Handicapping the Chase (cont.)
Chase History: Fifth appearance, inaugural Chase champ in 2004. Also finished fourth behind the Hendrick trio last season.
2010 Resume: Two wins (Atlanta, Charlotte), two poles led to another solid but not spectacular season in Penske equipment. But when he's clicking on all eight cylinders, watch out. He led 530 laps combined at the Coke 600 and Bristol, where a late-race pit call left him second to Johnson.
X Factor: The Lone Ranger. The one Dodge entry in this year's Chase, Busch will benefit from being his manufacturer's singular focus these next 10 weeks. But how much help can his team and those extra engineers really be? Fellow drivers Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. have yet to score a top-10 finish on the Cup side this season.
Victory Bells Could Ring At: New Hampshire. Kansas. Charlotte. Texas.
Potential Black Eye: Homestead. His last four starts at the season finale: 43rd, 2nd, 43rd, 2nd. Guess what finish comes next.
Stat That Matters: 10.0. A sizzling average start that's second among the Chasers to Johnson's 12.3, Busch carries the lone distinction of qualifying in the top half of the field (22nd or better) in each of the 26 races to date. Starting up front doesn't guarantee anything ... but it certainly helps your chances in an era where track position is everything.
Prognosis: The Penske powerhouse enters the playoffs under the radar, a one-time trendy favorite people have written off once they wilted during the Dog Days of Summer. I'm not. Let's not forget last year, Busch had to deal with a lame-duck crew chief (Pat Tryson) who announced his departure days before the Chase, DNF'd twice in the last four regular season races and still charged back to finish fourth. His rivalry with Johnson red hot -- he called the Hendrick drivers "pretty boys" after they tangled at Pocono -- the man's also the only one gutsy enough to go where others have feared to tread, spinning the reigning four-time champ out of the way if necessary to win it. A finish outside the top half of the Chase would be a shock, and if this team comes out and wins New Hampshire to start -- watch out.
Bowles Odds To Win: 12-1.
Chase History: Sixth appearance, one title under this format (2005). In a bit of a mild surprise, that's the only year he's finished better than sixth.
2010 Resume: One win (Atlanta) was the high point of a sizzling second half: he has 10 top-10 finishes in just the last 13 races alone. That's as many as fellow Chaser Matt Kenseth earned over a full slate of 26.
X Factor: Hendrick Equipment. Stewart will swear until the cows come home he and Jimmie Johnson have the exact same engines and chassis. But when your equipment supplier also has a guy gunning for the title, why give your rival a way to beat you? As it is, the latest horsepower dyno reportedly showed the No. 48 with just a tick more HP than the No. 14. It's those small, subtle differences that could put this owner/driver at a disadvantage if his "vendor" doesn't play fair.
Victory Bells Could Ring At: New Hampshire. Kansas. Talladega. Texas. Wins at two of those four would make it a successful Chase and give him a chance at the big prize.
Potential Black Eye: Charlotte. Nearly the place his title dreams went to die five years ago, an ugly track record includes no top-5 finishes in seven years. Ouch.
Stat That Matters: 18 years. That's the last time an owner/driver won a NASCAR title, the lone modern era upset with Alan Kulwicki at the controls. Let's just say it's a miracle that doesn't happen very often.
Prognosis: After cruising to the regular season points title only to falter when it really counted last year, Stewart pursued a different strategy in 2010: peak at the right time. Knocking the sophomore slump out of the way in early spring, he's spent the summer blazing through the field while steering clear of controversy and letting the younger whippersnappers do the fighting. Can a wiser, older Stewart prevail for title three? The feeling within SHR is they're betting with house money in a down year -- teammate Ryan Newman didn't make the Chase -- producing a "nothing to lose" attitude that makes him a dangerous foe. A dark horse championship contender if there ever was one.
Bowles Odds To Win: 6-1.
Chase History: Fourth appearance, six wins. Runner-up to Tony Stewart for the title in '05.
2010 Resume: A win at Pocono and two thirds in the sport's biggest races (Daytona 500, Brickyard 400) highlighted a year where he did just enough to sneak in.
X Factor: Ford. This manufacturer was winless in Cup for nearly a year-and-a-half before Biffle's breakthrough victory in August. Heading to the first Chase using the FR9 engine full-time, will the extra horsepower hold up over 500 miles at Charlotte and Texas? Poor simulations were also to blame, leaving engineering geeks playing racing Dungeons and Dragons in the backroom catching up. Word on the street is engineers are not quite there yet, leaving Blue Ovals at a constant disadvantage on intermediates.
Victory Bells Could Ring At: Dover. Kansas. Homestead. Quirky fact: he's the only driver besides Johnson to win in five of the last six years of the Chase.
Potential Black Eye: Talladega. Biffle went a dozen starts there before recording his first top-10 finish last spring. He's run fourth and seventeenth since, but I'd hardly call him a restrictor plate expert.
Stat That Matters: 7. Seven of the Biff's 14 top-10 finishes came in the season's first eight races before slumping to seven-for-his-last-18.
Prognosis: Always Ford's forgotten man, Biffle's bidding to be the first to score titles in each of NASCAR's top three series: Cup, Nationwide and Trucks. He's done better than you think, scoring two-podium point finishes and nearly half of his career wins during this stretch of races. But while teammate Edwards heads in with momentum, Biffle stumbled to 36th and 32nd-place finishes that had him questioning whether the No. 16 team was even worthy to make the playoffs. His track record on intermediates is also suspect: just one top-5 finish on the 1.5-to-2-mile ovals that make up half of this year's 10 races. It all adds up to good, but not great, and championships don't get won by cars that always get a B on their report card.
Bowles Odds To Win: 40-1.
Chase History: Sixth appearance, three wins. Best Finish: 2nd -- 2007.
2010 Resume: No wins, but 10 top-5 finishes helped lead him to a third-place finish in the regular season standings, 230 behind Kevin Harvick.
X Factor: Jimmie Johnson fatigue. For more than four years now, Gordon's had to watch on the other side of the shop as his former protégé runs circles around him in wins, titles, karma and political correctness. Frustration came out in public in the form of a few ugly scrapes at Texas and Talladega, but as always, it was the No. 24 that got the short end of the stick. When will the tide turn?
Victory Bells Could Ring At: Texas. Crazy that's his best shot, since Gordon was winless there for 17 years until breaking through with his last career victory in April '09.
Potential Black Eye: Talladega. Once a track firmly in the No. 24 car's wheelhouse, he's endured five straight finishes of 19th or worse since sweeping both races in 2007.
Stat That Matters: 813. The number of laps led by Gordon without scoring a victory. If that stat holds, it's the most in the modern era since Harry Gant's 1,169 back in 1981.
Prognosis: This year's big Chase disappointment. Who would have thought five years ago Johnson would finish off the Drive For Five championships before his mentor? But that's where we're at within a Hendrick program that's clearly tilted the way of the No. 48. The shocking drama with Gordon this season is how he really should have four or five victories, yet fumbled them away through a series of poor pit strategy calls, driver mistakes (like missing pit road at Darlington), or simply getting outdriven late in races. No more does the No. 24 car strike fear into drivers' hearts on the track, and lately the frustration of a career-high 55-race winless streak has taken its toll -- just two laps led and one top-10 finish the last five races is some ugly foreshadowing. Still without a primary sponsor for next year and saddled with a crew chief in Steve Letarte that's a shell of mentor Chad Knaus, last year's third-place finish is likely the ceiling for a program in need of more retooling than you might think.
Bowles Odds To Win: 75-1.
Phillips: Outfielders are on the move at MLB winter meetings
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