Thursday, September 13, 2012

It takes magic act to know who will find Chase magic

It's going to be hard for NASCAR to duplicate, or even come close to duplicating, the magic that occurred in last year's 10-race Chase for the Championship, the sport's version of the playoffs. The odds are simply too long for this season's champion to be decided by a tiebreaker on a day where he had to win the race.
But there very well may be a different kind of magic and drama going into this year's Chase, which begins with a 1 p.m. Sunday race at Chicagoland Speedway. Just figuring out who is the favorite here can make even the best experts a little dizzy.
Sure, you have to like guys like five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, three-time and defending champion Tony Stewart, along with Denny Hamlin, who won four races this season, and Brad Keselowski, who won three times.
But if we learned anything from Stewart's dramatic five wins in 10 races dash to the title, it's that anything is possible. Stewart entered the Chase last year ninth in the standings and without a win and then declared that he had no shot at winning the thing. Then, of course, he went out and the thing.
Stewart did so by getting hot at the right time, including winning three of the last four races.
So, one way to look at this Chase is to try and figure out which of the 12 drivers  to qualify can get on a Stewart-like Chase roll. Stewart, of course, Hamlin, Johnson, Keselowski, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon, after showing us he's still got that fire last weekend, are certainly guys who can get on a hot streak.
This year's champion will have to win at least two of the next 10 races to have a shot at the title. Stewart, Hamlin, Johnson, Keselowski and Kahne have combined for 15 of the 26 wins this season.
The other part of the equation is consistency. That's where guys like Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. come in. However, the consistency can't include top 10 finishes, they will need to be top five finishes. Earnhardt Jr. has 12 top fives this season to go with one win and Kenseth has 10 tops fives with a victory. So, their hope is  get a win or two, but to be consistent.
Then we have two guys who each have two wins, but really, do we think either one is going win this thing? That would be Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer. The issue with Bowyer is both of his wins came on fuel saving runs. Of course, you win however you can, but drivers would rather do it with the best car. Biffle, led the points at the end of the regular season, and he did win two races this season. He's a quality driver, who hasn't been on a roll lately. But he's the kind of driver when you look at the standings with three races to go who just might be right in the mix for the title.
Then we have the winless guys. Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick were steady all year, Truex even showed more improvement in the last few races, but couldn't get to Victory Lane. That may well change for him in the Chase. Harvick has been around long enough to know how to win, he just hasn't done it this year. And like Stewart last year, he is ninth in the standings and not one most consider a factor to win the title. The switch back to his old crew chief, Gil Martin may help, but the middle-of-the-season crew chief switcharoo usually isn't a good sign for the immediate future.
Then there are the wild-cards in Kahne and Gordon. Since they each drive for Hendrick, they are capable of finding some Chase magic. Gordon, who got in with his dramatic late-race run Saturday night at Richmond, would love nothing more than to join Johnson as a five-time champion. He's still got the desire, and now new life after experiencing all kinds of bad luck earlier this season. Kahne, like Gordon, had a ton a bad fortune early, but he also has two wins this year.
OK, so the question is who will find the magic at the right time this year?
It's just impossible to answer heading into Week 1 of the playoffs. And that unknown just might be the magical element for the 2012 Chase.

We're off to the Chase and we learned last year that anything can happen as the magic started for Tony Stewart when he won his first race of the year here. Will the same happen this season? Who knows?
 Here's a look at what might happen at Chicagoland Sunday afternoon.1)  Tony Stewart. He has three wins in 11 races at Chicagoland. The victory there last year propelled him to the championship, so he's got to be feeling good about that again.
2) Denny Hamlin. It's true he doesn't have a win at Chicago and has only one top five, but he's been on such a roll lately it's hard not to pick him. 
3) Jeff Gordon. He's feeling good about himself after the rally to make the Chase. He's also got a solid record at Chicagoland with a win and six tops fives, so yeah, going to go with him here.
4) Jimmie Johnson. True, he doesn't have a win at Chicagoland, but he has led 365 laps in 10 races there, easily the most of any active driver without a win.
5) Kevin Harvick. If there is someone who could do what Stewart did last year (enter the Chase ninth in points and not have a win on the season and then win the title), it's Harvick. He has two wins at Chicagoland and six top fives in 11 races there.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda - Kyle Busch. He would not be a bad pick here. He's got a win and two top fives in seven races and he certainly would like to make a statement that he's still good, even though he's not in the Chase.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared at Richmond.
Kyle Busch - 16th. He had won four of the last seven at Richmond, but was never a factor for the win.
Denny Hamlin  - 18th. He dominated while leading 202 of the first 275 laps. The decision to stay out when a short rain shower came probably cost him the win.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.  - 14th. He  was in contention for much of the night, but the rain caution also messed up his chances after leading 67 laps.
Jimmie Johnson - 13th. He was another victim of old tires when deciding not to come in on that rain caution, or he may have been in the top 5.
Tony Stewart - 4th. The defending champion broke out of a serious slump, helped by the fact that he pitted immediately when the final rain caution came.
Here's a look at my results after 26 races and 130 picks.
14  wins
42 top fives
58 top 10s
Grade for the week: C. It was clear that Hamlin had the best car on the track, but he and crew chief Darian Grubb made the wrong choice, as it turned out, when the final rain caution came. Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart also led at times. That final rain caution changed the complexion of the race.
One last thing: Tony Stewart is the only one of the 12 Chase drivers to win at each of the 10 tracks in the Chase for the Championship. 

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