Race Weekend Central

Handicapping the 2007 NASCAR Chase: Part I

This Sunday, just 12 men will take the green flag at New Hampshire with their dream of a 2007 NASCAR Cup title intact. It’s been a remarkable season for them to get this far, as both consistency and talent have put them in position to achieve the ultimate goal.

But of course, from the 12 only one can emerge to watch their dream turn into reality. Who will that person be? We’ll try and figure that out over the next two days, handicapping the Chase field to dissect what drivers stand a chance at the trophy, and which ones are better off walking away.

So, without further ado, let’s look at how these men will finish, tackling the predicted final standings from the bottom up:

Clint Bowyer
Chase Seeding: 12th (-60 off the lead)
Chase Appearance: First
Knew He Made The Chase When: Bowyer played defense over the last third of the regular season, scoring nine consecutive top-20 finishes (although he had just one top five) to give him the cushion he needed to comfortably stay ahead of his rivals.

Season Highlight: Finishing a career-best third in the Bristol night race in August; coming home seventh at Daytona, leading 55 of 160 laps while starting the streak that locked him into the Chase for good.

Wants to Forget: A savage crash in Daytona this February on the last lap, which made national highlight reels and left Bowyer bruised and sore. A wreck in Las Vegas didn’t do him any favors, either; Bowyer finished 36th and was left to dig out of an early hole in the points.

Chase Outlook: For a man who started this season crossing the finish line upside down and on fire (see above), Bowyer’s done a remarkable job to cast the myth of the sophomore slump aside and put together a season so consistent, he’s yet to score a DNF. The problem is, he’s yet to score a win, either; for months now, Bowyer’s had that whole “best winless driver in Nextel Cup” monkey on his back, and he shows no signs of getting off the schneid anytime soon, with a total of six laps led in the past eight weeks.

Combine that with RCR’s recent problems overall (no wins since May), Bowyer’s first ever Chase appearance, and a total of just two top fives this season, and you can see why this guy’s a longshot.

Best Chase Tracks: Kansas, Atlanta, Texas, Talladega
Chase Hiccups: Charlotte, Martinsville

Wins the Title If: He hands out Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s engines to all 11 Chase competitors.
Odds of Winning: 500/1

Kevin Harvick
Chase Seeding: T-sixth (-50 off the lead)
Chase Appearance: Second
Knew He Made The Chase When: His engine stayed together after getting grass in the grill while avoiding a Richmond wreck. Junior wouldn’t have beaten Harvick anyway, but it was nice for the No. 29 team to clinch the bid with a solid top 10, rather than a trip to the garage.

Season Highlight: Winning his first-ever Daytona 500, prevailing in a thrilling last-lap duel with Mark Martin. Taking the final segment of the Nextel All-Star Challenge this May. Continuing to dominate the Busch Series to the tune of five wins in 21 starts, putting him second in the standings despite missing seven events.

Wants to Forget: Having his door foam light on fire at Martinsville. Nearly coming to blows with Juan Pablo Montoya over a wreck at Watkins Glen. All 1.5-mile tracks that don’t start with the letter C.

Chase Outlook: Looking back at history, Daytona 500 winners aren’t where you look to find your yearly Cup champion. Yeah, Jimmie Johnson won last year, but before that, you have to go back to 1997 to find the last time a 500 winner came up with a Cup title. Harvick’s followed the more normal pattern, throwing the strong start out the window with a roller coaster season that’s seen him score just as many finishes outside the top 30 (three) as in the top five (three) since Daytona.

Not only that, but Harvick’s record at 1.5-mile tracks this season has been abysmal (one top-20 finish in five starts), not a stat you’d like to have if those tracks make up half of the playoff slate. Let’s put it this way: when your biggest headline over the past month is trying to fight a Colombian, you know your chances of winning the title aren’t that great.

Best Chase Tracks: Charlotte, Talladega, Phoenix
Chase Hiccups: Atlanta, Texas

Wins the Title If: The Chase changes its schedule, removing three 1.5-mile tracks.
Odds of Winning: 350/1

Kyle Busch
Chase Seeding: T-sixth (-50 off the lead)
Chase Appearance: Second
Knew He Made The Chase When: Responding to the news he was out of a ride in ’08 like a man possessed. Since the Junior-to-Hendrick announcement became official mid-June, Busch has countered with 11 consecutive top-15 finishes, a streak that didn’t come to an end until Richmond. By then, he was already safe within this year’s playoff field.

Season Highlight: Taking the checkers at Bristol in the first ever Car of Tomorrow event. Placing runner-up at Daytona to snag his best career restrictor-plate finish.

Wants to Forget: Saying the CoT “sucks” in Victory Lane at Bristol. Spending the first month after the Hendrick fiasco acting like a whiny 12-year-old that just got grounded unfairly, both on and off the track.

Chase Outlook: Two months ago, if you polled the garage and asked if Busch would have a chance at this year’s title, most would tell you they didn’t even expect him to make it to this year’s Chase. Most of June and July was spent watching a daily soap opera in which Busch sold his team – and Hendrick – under the bus more than your average politician.

In the past month or so, the youngster has done his best to undo the PR damage – but teams breaking up the following year have typically struggled under the Chase format, and despite a strong finish to the season, Busch remains third on the Hendrick totem pole. The effort has been solid here… but there’s just too many outside factors to overcome.

