The 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship is like a season within a season. Unfortunately it comes after a 26-race schedule over a sometimes grueling 29 weeks. Only the driver, crew chief and team with the best preparation, stamina and luck can survive the Chase and be crowned Cup champion.
This season, eight drivers who have never won a Cup title are challenging four former or current champions. Only one of those champs, Tony Stewart, has won a title under the Chase format (2005) and before it (2002).
So who has the edge in the Chase? A past champion like Jeff Gordon, who has won four Cup titles, or two-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson? How about those who have never hoisted a Cup trophy, a veteran like Jeff Burton or young gun like Clint Bowyer? Let’s take a look, bracket-style:
Elite 8 non-champions
Note: Seedings based on five Chase races, stats through seven races
1. Jeff Burton
Stat that matters: Top 11 in standings all season
Oh so close: Burton’s best championship finish was third in 2000 when he drove for Roush Fenway Racing . Burton is one of the most consistent drivers in the Chase with a 11.7 average finish through 33 races.
8. Denny Hamlin
Stat that matters: Top-five finishes past two Chase races
Hello walls: This is the second consecutive season in which Hamlin has flamed out in the final 10 races. His hard crash into the Turn 2 wall at Talladega ended his title chances this year and relegated him to the lonely end of the standings.
Stat that matters: Second career Chase berth
The rabbit: Biffle’s only two wins this year came in Weeks 1 and 2 of the Chase. The former Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series champ has allowed the front-runners match his pace since then, but will he have anything left in the stretch run?
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Stat that matters: Third-best average finish this season (11.6) behind only Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards
A pair of fives: Earnhardt’s Chase history is like a yo-yo: Up, down, up, down, now up. When he’s made the Chase (2004, 2006) he’s finished fifth twice with 10-race averages of 12.6 and 13.0. He’ll be lucky to finish fifth this year.
Stat that matters: Two ugly confrontations with competitors/teammates during last two Chases
Hey, tough guy: Edwards started the Chase with considerable momentum (three top-3 finishes), but his tussle with Kevin Harvick at Lowe’s Motor Speedway on Oct. 9 is not a positive step for someone with champion aspirations. Hopefully he’s learned his lesson.
6. Kyle Busch
Stat that matters: Only one top-five in first six Chase races
Slipper doesn’t fit: Busch was the favorite at the beginning of this Chase, but no more. He and his team have the appropriate swagger but zero luck lately. His title run limped to a halt with three finishes of 28th or worse to open the Chase. It’s a valuable lesson for the young Busch.
Stat that matters: Six top-12 finishes to start Chase
Where did he come from? Bowyer was the Chase darling last year, battling two Goliaths in Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon for the title in his first Chase. He finished a respectable third with five top-10 finishes and one win. He’s battling for the Nationwide Series title this year.
5. Kevin Harvick
Stat that matters: Only two career Chase race victories (2006)
One trophy missing: Harvick is a two-time Nationwide Series champion, has won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 and was rookie of the year in two different NASCAR series. However, Harvick wins this matchup with bravado and cunning over his good-natured teammate.
Quarterfinals: Champs vs. challengers
1. Jimmie Johnson vs. 8. Kyle Busch
Johnson has won his two championships like a great race horse wins a big race: stalking the leaders and finishing strong. Last year, Johnson won four of the final five Chase races — including the Dickies 500 — and finished the Chase with an average finish of 5.0. He’s won 13 of 46 career Chase races.
These two fiery personalities and good friends know how to win championships, but this matchup in this Chase features a twist. Both Stewart and Harvick are busy NASCAR owners and you have to wonder who is more distracted. Stewart won the 2005 title with an average finish of 8.7 (but no wins) in the Chase.
3. Jeff Gordon vs. 6. Greg Biffle
Gordon has not won a title under the Chase format, with a best finish of second last year. Gordon missed the Chase in which Biffle finished second, 35 points behind Tony Stewart in 2005. Gordon and Biffle are clean competitors driving superior equipment. However, Biffle gets the edge on one front: crew chief. Greg Erwin and Biffle are clicking, while Gordon and Steve Letarte are not.
Kenseth was the last pre-Chase champ in 2003 when he methodically gathered a series-high 25 top-10 finishes but only one win. He clinched the title with one race remaining. Kenseth has made the Chase every year, but this time he has been plagued by accidents (three) and finds himself hobbled near the bottom of the standings.
No. 1 Jimmie Johnson vs. No. 6 Greg Biffle
After Johnson won Chase race 6 at Martinsville and rallied for a second-place finish at Atlanta, Biffle finds himself 185 points behind in third. If Johnson would spot Biffle about 150 points, this could be a classic showdown because both drivers have performed well at the remaining tracks. Johnson is a good guy, but not that nice.
Bound for the finals: Johnson
Battle of orange cars and slightly different driving styles. Where Stewart takes chances, Burton takes the patient route. The jury is still out on whether patience wins championships. However, Burton’s 8.6 average finish through seven Chase races gives him the edge this season over Stewart’s 16.3.
Bound for the finals: Burton
No. 1 Jimmie Johnson vs. No. 5 Jeff Burton
No upset here. Johnson is fixin’ to make history as only the second driver to win three consecutive Cup titles and there really isn’t anything Burton can do about it. What’s so remarkable about this three-peat is Johnson has won a title with the old car (2006), then during a season with a mix of old car and Car of Today (2007) and this year exclusively with the COT.
Your Turn: Who do you think will win the 2008 Sprint Cup Championship? Vote in the poll to the right!