HAMPTON, Ga._ Every year it seems one or two drivers enter the Chase for the Sprint Cup with momentum, bonus points and the other drivers looking at them as the guy to beat in the final ten races of the year. This season, however, it seems the Chase field is full of unknowns, multiple possibilities and no hands down favorite to win.
Despite being ninth in points and having only one top-10 in the last seven races, most people in the garage still point to four-time defending champions Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus as the team to beat. Johnson, however, sees points leader Kevin Harvick as the favorite. Denny Hamlin has five wins and, if nothing changes over the next two weeks, will start the Chase in the second spot. Jeff Gordon has been consistent all year, but is winless. Carl Edwards has come on strong as of late and Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle all have bonus points on their side.
With the competition level so high amongst those in the top-12 and the number of variables that could come into play over the course of the final ten races, it appears there is no real favorite to lead the pack in this year’s Chase.
“The group fourth-10th, man, those guys you can throw a blank over us and we’re all the same,” said Kurt Busch, who sits 10th in points. “Harvick is definitely running a consistent season this year, then you have Denny and Jimmie Johnson who have got those wins, and Gordon has run very consistent, but hasn’t won.
“If Johnson comes out of the block and wins Loudon, Dover and Kansas, we all can’t get discouraged, we still have to keep fighting,” Busch went on to say.
While Johnson and the No. 48 team have put in dominant performances in the Chase over the last four years, their road to the championship was not always paved in dominance.
“We have a way of forgetting the way history really was,” said Jeff Burton. “The No. 48 (Johnson) team hasn't come into the Chase; I can remember a few years ago we were talking about around Indy time; the No. 48 team might not make the Chase. The 48 team hasn't been the team that just dominated from the Daytona 500 to Homestead. They've had periods where we all, the media, the other teams, looked at it had said hey, they're not doing a very good job. So I don't believe it's any different. They've struggled more so in some years than others, for sure. They are a tough race team and they're going to be hard to beat. But I just think we tend to forget that great teams still go through struggles. And I've seen that team struggle but then still find a way to come out on top.
“I think if the No. 48 team wins the championship again this year, the one thing that we'll talk about is how the No. 48 is dominating the sport,” Burton added. “We won't talk about that the No. 48 struggled in August, you know what I mean? So, end results are what matter and I think that's what the fans focus on."
Knowing he has struggled at times this year, Johnson is wary of looking at himself as a favorite for the title. Instead, he believes it is Harvick that will have the advantage in the final ten races thanks to the consistency they have shown all year.
“I do agree that it is harder this year to decide who will be a favorite—although at this point I have to look at Harvick as the favorite with the consistency they have had, all types of tracks over a long part of the season. Those guys have done an amazing job and have turned it around from where they were last year to where they are this year. They deserve a lot of credit for what they’ve done.”
Johnson also went on to point out the Roush Fenway organization has really turned the corner this season and could be a threat once the Chase begins, but then again so could any of the other contenders.
“There is a lot of unknowns,” Johnson said. “We aren’t where we want to be yet, but we’ve been in this position before in years past and gone into the Chase looking for a little bit of speed and we’ve found it, so I’m not too concerned with where we are. I think it’s going to be exciting. You’ve got Jeff [Gordon] who has been real consistent, you’ve got Roush cars coming back, you’ve got all three RCR cars showing a lot of speed, and Gibbs cars—we expect them to start the Chase and be strong and be right there. I think it’s going to be a very interesting Chase.”
This season has seen favorites come and go, front runners fade and half of the Chase drivers winless as of this weekend. The only real consistency of the year has come from Kevin Harvick and the No. 29 team, who has led the series standings for all but five weeks this season.
“It’s really hard to find a favorite. It’s really hard to find a pattern right now,” Busch said. “You just have to race each race smart and you can’t put yourself in position to where you lose points and you’re working from behind. It just seems when you get yourself behind you can never catch up.”
Perhaps it is best there is no real favorite headed into this Chase. In 2008, Kyle Busch entered the Chase with 80 bonus points but fell flat on his face once the final ten races began and was out of the picture by the third race of the year.
“I don’t think anyone knows who a favorite is until four races into the Chase,” Denny Hamlin said. “You have several different types of race tracks and that’s where you’re going to see who is showing their cards at what point. It’s our job to peak at the right time and we’re going to spend these next two weeks giving it all we’ve got, pretending their Chase races and see where we stack up.”
“It’s not Texas Hold ‘Em, but you don’t push your chips in all at early,” Busch added. “You have to build your chips up just so you do have a stash later on when things do get busy.”
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