the same drivers to the fore. However, one fact stands out. That this is Kasey Kahne's best chance of a win in the post-season. The Dodge driver splits historical honours with the man whose car carries the Lowe's name, Jimmie Johnson. Johnson has a whopping five points race wins here in six years, including a clean sweep in 2004 and 2005. However, since then Kasey Kahne has had the majority of the success here, with three points race wins, including an 2006 sweep and the 2008 All-Star exhibition event also held at the track. The run of three intermediate tracks that brings the first half of The Chase to an end could be central to any one driver's challenge for the title. All three Hendrick cars could see victory, with Mark Martin's unspectacular past outweighed by his wins in Michigan and Chicagoland this season, as could Kahne or Vickers, while the two Fords in The Chase are likely to be consistent, if not victorious.
Look out for part 2 of our Chase Preview before the Martinsville race.