Here are my predictions for the finishing order of the Chase, in descending order:
12. Matt Kenseth - He hasn't been close to winning a race all year. He sounded very dejected after yesterday's race. In short, he doesn't have the equipment to win nor the confidence.
11. Clint Bowyer - He had 4 top 5's in the first 26 races. He finished out of the top ten in 14 of the 26 races. That's not going to get it done in the Chase. Last season's 3rd place finish was a fluke.
10. Jeff Burton - I'm a stats guy, admittedly. Here's what I see out of Mr. Burton in the "regular season": 1 win, 4 top 5's, 12 top 10's. That's the same statline as Bowyer. Burton was strong for the first dozen races of the season, but he has dropped off significantly since.
9. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - Speaking of drivers who have fizzled... Unlike Burton, Bowyer, and Kenseth, Junior has been capable of winning more than one race this year. Since Daytona #2, however, his races have looked like he was back in the #8 DEI dud. Hendrick's cars got him to the Chase, but they won't get him in range of the championship. A crew chief change is badly needed.
8. Greg Biffle - The Biff is hard to gauge. He has good equipment and great talent. If he gets hot, he can contend for the title. But he hasn't shown any flashes of brilliance this season like he did in 2005. He'll run strong at Kansas, and I bet he'll win Homestead, but he can't string together enough good finishes to win it all.
7. Jeff Gordon - Though he was my preseason pick to win it all this year, I don't see it happening now. This winless season is really grating on Jeff's nerves, and he's just got a huge psychological block right now. His runs haven't been spectacular, and he hasn't been a threat to win many races. An average driver in this car this year would not have been close to making the Chase. Supreme talent can't beat superior equipment.
6. Tony Stewart - Tony is the wild card in this Chase. Unlike the previous six guys on my list, he has the equipment to win the championship, and he has the experience of winning a title under the Chase format. He has had a good enough car to win multiple races. But the distractions of the winless season and his new team for 2009 loom large. If he channels his anger and frustration, he can win 5 races in the Chase. I'm betting he won't get that hot, but he'll win a race at least.
5. Kevin Harvick - Consistency wins championships. No one has been more consistent over the closing stretch of the regular season than Happy. He's poised to start the Chase with a win at Loudon, and then he runs well at a lot of the remaining tracks. His Achilles' heel, however, will be Atlanta. Since winning his first race there, he has constantly sucked there. A poor finish there dooms his title chances.
4. Denny Hamlin - If he strings together ten more third-place finishes to continue his current three-race streak, he will be the 2008 champion, end of story. That's too much to ask, I'm afraid. He has as many top 5's (9) and top 10's (14) as Jimmie Johnson. He's had race-winning cars multiple times this year, and he'll definitely have the equipment to run strong. But this Chase truly is a three-man battle, and Denny will have to settle for "the best of the rest."
I'm predicting a tie for second place. The top three have all been stout this season, and they will be fighting tooth and nail throughout the Chase. In the first edition of the Chase in 2004, the top three finishers were separated by a mere 18 points. This season will be even closer. Here's a number to illustrate why: 18. Jimmie, Kyle, and Carl have won 18 out of the 26 races this season - that's 69%. No one else has won a race since June - that's 8 races.
So, you've got three guys who are capable of winning every single time they get in the car, no matter where they are. You've got three extremely competitive individuals who drive every lap like it's the last one. You've got three outstanding teams and crew chiefs. You've got three teams who have been far and above the best team for their individual manufacturers.
This is going to be a dogfight.
2. (Tie) Jimmie Johnson - His biggest advantage is his experience in the Chase. No one else has cradled that ugly trophy in three years. Jimmie won the last two of these deals for a reason: his driving style and performance are very well suited for this format. He wins races. When he has a 15th place car, he finishes 9th. When he has a 25th place car, he finishes 14th. He consistently drives over his head. It will be difficult for Carl or Kyle to dethrone the reigning champion and impossible for anyone else. But I'm still projecting that team 48 will fall just short of history because he's just recently caught fire. His two competitors have been hot all year long, and that's why I have him falling just short.
2. (Tie) Carl Edwards - He has an advantage in Chase experience over Kyle. He's had a better season overall than Jimmie (6 wins, 11 top 5's, 19 top 10's vs. 4/9/14). Unlike Kyle and Jimmie, there aren't many boo-birds in the stands for Carl. If NASCAR allowed them to throw out their lowest score in the Chase, Cousin Carl is coronated as Champion Carl. But I believe he's going to fall oh-so-short because of one nine-letter word: TALLADEGA. Both Kyle and Jimmie have won there, run strong there, and have strong teammates. Carl is very disadvantaged there, and the competition between these three is too tight to allow him to overcome a bad run there.
1. Kyle Busch - What he lacks in experience he makes up for in talent and performance. Let's look at his season statline: 8 wins, 15 top 5's, 17 top 10's. Over half of his top 5's have been wins, and three of the others were 2nd place finishes. Only two of his top 10's were not top 5's. When he runs well, he wins. When he runs good, he finishes top 5. Jimmie may get the most out of his equipment, but Kyle gets the best equipment and makes it a little bit better. The only potentially fatal flaw is his temperament; if Steve Addington can keep Kyle reigned in, and if he can avoid that "one bad race" in the Chase, it's still his title to win.
Remember what I said in Jeff Gordon's write-up: Supreme talent can't beat superior equipment. Kyle Busch, unlike anyone else here, has both supreme talent and superior equipment, and that's why he'll prevail as the 2008 Nextel Cup Champion.
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