Johnson, Stewart among favorites to take the Chase in 2010
Jimmie Johnson is the favorite to take the championship and notch a fifth title
If Kyle Busch can keep his temper in check, he is likely to do well in the Chase
Tony Stewart is a darkhorse championship contender after his late-summer surge
It's that time of year again, folks. Year seven of NASCAR's playoff format has been widely trumpeted to be the most "wide open" Chase in years. How believable is that? I'll bite on the hype to a certain degree. Reigning four-time champ Jimmie Johnson remains the favorite, but there's enough vulnerability to leave the door open a crack. And the great thing is if he does fall to earth with a thud, the next tier of challengers behind him comprises five, maybe six drivers, who all look about even on paper.
How does this field look heading in? Find out as we handicap each of the 12 postseason participants in our Chase 2010 guide:
Chase History: Fifth appearance, two wins. Best Finish: Third, 2006.
2010 Resume: A career-high six wins (Martinsville, Texas, Darlington, Pocono, Michigan, Richmond) leaves him the No. 1 seed in the Chase. Five of those came after season-threatening ACL surgery this spring.
X Factor: Confidence. A guy without a poker face, Hamlin's emotional attachment to on-track performance has haunted him in the past. But in the face of adversity this year, he's showcased the type of poise and maturity you'd expect from a champion, toughing it out in a car six days after his knee was on an operating table, while failing to get sucked into the ugly depression of a summer slump of DNFs.
Victory Bells Could Ring At: Martinsville. Texas. Homestead. But will it be too late by then?
Potential Black Eye: Dover. He endured five straight runs of 22nd or worse before cashing in with a top-5 finish this spring. Could two in a row be asking too much?
Stat That Matters: 11. The number of top-10 finishes for Hamlin this season, just 11th-best among the 12-man field despite his lofty ranking up top. That's a consistency problem if I've ever seen one: No Chaser has taken home the title with fewer than 21.
Prognosis: The trendy preseason pick to topple Johnson gets his chance, starting with a 10-point lead on his nemesis. The early tracks clearly favor J.J., making the first few races more like damage control for Hamlin. But if he can just keep that No. 11 within striking distance, the package is finally there, top-to-bottom, for him to make enough of a charge that puts pressure on the No. 48 down the stretch. With their driver's growth as a person intact, the pressure comes not from the cockpit but the engine shop: two engine failures in last year's Chase + two mechanical problems the last three races = major reliability questions for Joe Gibbs Racing. Jimmie's engine isn't going to break, so one DNF would be all it takes to derail this otherwise healthy bid for a title.
Bowles Odds To Win: 6-1.
Chase History: Seventh appearance, four consecutive titles, 18 Chase wins (all NASCAR records)
2010 Resume: Five wins make him the Chase No. 2 seed: Fontana, Las Vegas, Bristol, Sonoma, Loudon. Owns back-to-back top-5 finishes the last two weeks at Atlanta and Richmond.
X Factor: Hendrick support. For the first time ever, Johnson heads to the postseason without the off-track love from his teammates. First-second-third in the standings last year, HMS didn't even make the Chase with Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr., both of whom couldn't find Victory Lane if it popped up five feet in front of their face. Add in an inconsistent summer for Jeff Gordon, and for the first time ever the Lowe's team will have little to no extra help from the peanut gallery. Can riding solo in a multi-car world work for them?
Victory Bells Could Ring At: New Hampshire. Dover. Fontana, a 1-2-4 Chase knockout punch that could send everyone else packing far earlier than expected.
Potential Black Eye: Talladega. Johnson's escaped the equivalent of Chase Russian roulette with nary a scratch in recent years. But with three of his four DNFs occurring on plate tracks this season, it's hard to see that type of luck holding out forever.
Stat That Matters: 1,083 laps led this season. This leads all NASCAR drivers and proves this season hasn't been as much of a "slump" for the No. 48 as critics claimed.
Prognosis: For four years running, Johnson has made the Chase his own personal playground, to the point his mere presence in the field is enough to intimidate half the competition out of town. He told Dan Patrick this week crew chief Chad Knaus & Co. are ahead of where they were this time last year, talking five straight titles while acting as if it's as simple as going out and picking up a gallon of milk.
If what he says is true, well, God help the 11-car lineup desperate to take him down. In position to win as early as New Hampshire this Sunday, Johnson knows a solid start is key. A top-3 runs there and at Dover would patch up any cracks in the armor, leaving this team on cruise control and well on its way to accomplishing an unprecedented Drive For Five.
