My 2013 Chase crystal ball: Forecasting who'll qualify
The laps are winding down on NASCAR's 2013 regular season. With 10 races left before the start of the Chase, let's break down who will -- and one notable name who won't -- qualify for the playoffs, which begin on Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway.
1. Jimmie Johnson: Even though his lead over Edwards has been trimmed to only 25 points -- the smallest it's been since the seventh race of the season -- Johnson should glide to the regular season points title. He already has three victories, which ties him for most in the series with Matt Kenseth, and I'm forecasting that he'll reach Victory Lane two more times over the next 10 weeks. Johnson clearly is the driver to beat for the championship.
2. Carl Edwards: The Fords have been a tick down on straight-line speed for most of this season, but Edwards has been ruthlessly consistent. Though he only has one victory (at Phoenix in the second race of the season), his nine top-10 finishes tie him for second most in the series behind Johnson's 10. Still, the only way he'll be a serious player in the Chase is if the No. 99 team can find more raw speed in Edwards' Ford.
3. Clint Bowyer: Bowyer is the most underrated driver in NASCAR -- by a long measure. A year after finishing second in the final standings, he's third in the points. Bowyer isn't flashy -- he's yet to win this season and he's led only 114 total laps -- but he excels at avoiding trouble, and even when he struggles with the handling of his No. 15 Toyota, he seemingly can pull out a top-10 finish. This isn't a recipe for a championship, but it's a good way to qualify for the Chase.
4. Kevin Harvick: The conventional wisdom in the garage during preseason Speedweeks at Daytona was that this would be a down year for Harvick because he'd already announced that he was leaving Richard Childress Racing at the end of 2013 for Stewart-Haas Racing. Well, it hasn't been. He's fourth in the standings and has two wins. Harvick likes to lull other drivers to sleep, hanging out in the middle of the pack for the first two-thirds of a race, then charge late into the top 10. That's been the MO of his career and it's consistently been what he's done this season.
5. Matt Kenseth: When Jimmie Johnson was asked two weeks ago who he thought he'd have to beat for the championship, his reply came without the slightest hesitation: Matt Kenseth. In his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth, 41, has been reinvigorated. He's led a total of 922 laps (only Kyle Busch has led more, with 955), has three wins, and has dramatically improved his qualifying speeds (his average starting position is 7.8; last year it was 13.3). Kenseth's biggest problem has been mechanical failures. But based on speed alone, he can stay wheel-to-wheel to with Johnson.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: After coming in second in the Daytona 500, Earnhardt looked poised to have a championship-caliber season. He's still a threat to win his first Cup title, but even he'd admit that the first 16 races of the season have been mildly disappointing. He's yet to win, he's led only 82 laps, and his average finish of 14.2 is well below what he averaged last year (10.9). Still, the No. 88 team is capable of creating magic, and I think Earnhardt will take at least one checkered flag (perhaps at Richmond on Sept. 7) before the beginning of the Chase.
7. Greg Biffle: After slumping in late April and May -- he had one stretch where he finished 31st or worse in three out of four races -- Biffle has risen to sixth in the standings and should comfortably qualify for the playoffs. He's one of the top racers in the sport on 1.5-mile tracks, and five of the 10 Chase races take place on 1.5-milers, which means that Biffle will have a credible shot to win his first title this fall.
8. Kyle Busch: Busch is the classic all-or-nothing, boom-or-bust driver. Granted, he's had terrible luck this season -- no driver has been in the wrong place at the wrong time more than Busch -- but his inconsistency is confounding. The good: he has two wins and seven top-five finishes (which tie him with Johnson for most in the series). The bad: he also has five finishes of 30th or worse. Busch has never performed well in the Chase because he's been unable to string together 10 solid races, but I think he'll make the playoffs for the third time in four years. He's currently eighth in the standings.
9. Kasey Kahne: Only nine races ago, Kahne was second in the points and looking very much like a legitimate title contender. But since then he has fallen to 11th in the standings. Yet I think he will motor back into the top 10 over the next few weeks. He should be especially fast on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, where his career average finish is 7.5.
10. Tony Stewart: He's making his traditional summer surge. Ten weeks ago, he was 22nd in the standings and appeared to be on the verge of a lost season, but since then he's climbed into 15th. Stewart has one victory, so he could possibly qualify for the Chase as a wild card, but I think he'll race his way into a guaranteed spot in the top 10. Stewart and his crew chief Steve Addington have clearly discovered a setup secret, and it should be enough to propel the three-time champion into his seventh straight Chase.
11. Martin Truex, Jr.: Truex snapped a 218-race winless streak on Sunday at the Sonoma road course. Now tenth in the standings, he will be a long shot to win again in the regular season, but that victory in wine country should be enough to get him into the Chase as a wild card. I see Truex slipping to around 13th in the standings over the next ten weeks, but I still like his wild card chances, especially because two of his best tracks -- Kentucky (career average finish of 13.0) and Watkins Glen (13.7) -- remain on the regular season schedule.
12. Jeff Gordon: Currently 13th in the standings, Gordon needs to either string together 10 good finishes or simply win one of the next 10 races. I'm guessing he'll do the latter, either at Daytona (where he has six career victories), Indy (four), or Pocono (six).
13. Brad Keselowski: After starting the season with four straight top-five finishes, the reigning Cup champion held the points lead and had the look of an emerging big-time force in the sport. But since then, Keselowski has had only one top-five run in his last 12 starts and the mechanical advantage that he and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, had over the majority of the field has evaporated. He's now ninth in the standings and moving in the wrong direction. But as he proved in the Chase last year, when he had only one finish worse than 11th, Keselowski is capable of charging to the front at any moment. Alas, I just don't see it happening for this team this year. So it says here that there will be a new champion in NASCAR in 2013.