Home NASCAR NASCAR: Analyzing the Chase field

NASCAR: Analyzing the Chase field

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The Chase field is set. Following Saturday night’s dramatic and controversial race at Richmond, and then following NASCAR’s penalty press conference on Monday, we now know the 12 drivers that will compete for the 2013 Sprint Cup championship. Let’s take a look at each of them and assess their chances to win the title.

*Note: Championship odds are my own, not that of any sports books.

1. Matt Kenseth

2,015 Points

Regular season wins: 5

Although he struggled and chased Jimmie Johnson for much of the regular season, Kenseth was able to rattle off five wins before the Chase with new team Joe Gibbs Racing to grab sole possession of the top seed heading into the playoffs.

Strengths: Momentum. Kenseth had another top 10 finish at Richmond, and has the momentum that accompanies the points lead heading into the first Chase race at Chicagoland. Five of the final 10 races of the season also come at 1.5-mile tracks, and Kenseth, and Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole, has been phenomenal at intermediate tracks this season. Kenseth’s last championship came because of consistency, not wins, but with a new team, and a re-energized sense of speed, Kenseth looks fully prepared to grab the victories it will take to win the championship.

Weaknesses: Consistency. Unlike his 2003 championship, where he won only a single race and earned an astounding 25 top-10 finishes, Kenseth hasn’t always been at the front in 2013. He’s had a few issues, and at one point even seemed to be headed out of the top 10, where he’d have to get in the Chase as a wild card and not get bonus points for his wins. Standard consensus says you get basically one mulligan in the Chase to win the championship, and you have to be perfect in the nine other races. If Kenseth has more ups and downs like he did during the regular season, it could hurt his chances at a second title.

Championship Odds: 2/1

2. Jimmie Johnson

2,012 Points

Regular season wins: 4

He led the points for practically the entire regular season, but didn’t have enough wins to keep it when the checkered flag flew at Richmond, putting him in a three-point hole to start the Chase.

Strengths: Experience. Johnson and the 48 team have done it before – five times in a row – and they know exactly what it’s like to fight a 10-race battle for a championship. Johnson has shown a renewed sense of focus this year, and with the birth of his daughter Lily Friday night, now has another person he’s racing for on his team at home.

Weaknesses: Momentum. I can’t recall ever seeing Johnson have a string of bad luck as severe as his last four races have been. In each of those four races, Johnson failed to finish better than 28th, and was an abysmal 40th in Saturday night’s regular season finale. Everything resets Sunday at Chicago, but momentum is momentum, and right now, Johnson has none of it.

Championship Odds: 2/1

3. Kyle Busch

2,012 Points

Regular season wins: 4

After missing the Chase in 2012, one of the sport’s most polarizing figures made damn sure he’d be in the championship hunt this year with a solid regular season and enough wins to give him a tie with Jimmie Johnson for the second seed.

Strengths: Redemption. Busch has the possibility for one hell of a story should he win the championship. A boneheaded call late in the race at Richmond last year cost him a chance at being in the Chase, and the team then went on a tear in the final 10 races. This year, they came firing out of the gate with every intent of making it to the playoffs, and they’ve done just that. Busch has shown speed at a wide variety of tracks, but two of his four wins came at 1.5-mile tracks, a huge advantage going into the intermediate track-dominated Chase schedule.

Weaknesses: Kyle Busch. The biggest obstacle to Busch’s first Sprint Cup championship is the driver himself. He’s shown more maturity this year than in season’s past, but he still has a tendency to swell up and pout after every single race that doesn’t result in a victory. At one point during Saturday night’s race at Richmond, Busch’s complaining led to crew chief Dave Rogers yelling at him, “Drive the damn car, I’m tired of hearing about it.” Busch’s response: “That doesn’t work for me.” Busch will have to find a way to calm the hell down if he wants a shot at the title.

Championship Odds: 3/1

4. Kevin Harvick

2,006 points

Regular season wins: 2

“The Closer” is in a lame duck season with Richard Childress Racing before he heads to take over Ryan Newman’s spot at Stewart-Haas next year, but he’s trying everything he can to make this last season a memorable one.

Strengths: Complete races. Harvick garnered his nickname because of his uncanny ability to be absent for much of a race and show up at the end to grab the victory. That ability to fight all the way until the end of a race and put himself in the right position is crucial in the Chase, and should serve him well.

Weaknesses: Lame duck. It hasn’t affected him yet, but as the season winds down, there’s always the danger of losing focus and thinking about his new ride next year.

Championship Odds: 10/1

5. Carl Edwards

2,006 points

Regular season wins: 2

It was a little controversial, but Edwards ended the regular season in the best possible way Saturday night by winning.

Strengths: Second chances. Edwards came oh-so-close to winning the title in 2011, but ended the season tied for the points lead with Stewart. The championship went to Tony based on wins, but now Carl’s got another shot. He’s got wins at Phoenix and now Richmond under his belt, and a string of consistent finishes kept him high in the standings throughout the regular season.

Weaknesses: Mediocrity. Despite the two wins, Edwards hasn’t shown much race-winning ability. Sure, the consistency is great and will be a boon to his hopes, but unless you can find a way to win at least a couple of races in the Chase, you probably won’t win the title. Were it not for the late caution at Richmond, Edwards would only have one victory.

Championship Odds: 10/1

6. Joey Logano

2,003 points

Regular season wins: 1

One of the beneficiaries to Michael Waltrip Racing’s devious schemes at Richmond, Logano still ended the regular season in the top 10 in points, despite a terrible night, and will get to utilize his three bonus points for winning at Michigan.