Bowles Odds To Win: 3-1.
Chase History: Fourth appearance, two wins. Best Finish: 4th -- twice.
2010 Resume: Three wins (Talladega, Daytona, Michigan), 17 top-10s, and 23 top-15 finishes make him your regular season points champ by 228 over Kyle Busch.
X Factor: His mouth. DeLana may wear the firesuit in the family, but Harvick has the ego. Cockier than ever, this attitude can actually be helpful: he's an expert at getting inside a driver's head, nearly causing Matt Kenseth to fumble away a title in 2003. Having him anywhere close to the title hunt with this much confidence leaves rivals fighting hard to turn off a 24-hour negative campaign ad shoved in their faces.
Victory Bells Could Ring At: Fontana. Talladega. Phoenix, a track that's typically Harvick's personal playground.
Potential Black Eye: Martinsville. Thirty-fifth in the spring there after winning the pole, he's never finished in the top-5 in 18 starts. How bad has it gotten? A random piece of Styrofoam caught on fire inside his car three years ago. Ouch.
Stat That Matters: 1. That's the number of regular season point leaders who've gone on to capture the Chase (Tony Stewart, 2005).
Prognosis: Harvick is living on extra credit, a phenomenal comeback story after it looked like he and owner Richard Childress were headed toward divorce as late as April. But a contract extension, a new sponsor for '11, and multiple trips back to Victory Lane leave the team with plenty to hang its hat on. The worry I have for this team is peaking too soon. Like most regular season champs, the team has stumbled down the stretch with just one top-5 finish the last five races. That inconsistency is notable because unlike other teams, this one's given 110 percent every time out, never testing and always showing its poker hand on the track each week. We know what cards Harvick's team has already; I just think too many others have been bluffing with a Full House that'll beat RCR's three-of-a-kind juggernaut any day.
Bowles Odds To Win: 15-1.
Chase History: Fourth appearance, one win ('05 as a rookie who missed the Chase). Best Finish: 5th, 2007 - his last year with Hendrick Motorsports.
2010 Resume: Three wins (Richmond, Dover, Bristol) helped cement his reputation as king of the short tracks a mile or less in length. Bristol was part of a NASCAR-record sweep across the board in its top three series (Nationwide, Craftsman Trucks).
X Factor: Eyes On The Prize. In past years, Busch's big problem in Chase school was spending too much time in extracurricular activities: his quest for NASCAR's "AAA" title (Nationwide) helped cause him to miss the Chase last season. Now the owner of an "AA" Truck Series team, Kyle has that on his plate and a limited schedule behind the wheel, where he's currently engaged in a public feud with Todd Bodine. After running second on Saturday, he refused to answer a reporter's question about that race simply because they'd interviewed Todd the week before. Huh? If that's what you're thinking when you exit the car on a good day, can you really squash the distractions in a pinch enough to win that championship?
Victory Bells Could Ring At: Dover. Talladega. Maybe Charlotte.
Potential Black Eye: New Hampshire. Busch has gotten off to some ugly starts there, wrecking in his first Chase in '06, then breaking a suspension after coming in a heavy favorite to win it all in '08. A run like last year's fifth is imperative to keep pace early on.
Stat That Matters: 8. Known for being streaky, that's how many finishes of 34th or worse he has in three previous Chase appearances, an eye-opening 27 percent of his starts. It doesn't matter how much you win, three of these bad boys will kill your title chances.
Prognosis: With all due respect to Harvick's hat, Kyle Busch enters this playoff on fire. Three straight top-5 finishes combine with 1,198 points at the eight Chase tracks the series has visited this season -- more than any other driver -- put him on top of the stats sheet on paper. When this guy's on a hot streak, there's no one better, capable of winning three, four races in a row and beating his competition into submission. But keep in mind there's also a lot of people (Brad Keselowski, cough) who would also like to beat Kyle into the outside wall as payback for some ugly incidents earlier in the year. Can the car hold up? Will the engines hold up? And can new, mature Kyle keep the old, rampaging kill-your-team's-confidence-for-multiple-races from showing up and pulling a public outburst? If all those questions are yes, then he's your 2010 Cup champ. I just don't think we're there yet -- although it'll be close.
Bowles Odds To Win: 10-1.