Your! Call: Who do you like in the Sprint Cup chase?

Shane McNeil
9/13/2013 10:05:13 AM
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After 26 races, seven months and one unprecedented penalty, NASCAR's 'regular season' has come to an end.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup begins in Chicago this weekend as 12 drivers have moved one step closer to the circuit crown.

In handicapping the Chase, it's important to remember that the playing field is once again level. All 12 qualified drivers now have an equal shot at the Cup, regardless of how many races they have won or lost up to this point.

So, who do you like?

Jimmie Johnson was the first to clinch his chase spot, doing so over a month ago at Aug. 11's Watkins Glen International. Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth have had their berths clinched for a couple weeks and have likewise been able to cruise through the final races prior to the Chase. Kyle Busch qualified by winning Atlanta two weeks ago and was joined that same night by Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne, leaving five spots up for grabs in Richmond.

The field was filled out on the final weekend before the Chase with: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and - at the time - Martin Truex Jr.

Truex may have been the sentimental favourite as he fought valiantly down the stretch, driving with a broken right wrist, but he was removed from the Chase by NASCAR officials after initially securing a spot when his Waltrip Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers apparently manipulated the outcome of Saturday night's Richmond race under orders from the team.

The penalty vaulted Ryan Newman into the Chase by virtue of wild card qualification. When looking for who has the inside track, history can tell us a few things.

The first, as always, is don't overlook Johnson. Number 48 has five Sprint Cups under his belt and was far and away the best driver for much of the 2013 campaign. After two years on the outside looking in, he could be hungry to add a sixth Cup to his trophy case.

Bowyer - last year's runner-up - may be eager to conclude some unfinished business. Bowyer, like Johnson, narrowly missed the Cup last season by virtue of two disastrous sub-20 finishes during the Chase that marred an otherwise excellent run.

Kenseth's five checkered flags this season are tops heading into the Chase but last year's season ended on an inconsistent note. While Kenseth won two of the 10 Chase races, he was unable to crack the top 10 in all but one of the others, leading to a disappointing seventh-place finish.

Kyle Busch is something of a wild card. He locked up his spot by winning Atlanta and has taken two of the last five checkered flags. However, the last time he was in the Chase in 2011, he finished last amongst the top 12, reaching only one podium.

His brother Kurt has been good entertainment all year, even if he hasn't won many friends. He got into a shoving match with Tony Stewart and caused a seven-car pile-up. In the meantime, he's been a Jekyll and Hyde performer. Heading into Richmond, Busch had finished top-10 in 11 of his last 18. That said, he'd also finished lower than 30th three times over that same span.

Kurt is one of just four drivers to have successfully navigated the Chase, so he could be out to surprise.

Fans will also be eager to see if Dale Earnhardt Jr. can finally return his family name to the Championship conversation after three straight unsuccessful Chases. Junior remains one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR, but many still await his big breakthrough.

Logano has earned his slot through consistency. While he only has one checkered flag this season, he has essentially lived in the top 10 since Indianapolis including a pole-checker double at Michigan.
Biffle, too, is a driver who shouldn't be overlooked, as he'd have long ago locked up his spot had it not been for a disastrous spring that saw him finish in the 30s three times between Richmond and Charlotte, dropping from fourth to 13th in the standings in the process.

Newman, for his part, is back in the Chase for the third time in five years and may be eager to make good on the chance he's been given to compete thanks to the Truex penalty.
Last year Brad Keselowski took the Chase by surprise, entering it in seventh but then winning Chicago and holding tight the rest of the way with the aid of two duds from Johnson in the final weeks.

Will this year have another dramatic finish? Who do you like?

As always, it's Your! Call.

Jimmie Johnson  (Photo: The Canadian Press)


(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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