USA TODAY US Edition
SIZING UP THE CHASE FIELD
Sixteen drivers will take the green flag Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway with a chance to win the Sprint Cup Series championship at the end of a 10week, 10-race run. Who is in the driver’s seat? Who would be the biggest surprise champion? Wonder no more. U
Kevin Harvick Age: 39 Car No.: 4 Team: Stewart-Haas Racing Crew chief: Rodney Childers Titles: One (2014) Analysis: Harvick would be the least surprising driver to win the championship because he regularly has the fastest car. No, he doesn’t have the wins some of the other contenders do (he has two). But his 10 second-place finishes — the most since 1972 — show how strong Harvick’s team is again. Jimmie Johnson Age: 39 (turns 40 on Thursday) Car No.: 48 Team: Hendrick Motorsports Crew chief: Chad Knaus Titles: Six (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013) Analysis: Johnson isn’t running well by his standards entering the Chase, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him win his seventh title — which would tie him with Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for the record. After all, Johnson has done this before — a disappointing summer followed by a hot streak in the fall. When it comes to Johnson and championships, nothing can be too surprising anymore.
Matt Kenseth Age: 43 Car No.: 20 Team: Joe Gibbs Racing Crew chief: Jason Ratcliff Titles: One (2003) Analysis: When Kenseth starts winning races in bunches (he has won three of the past six) to go with his stellar consistency, watch out. The low-key veteran is a threat to win the title, and, given how strong the JGR cars have been lately (eight wins in 11 races), it wouldn’t be a surprise. Joey Logano Age: 25 Car No.: 22 Team: Team Penske
Crew chief: Todd Gordon Titles: None Analysis: Logano made a strong run at the title last year, advancing to the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway and falling victim to a botched pit stop. Logano, who kicked off the season by winning the Daytona 500, seems just as capable of putting together another strong run at the title. He’s on pace for career highs in every major statistical category and has improved his average finish from 11.3 last year to 8.6. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Logano win the championship.
Carl Edwards Age: 36 Car No.: 19 Team: Joe Gibbs Racing Crew chief: Darian Grubb Titles: None Analysis: Edwards has twice finished second in the Chase, including a loss on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart in 2011. Stewart’s crew chief that year was Grubb, who now is paired with Edwards. (Grubb nearly won the title with Denny Hamlin last year.) Clearly, the duo know how to contend deep into the Chase — and with JGR’s speed, an Edwards championship wouldn’t be surprising.
Brad Keselowski Age: 31 Car No.: 2 Team: Team Penske Crew chief: Paul Wolfe Titles: One (2012) Analysis: Keselowski has the talent, mental toughness, cars and team to win another title. But a victory for Keselowski would be mildly surprising, given how he ruffled feathers in last year’s Chase. Will drivers really give him the courtesy necessary to pass when he has a faster car, or will they race him harder out of spite? It’s an extra hurdle he could have to overcome. Kurt Busch Age: 37 Car No.: 41 Team: Stewart-Haas Racing Crew chief: Tony Gibson Titles: One (2004) Analysis: It would only be a small surprise to see Busch win the title, given his strength with SHR this season. He has clicked well with Gibson and seems to have found a happy place with his team and life (he recently got engaged). Busch knows what it takes to win a championship and likely has the resources to do it.
Kyle Busch Age: 30 Car No.: 18 Team: Joe Gibbs Racing Crew chief: Adam Stevens Titles: None Analysis: There are two reasons Busch is so far down this list despite four wins this season. First, it would be surprising to see a driver pull off the title despite missing 11 races while recovering from injury. And second, something always seems to go wrong for Busch in the Chase. If nothing bad happens to him this year, that would be a surprise in itself.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Age: 40 Car No.: 88 Team: Hendrick Motorsports Crew chief: Greg Ives Titles: None Analysis: The No. 88 team doesn’t seem to be running as well as it did the last couple of years, and Earnhardt hasn’t contended for many wins lately. If he can overcome qualifying struggles, pit crew woes and lack of speed to win in his first year with his new crew chief, that would certainly count as a surprise.
Denny Hamlin Age: 34 Car No.: 11 Team: Joe Gibbs Racing Crew chief: Dave Rogers Titles: None Analysis: Hamlin would have been much higher on this list had he not suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament while playing basketball last week. After all, he had a shot to win the 2014 title — advancing to the final four — and the Chase tracks fall favorably for him. While he performed admirably at Richmond International Raceway after the injury, finishing sixth and leading the race at points, it seems highly unlikely a driver can race for the title and win it after a major injury to the leg that controls the gas pedal.
Martin Truex Jr. Age: 35 Car No.: 78 Team: Furniture Row Racing Crew chief: Cole Pearn Titles: None Analysis: Truex had such a hot start to the season, beginning the year with 14 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races. But since then he has three top-10s. It would be surprising to see Truex and his team suddenly flip the switch and revert to early-season form in the Chase, but stranger things have happened.
Jeff Gordon Age: 44 Car No.: 24 Team: Hendrick Motorsports Crew chief: Alan Gustafson Titles: Four (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001) Analysis: The way Gordon’s team has performed recently, it would be a shock for the No. 24 to make it past the first two rounds — let alone qualify for the championship race or win the title. Gordon’s farewell season hasn’t gone as planned; his average finish of 16.0 is on pace to be his worst since 2005 (17.8), and there have been many disappointing races along the way.
Ryan Newman Age: 37 Car No.: 31 Team: Richard Childress Racing Crew chief: Luke Lambert Titles: None Analysis: Newman made a Cinderella run to the championship race last year and nearly won it on points racing — he didn’t notch a win in the regular season or Chase. But while consistency does matter, it seems unlikely he could pull off the feat again and somehow win the title. That said, Newman would be even higher in points if not for an early-season penalty for tire tampering; his regular-season results were better than in 2014.
Jamie McMurray Age: 39 Car No.: 1 Team: Chip Ganassi Racing Crew chief: Matt McCall Titles: None Analysis: McMurray is a nice story, and he finally made his first Chase after coming close several other times. But it would be a shocker for him to win the title. His last top-10 finish was in June, and he only has two top-fives all season — both of which are crucial stats in the Chase, which rewards consistency.
Clint Bowyer Age: 36 Car No.: 15 Team: Michael Waltrip Racing Crew chief: Billy Scott Titles: None Analysis: Bowyer’s results have been solid lately: eight top-10 finishes in 12 races since Scott took over in June. But he’ll have much to overcome with MWR shutting down after the season. Can a lame-duck organization rally and shock everyone with a championship on its way out the door?
Paul Menard Age: 35 Car No.: 27 Team: Richard Childress Racing Crew chief: Justin Alexander Titles: None Analysis: This would be by far the biggest Chase upset in its 12-year existence. Menard winning the championship this season would be more surprising than if everyone in the world found out they were colorblind and his No. 27 car was actually pink instead of neon yellow.