Strengths: Hot streak. Logano was mired deep in the top 20 just a few races ago, before going on a hot streak that saw him rattle off six straight top 10 finishes, including a win at Michigan. So while they’ve had their struggles, they are capable of going on a hot run.

Weaknesses: Too many downs. For all of the ups Logano’s season has seen, there have been heavy downs. Saturday night at Richmond was one of those situations. After starting in the top 10, Logano fell like a rock and was down two laps very quickly. Had #SpinGate not happened and Ryan Newman won the race, Logano very likely wouldn’t even have made the Chase, so while his run to the playoffs was impressive, he doesn’t necessarily enter the postseason with a ton of momentum.

Championship Odds: 50/1

7. Greg Biffle

2,003 Points

Regular Season wins: 1

Biffle won the first race at Michigan in 2012 and then promptly proceeded to make sure he never did anything else that was noteworthy.

Strengths: 1.5-mile dominance. Biffle drives for Roush, and Roush cars know how to navigate the intermediate tracks. Biffle won at Texas last year and is poised to perform at the 1.5-milers in the Chase.

Weaknesses: Where was Biffle? He hasn’t made much noise at all outside of his lone win in 2012, and spent a few weeks concerned he’d be outside the top 10, fighting for a wild card spot. He did just enough to stay in the position, and considered a 12th-place finish at Richmond “great.” It’ll take higher standards than that to win a championship.

Championship Odds: 100/1

8. Clint Bowyer

2,000 Points

Regular Season wins: 0

He hasn’t won in 2013, and he will not win the championship.

Strengths: Consistency.

Weaknesses: Karma. Bowyer was the main player in Michael Waltrip Racing’s game Saturday night, spinning with seven laps to go to prevent Ryan Newman from cruising to victory and beating Martin Truex Jr. for a Chase spot. NASCAR’s penalties don’t affect Bowyer at all, as the 50-point deduction he received is taken before Chase seeding, leaving him in the same position. If Bowyer were to win the championship, it would be a huge black mark for the sport, and odds are something, be it another driver or a strange act of nature, will prevent him from claiming the title.

Championship Odds: 500/1

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2,000 Points

Regular Season wins: 0

Jr. Nation, you may now rejoice. Earnhardt made the Chase for the third straight year Saturday night, despite a terrifying moment with seven laps to go when Junior was directly behind Clint Bowyer as he went for his now infamous spin.

Strengths: Chemistry. Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte obviously work well together, and Jr. has taken a liking to NASCAR’s new Gen 6 race car, which he feels drives like the cars of old. Some bad luck made their race at Richmond Saturday stressful since they weren’t locked in, but they persevered and have shown the consistency and small glimpses of speed that could get Junior a title.

Weaknesses: Mid-pack dominance. If you compare him to the other drivers running around in the middle of the pack, Junior has been an absolute beast. But alongside the folks he’ll be battling for the title, it gets a little murkier. Earnhardt has shown a bit of speed this year, but not near as much as it’s going to take to get him a few wins and a championship.

Championship Odds: 100/1

10. Kurt Busch

2,000 Points

Regular Season wins: 0

Kurt Busch, in the year before he heads off to Stewart-Haas Racing next year, made history by being the first driver to make the Chase while driving for a single-car team.

Strengths: Destiny. Furniture Row Racing only has one car. Furniture Row Racing isn’t even based in Charlotte, where the majority of all NASCAR teams operate. They are the quintessential underdog, but driver Kurt Busch is anything but. He’s a former champion and drove his ass off, despite a ton of setbacks, to make it into the Chase. It NASCAR’s looking for something to turn into an inspirational movie, this season for Kurt Busch and FRR could be it.

Weaknesses: Mistakes. Busch’s pit crew has let him down on numerous occasions in 2013, and did so again in their very first stop Saturday night. Busch was immediately upset and cursing on the radio, and his tendency to lose his cool after mistakes could alter his Chase chances, much like they could his brother Kyle’s. The single-car team model also leaves Furniture Row without a teammate to compare notes to, and there are a lot of factors conspiring to keep him away from a second championship.

Championship Odds: 100/1

11. Kasey Kahne

2,000 Points

Regular Season wins: 2

Kahne is thanking his lucky stars he won twice this year, otherwise he might not even be in the playoffs.

Strengths: Speed. Kahne has been one of the fastest cars on the track week in and week out, but misfortune has kept him from good finishes. Kyle Busch alone wrecked Kahne on three separate occasions this year, and he had issues with other Joe Gibbs Racing drivers as well. But Kahne got in the Chase, albeit in a wild card spot that prevents him from getting bonus points for wins, and if the team keeps showing the speed they’ve had all year, he could easily compete for the title.

Weaknesses: Joe Gibbs Racing. This is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but Kahne did crash multiple times this year while racing Kyle Busch, and finished second to Matt Kenseth three different times as well. His interactions with JGR have not gone his way.

Championship Odds: 20/1

12. Ryan Newman

2,000 Points

Regular Season wins: 1

Newman was the major winner in the penalties NASCAR announced Monday, as the 50-point penalty to Martin Truex Jr. dropped him back behind Newman in the standings, giving Newman the second wild card spot.

Strengths: A second lease on life. Following Saturday night’s race at Richmond, Newman wasn’t in the Chase. But he’s been given another shot at it, and now he can go full force into a title hunt. And better still, if the first couple of races go poorly and he finds himself deep in a hole, he can always take out his frustrations on Bowyer still.

Weaknesses: Pit stops. Following the race Saturday, when Newman thought he was out of the Chase, he threw his pit crew under the bus, blaming them for not getting him off pit road in the lead. Let’s hope he’s apologized to them now that they still have a chance to get him a title.

Championship Odds: 100/1