It’s not easy to handicap the 2011 Chase field. In fact, my opinion is that Jimmie Johnson will win his sixth consecutive championship. That isn’t going to be popular with most of you, but it’s so obvious that it jumps out to me. There is no one to challenge the team of Jimmie and Chad. Each and every challenger has weaknesses that the Lowe’s team does not have. It’s almost that the Chase was designed around the No. 48 team. You might say they’ve figured it out and no one else has, yet there is hope for someone else to take the crown, no matter how slim that hope is.
[media-credit name=”Brad Keppel” align=”alignright” width=”225″][/media-credit]Let me preface this by saying that I don’t care who wins the championship. In fact, it has never been important to me. Individual races and the number of wins have always been the measuring point for a successful season. Unlike football, baseball, and basketball, NASCAR depends on individual races. The stick and ball sports look toward the Super Bowl, the World Series and the NBA Finals. Unfortunately, and for some reason, NASCAR headed in that direction in 2004. The result has been an emphasis on the championship instead of individual races. It took me several weeks to realize that David Pearson won the 1969 Championship and even when I found out, I didn’t really care. NASCAR created this championship frenzy to emulate the stick and ball sports. I find that hideous. Forever, the championship, whether it was the individual track championship or the Cup championship was an afterthought to who did what on what day. The championship was a mere bonus at the end of the season. Then came the trips to New York and now Las Vegas. Win Daytona? No big deal. Win Indy? No big deal, but the championship? Big deal.
NASCAR has tried to change this with rules. Seeing that the Chase format was somewhat flawed, they added two more drivers (many think this is so that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. could somehow be included) and tried to give a bonus to winning, but the truth remains, this Chase was made for Jimmie and Chad. Only one short track, interestingly one that Johnson dominates, and the rest, with the exception of Dover, that are very similar. Sure, you have Talladega and Martinsville, but why is Daytona, Darlington, and Bristol not included, at least for the historical significance if not the variety of tracks?
All that said, here what I think about the Chase contestants:
1. Kyle Busch – He has never shown that he can compete at the highest level when things are on the line. Young as he is, he will have other chances, but the engine failures will make him less than a favorite. He may prove me wrong, but the No, 1 position gives us no reason to believe that he will not see the gremlins that have haunted him all year.
2. Kevin Harvick –The bad summer was swept away from the minds of many by his win at Richmond. The struggles may continue in a bad year for Richard Childress Racing.
3. Jeff Gordon – Despite his success in winning races this year and strong runs, the record shows that his team falters at the end of races. Gordon is a favorite, as a legend should but, I just don’t think it’s going to happen for him. I may eat my words and crow tastes pretty good.
4. Matt Kenseth –The creator of the Chase will do what he always does—run solidly and contend, but is this team a championship team? As usual, he shined during the early season and ran strong throughout the series, but can he maintain the consistency and win a race or two in the final ten races.
5. Carl Edwards –After a torrid start, Edwards became the guy who either finished second or had problems. One wins tells me that there is work to be done. Can this team rise to the occasion? After his contract problems were solved, he regressed in performance. Can this team rise to the occasion?
6. Jimmie Johnson – Johnson flew below the radar most of the season. Like Edwards, he won only one race, but the tracks left are Johnson’s type of tracks. If he wins a couple of races, it’s game over. If he continues to battle with Kurt Busch, it may put him and Chad off their game, but I doubt that. I see no reason why they can’t repeat for a sixth time.
7. Kurt Busch – See No, 6 above. The Penske Dodges have been potent, and the former champ is a worthy adversary. But will the feud be a major distraction?
8. Ryan Newman – With one win, Newman comes into the Chase as an afterthought. I see no reason he can win without multiple wins, and I don’t see that in the cards.
9. Tony Stewart – A horrible season continues. The former champ got in because so many didn’t do well this season. I would say no chance, but you never know. He has to win and win some more.
10. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – NASCAR got their wish for Junior to be included in the Chase. NASCAR’s Most Popular Drive may keep many interested in the final ten races, but with no wins and lackluster performances, I can’t see a way for him to win this championship. Prove me wrong, Dale.
11. Brad Keselowski – A hot finish to the regular season, with some wins got Keselowski into the championship drive, but truth be known, it was the perfect storm. If he can continue the last few weeks, he can be a contender, but for some reason, I don’t see that as coming true.
12. Denny Hamlin – After a runner-up season in 2010, Hamlin made it into the Chase in last place. With the engine problems outlined above and his best tracks behind him, I expect Hamlin to be less than a worthy adversary.
The way I look at it, it looks like Old Five Time will become Old Six Time. The regular season was just a tune-up for the Chase. As it has been for the last five, or six years.