With five Chase races to go, three have emerged as title contenders
Three of the 12 drivers in the Chase have a serious chance to win the title
Jimmie Johnson should win because of his success at the remaining tracks
Brad Keselowski has been fastest lately and Denny Hamlin has the best setup
It is down to three. That's how many drivers, with five races left in the 2012 Sprint Cup season, have a legitimate shot at winning the NASCAR championship.
Brad Keselowski has a seven-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and a 15-point edge over Denny Hamlin. Clint Bowyer, who won last Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, trails by 28 points, but that is a gap he is unlikely to bridge over the next month of racing. Why? Because Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin have consistently flashed more speed on the track and in the pits in the first half of the Chase than any of the other drivers.
So who's the favorite? If you go by history (and therefore statistics), then Johnson is your man. He's a five-time winner for a reason: he flourishes on the Chase tracks, especially the last five on the schedule. On these five tracks -- Kansas, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Texas -- Johnson has nine career wins, by far the most of any of the title contenders. He also possesses the highest career average finish on these tracks of all the Chase drivers.
But if you go by your eyes (and your stopwatch), then Keselowski is your man. Yes, Keselowski has traditionally struggled at many of the remaining tracks -- his career average finish at Texas is 25.2 and at Homestead it's 20.2 -- but he's been the fastest driver in NASCAR over the last five weeks. He's won two playoff races and led multiple laps in every Chase race except one. He clearly had the car to beat at Charlotte last weekend (where he led a race-high 139 laps) but was undone by fuel strategy (and finished 11th).
But if you go by your head (and consider who's in charge of the cars), then Hamlin is your man. The biggest news of last offseason, in retrospect, was Joe Gibbs Racing hiring Darian Grubb to be Hamlin's crew chief. Grubb guided Tony Stewart to the 2011 title -- they won five of the 10 Chase races -- but the two had a falling out and Grubb was let go at season's end. Now Grubb has reinvigorated Hamlin's career. In 2011 Hamlin won only one race and finished ninth in the standings. This year Hamlin has five victories. What's most intriguing about this team, though, is the fact that Grubb's setup notes propelled Stewart to checkered flags last year in three of the last four races (at Martinsville, Texas and Homestead). Now it's Hamlin who will benefit from those notes.
So a case can be made for each of these drivers winning the title, which should make for a compelling five weeks racing. The three remaining contenders are among the five drivers to watch on Sunday in the Heartland:
1. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski's strong performance at Charlotte, a 1.5-mile track, suggests that his historical woes at intermediate-length venues won't cause him to nosedive in the standings over these final five races, three of which take place on 1.5-mile tracks, beginning with Kansas on Sunday.
Keselowski came in 11th at Kansas in April, but on Sunday expect him to run with the leaders once the green flag drops. Why? Two reasons. He's running chassis PRS-832, which he last drove to Victory Lane at Chicagoland Speedway in the Chase opener. And he's peaking at the perfect time, which means he has the ultimate x-factor behind him: momentum, which is as real of a force in motor sports as it is in stick-and-ball sports.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Last fall at Kansas I shadowed Johnson for the weekend for what would turn into a cover story for the magazine. It was impressive how Johnson and Chad Knaus, the crew chief of the No. 48 Chevy, steadily tweaked their setup during the practice sessions and continually found more speed. Then on race day they were able to pull away from the field and win the race. The ease with which Johnson blazed to victory was startling; he led 197 of the 272 laps.
It says here that this will happen again on Sunday. Johnson is my pick to win --and in the process he'll overtake Keselowski in the standings.
3. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin should be formidable this weekend. He won the April race at Kansas, leading 32 laps and then holding off Martin Truex and Jimmie Johnson over the final turns. Hamlin started fourth that day and was never outside the top 10 in the 500-mile race.
Back on Oct. 9, 2005, Hamlin made his first career Cup start at Kansas (he started seventh and finished 32nd), so he has fond memories of the track. But over the years he's been hit-or-miss here, finishing outside the top 10 in six of his nine career starts. If he misses on Sunday, he'll likely be dismissed from title contention.
And Hamlin's chances for the checkers took a big hit on Thursday, when during a test session he crashed into the Turn One wall at 202 mph. After two trips to the infield medical center -- Hamlin said he had his "bell rung" -- Hamlin was cleared to drive and will now be piloting a backup car on Sunday. So now the talents of Grubb, even more so than those of his driver, will be tested on Sunday.
4. Clint Bowyer
The Kansas event is always one of the biggest of the season for Bowyer. Why? Because this is his backyard track. A native of nearby Emporia, KS, Bowyer is the only Kansan in the Cup series and he brims with state pride. After winning last Saturday night in Charlotte his thoughts immediately turned to his home state.
"Coming off of the win obviously rolling into your hometown is lot of fun," he said. "If we could possibly pull this off again in Kansas, it would be, that's my, do you dare say Daytona 500? But it truly is."
If the drivers in front of him flounder on Sunday and Bowyer wins, he suddenly would become a title threat. Will that happen? I don't think so, but keep an eye on Bowyer throughout the afternoon. One year ago he finished seventh in this race.
5. Greg Biffle
In Wednesday's test session at Kansas, which recently has been re-paved, Biffle posted the fastest lap time (average speed: 184.900). As was the case earlier this year at Michigan, which also underwent a re-pave, the speeds at Kansas this weekend will be as fast as they've ever been since the Cup circuit started racing here in 2001. The qualifying record, set by Matt Kenseth in 2005 when he rounded the oval with an average speed of 180.856, will get shattered. After all, 30 drivers topped this speed on Wednesday.
Back in August I spent some time with Biffle and, even then, he was looking forward to the race in Kansas, a track that he considers one of his best. In his last seven starts here, Biffle has two wins and five top-five finishes. Expect him to contend for the checkers on Sunday, but fall only a few hundred yards short of Johnson, who I think will begin to assume command of the Chase late on Sunday afternoon.