Ten weekends, ten races. The Chase is on for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, starting on Sunday with the Sylvania 300 race at Loudon in New Hampshire. And the consensus is that this promises to be the most open championship since the introduction of The Chase in 2004.
So, who's hot and who's not? Let's start with who is not. Since the inception of The Chase there have been several drivers who have made the cut without scoring a win beforehand that season but only six have gone on to win one of the subsequent races, two in the case of Greg Biffle in 2008. And whilst Biffle came third in the standings that year and Clint Bowyer, another to score his only win in 2007 during The Chase also came third, none of the drivers who were winless when they arrived at Loudon looked like they might be Champion.
On that basis we could possibly eliminate five of the twelve who have all failed to make their way to the Victory Circle this year. It is hard to see Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton or even – and it hurts to say this – Jeff Gordon turning their seasons around at this stage. The one winless driver who cannot be ruled out easily has to be Carl Edwards. The driver of the 99 car scored more points than anyone else over the ten races before the cut-off and if he can keep that form going has to be considered as a possibility for the title. A bit more than an outsider or dark horse, it has to be said.
Of the next three in the rankings Tony Stewart has not had that spark he showed in 2009 and would need an upturn in his form and some consistency to ruffle the feathers of the big four. Greg Biffle has been struggling for most of the year in the Roush Fenway Ford but there are signs they have sorted the front of the car out and are finding some speed. Since his win at Pocono at the beginning of August Biffle has scored a couple of top ten places in the number 16 car but had some poor results as well.
Kurt Busch, the older of the brothers, driving the sole Penske car has managed two wins this year at Atlanta and Charlotte. You can expect to see him run well at those two plus Talladega. Kurt won the inaugural Chase in 2004 by eight points from that man, Jimmie Johnson, and during that run finished with one win, six top-fives and nine top-10s in the final 10 races so clearly knows what it takes to win the Sprint Cup.
And that takes us to the big four. It would take a brave or foolish man to bet on who will win the Sprint Cup this year but there is a good chance he will come from one of the top four seeds.
Kyle Busch starts with thirty points added to his five thousand for his three short track wins at Richmond, Dover and Bristol. Kyle feels his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is down on speed compared to the Chevrolets and doesn't talk up his chances but should not be discounted. As he shows in the Nationwide Series he has no shortage of race craft and on his day can be there or thereabouts at the finish of each race. A clean campaign from the number 18 driver and others having odd moments of misfortune could bring him the title.
Having failed to get any of their cars into The Chase in 2009 Richard Childress Racing have redeemed themselves by getting all three cars in this year and their number 29 driven by the Californian Kevin Harvick is third favourite in the rankings. He led the standings for the seventeen races leading up to the start of The Chase and has had one of the most consistent seasons. All of his wins this year have come at Super Speedways, Talladega, Daytona and Michigan but he had finished top ten in two thirds of all races this season. Although there are only two Super Speedways in the shootout Harvick's Chevrolet could sneak through and take the title on consistency alone helped by the finale being at one of the tracks where he usually shines, Homestead-Miami.
Jimmie Johnson starts as second seed, just ten points behind Hamlin after his five victories this season. Johnson is looking for a record breaking fifth consecutive title and has proved across the past four seasons to be the man who can put together a solid set of performances in The Chase. Although his season started well with wins at Las Vegas, Fontana and Bristol he seems to have lost his sparkle, both he and his crew struggling to get the best out of the car.
Following a victory at Sonoma Johnson won at Loudon which could stand him in good stead for this weekend's opening race. Another win there would give the current champion a solid basis on which to build one of his famously consistent campaigns. Whilst many fans would hate to see the Johnson steamroller continue the reality is there is nobody understands what it takes to win the Sprint Cup better than Jimmie Johnson and his no. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Top seed spot has been taken by Denny Hamlin after his win at Richmond last Saturday, his sixth win of the season giving him sixty bonus points to add to the 5000 each of the qualifiers starts with. His season got off to a creaky start after suffering a knee injury. He managed a win in the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at Martinsville a couple of days before surgery then came back to a painful 30th at Phoenix less than two weeks later and then confounded every naysayer by winning at Texas the following week. He went on to win at Darlington followed up later with back to back wins at Pocono and Michigan.
Hamlin's build up to The Chase seemed to be stalling with a 34th place at Bristol and then his first ever dead last place at Atlanta after engine problems leaving him tenth in the standings but then followed his Richmond victory. Look at the number 11 car's statistics and you see that Hamlin has won twice each at Super Speedways, Intermediate and Short tracks this year showing a versatility and, more significantly, in his Sprint Cup career has finished top ten in over half the races he has started.
If he can maintain that versatility and consistency this could well be Hamlin's year but for any of the front runners just one piece of bad luck, one bad pit call, one mechanical failure could virtually eliminate their chance for 2010.