Best Chase Tracks: Dover, Phoenix
Chase Hiccups: Atlanta, New Hampshire, Talladega, Charlotte, Homestead

Wins the Title If: Johnson and Jeff Gordon both stumble out of the blocks. Busch avoids any PR snafus, gets off to an exceptional start at New Hampshire and Dover, and somehow convinces his crew to kick into “Win One For Kyle” mode. Even then, it’s a longshot.
Odds of Winning: 300/1

Matt Kenseth
Chase Seeding: T-sixth (-50 off the lead)
Chase Appearance: Fourth
Knew He Made The Chase When: He started off the year with a win and 12 top-10 finishes in the first 14 races of the season.

Season Highlight: Adding to his trophy case with a California win. Nearly vindicating his spinout last season at Chicagoland, finishing second in July. Accumulating 23 lead-lap finishes in 26 races.

Wants to Forget: Leading just 155 laps on the season apart from California. Wrecks at Michigan and Bristol. The fact Roush Fenway Racing was two months behind the pack in CoT development.

Chase Outlook: This season has been Kenseth consistency at its finest – the problem is, that consistency has been for spots further back in the pack. The Wisconsin driver’s total of 288 laps led pales in comparison to the 1,132 he spent up front last year, when he developed into Johnson’s strongest challenger for the Cup title.

With Ford lagging behind all season long, Kenseth has spent half the season trying to help Roush Fenway catch up, and the other half trying to capture momentum. While he seems to have accomplished the former (See: Carl Edwards), he’s struggled with the latter; two top-five finishes in the last 13 races does not a championship contender make.

Best Chase Tracks: New Hampshire, Dover, Texas
Chase Hiccups: Kansas, Martinsville

Wins the Title If: He remains 10th-12th without a problem in every race, and Edwards’s group imports enough knowledge into the No. 17 bunch to give them the edge the No. 99 has now. Kenseth is strong at the first two tracks on the Chase schedule, and a solid beginning is likely his only shot to put himself in contention.
Odds of Winning: 100/1

Martin Truex Jr.
Chase Seeding: T-sixth (-50 off the lead)
Chase Appearance: First
Knew He Made The Chase When: Four consecutive top-15 finishes in August and September put Truex in position to merely start his engine at Richmond to make the playoffs, keeping him from being vulnerable at a short track where he’s always struggled.

Season Highlight: Dominating Dover to collect his first career Nextel Cup victory. Nearly going back-to-back at Pocono the next week, and placing second at Michigan after that to post three consecutive “podium” finishes. Becoming the No. 1 driver of DEI’s future in the wake of Earnhardt Jr.’s departure.

Wants To Forget: Junior’s departure, and the myriad of distractions that came with it. Being involved in one too many engine failures. Continuing to struggle on tracks less than a mile in length.

Chase Outlook: Truex has had a breakout year as a sophomore, lighting a spark under his team in the wake of Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement he was leaving the organization. In the first month after the news, the team exploded with a burst in performance, enough to push them over the hump and into the top 12 to stay. In the process, this team unintentionally moved up to No. 1 at DEI a year early; after Junior’s No. 8 encountered a slew of problems, Truex stands alone as the team’s Chase representative.

That shouldn’t stop him from performing well. The first two tracks on the playoff slate play towards the No. 1 team’s strengths, and if Truex comes out of Kansas and Talladega unscathed, he could emerge as a darkhorse. There’s just one problem with that – the engine compartment. With DEI encountering parts failure after parts failure this season, will what’s installed inside the No. 1 hold up for 10 straight races?

Best Chase Tracks: New Hampshire, Dover, Atlanta, Homestead
Chase Hiccups: Martinsville, Phoenix

Wins the Title If: He pulls a season sweep at Dover, avoids Talladega mayhem and comes out of Martinsville with a lead lap finish. Gaining underdog status, he listens to Dale Jr. every step of the way, pulls out a second win at Atlanta and surprises all with a top five at Homestead to make things interesting. Oh, and no parts failures, but that’s all a really big if.
Odds of Winning: 80/1

Jeff Burton
Chase Seeding: T-sixth (-50 off the lead)
Chase Appearance: Second
Knew He Made The Chase When: Burton carried over momentum from a strong Chase in ’06 into the current season, finishing third at Daytona and running off a streak of eight top 15s to start the year, including a victory at Texas. He was never in danger of losing his spot after that.

Season Highlight: The Texas win. Finally getting AT&T as a permanent sponsor on his car for all of 2007, and beyond. Racing Kyle Busch clean at Bristol instead of spinning him out for the win, an oh-so-tempting proposition. Successfully mediating what could have otherwise been a Montoya/Harvick fistfight.

Wants to Forget: His team going through hell just to reach a settlement with NASCAR and Nextel to keep their sponsor. Getting involved in the Montoya/Harvick wreck in the first place. Putting up just one top-10 finish in the last six races of the season.

Chase Outlook: One year removed from making a surprise title bid in ’06, Burton appears poised as the best RCR driver to have a shot in ’07. Of all three cars, he’s been the most consistent, has the most Cup experience, and is the most battle-tested in championship scenarios. But this is a team that was being threatened with no sponsorship as early as one week ago; going through that sort of stress for any length of time creates problems.

It’s going to take time for the No. 31 to recapture their mojo, too; they’ve led just 28 laps all season long, and that’s with a win already under their belts. You can’t win a title without running up front, and that likely will be this team’s Achilles’ Heel.

Best Chase Tracks: New Hampshire, Dover, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix
Chase Hiccups: Martinsville, Charlotte, Homestead

Wins the Title If: RCR gets its act together with both engines and the CoT. Burton gets a win at Texas, and figures out how to lead in seven of the other nine races. Plus, he avoids the dreaded DNF. Surely, anything can happen, just don’t count on it.
Odds of Winning: 75/1

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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