Handicapping the Chase (cont.)
Chase History: Fifth appearance, runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in 2008.
2010 Resume: No wins, but two poles in the last two months cap a nine-race streak of top-12 finishes entering the Chase.
X Factor: Getting to Victory Lane. Edwards has one of the longest droughts among the five winless participants: he hasn't tasted champagne since a season-ending victory at Homestead in '08. In the 61-year history of NASCAR, the sport has never had a winless champion, and only Tony Stewart has captured the Chase without one over the final 10 races. I think I know what he needs to do now...
Victory Bells Could Ring At: Kansas. Fontana. Texas.
Potential Black Eye: Talladega. He fails at Russian roulette there more than most: only one top-5 finish and 15 laps led in a dozen career starts.
Stat That Matters: 6. That's the number of races he's led this season, tied for the lowest among Chasers (Matt Kenseth). Fact: Entering the month of September, Mattias Ekstrom and Boris Said both had more laps led on the year than Edwards' six (he's since boosted that number by leading 127 at Atlanta and Richmond).
Prognosis: Edwards entered '09 a media darling, the prohibitive favorite to topple Jimmie only to crumble under the weight of expectations and slump to 11th. Can he turn the tables in '10, all but forgotten under the weight of Ford Racing's struggles until a late summer surge put him back on the radar screen? In a way, that creates a no-lose situation this fall, although chances at a title are just not in the cards just yet -- putting up some wins on the board is far more likely. But the man who flipped Keselowski this March is bound to have enough speed to keep things interesting no matter where he finishes each week.
Bowles Odds To Win: 14-1.
Chase History: Fourth appearance, two wins. Best Finish: 6th -- 2008.
2010 Resume: Five top-5 finishes, 13 top-10s and zero DNFs are the perfect recipe for a postseason bid under this system.
X Factor: Poor pit work. Without a victory in 2010, Burton's followed the protocol of his famous quote, "putting himself in position to win" before his crew has let him down late in races. At Darlington, he ran over the air hose and got penalized. At New Hampshire, he stayed out on old tires when others pitted, leaving him a sitting duck. Some bad luck hasn't helped, either: a wreck with Kyle Busch at Charlotte combined with a cut tire at Martinsville to take more wins away.
Victory Bells Could Ring At: New Hampshire. Dover. Homestead, leaving him a dangerous threat should he get to the season finale within striking distance.
Potential Black Eye: Kansas. Auntie Em! Auntie Em! Teach Jeff how to drive instead of running straight into a tornado (two top-10s, five laps led in nine career starts).
Stat That Matters: 43. The senior citizen in this year's field, Burton notching a championship would make him the oldest to hoist the trophy since Dale Earnhardt in 1994. With Mark Martin on the outside looking in, this 17-year vet is clearly the sentimental favorite.
Prognosis: My unofficial formula has Burton this year's early Chase Cinderella for two reasons. 1) He'll get off to a hot start, my pick to win New Hampshire after dominating late before the bad pit call described up top. Then, we head to Dover, where this team was second in the spring and has won during the playoffs before (2006). 2) Burton knows how to top-10 you to death, the most consistent among all the 12 Chasers not named Johnson. No one expects this team to do much of anything, but didn't the other Cinderellas (Clint Bowyer in '07, Greg Biffle in '08, Juan Pablo Montoya last year) come out of nowhere? The only problem is that all of them faded down the stretch, but at least Burton will make the highlights these first few weeks.
Bowles Odds To Win: 20-1.
Chase History: Sixth appearance, one win. Best Finish: 2nd -- 2006.
2010 Resume: Started the year with five runs of eighth or better, then held on for dear life ever since.
X Factor: Confidence. Never mistaken for a cheerleader, I nicknamed Kenseth "Eeyore" last year because when things don't go well, this quiet type sounds like he's off chewing thistles in the Hundred Acre Wood under a rain cloud. Honest to a fault, he admitted in public recently the team is in the Chase only because it avoided DNFs.
From his Saturday press conference: "Seems like we average usually around a 12th place finish, and certainly that's not going to win the championship over 10 races." He should have been waving the white flag of surrender the whole time...
Victory Bells Could Ring At: Dover -- if they're really, really lucky.
Potential Black Eye: Everywhere. This team hasn't been clicking on all eight cylinders for months.
Stat That Matters: 3. That's the number of crew chiefs he's had this season, from Drew Blickensderfer to Todd Parrott to Jimmy Fennig. At this rate, a fourth isn't out of the question; winning the title with that much turnover would easily be a NASCAR first.
Prognosis: Considering the circumstances -- just four top-10 finishes over the last 19 races of the regular season -- how Kenseth made the Chase was near-miraculous in itself. Off to a strong start early, a victory at Martinsville was stolen by an unfriendly tap off Jeff Gordon's front bumper, putting a damper on a strong start in which he nearly wound up the points leader through six races. This team has never quite been the same since, limping to the finish line under a format that's never really been this driver's Cup of tea to begin with.
Bowles Odds To Win: 500-1.
Chase History: Third appearance, one win. Best Finish: 3rd -- 2007.
2010 Resume: Only four top-5 finishes, but three straight top-10s were enough to hold off Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Mark Martin for the final spot in the field.
X Factor: Last on the totem pole. Bowyer has spent much of this year lagging behind the accomplishments of teammates Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, who also made the Chase. When you're third-best on your own team, can you make that leap to championship contender in just 10 weeks?
Victory Bells Could Ring At: New Hampshire. Kansas. Martinsville. But I don't expect him to cash in on any of them.
Potential Black Eye: Dover. Never a top-5 finish in nine career starts. Already 60 points behind Hamlin heading in, he can't afford to lose more ground again in the Chase's second playoff race.
Stat That Matters: 2. Bowyer's number of career victories over 171 starts are one less than the number of his career playoff appearances. Not exactly the type of numbers you put up on the fridge with pride, especially when every other Chaser has at least 14.
Prognosis: Always the underdog, Bowyer knows how to make Chase consistency work for him: he's 2-for-2 on finishing inside the top-5 in points. But when it comes to taking home the title, can you really put all your faith behind a winless 12 seed? One of the sport's future stars, he's at about the point Denny Hamlin was two years ago: a talented, moody work in progress that stops short of Victory Lane. He'll climb that mountain eventually, just not this year.
Bowles Odds To Win: 40-1.