Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Predicting 12 Drivers’ Chances with 9 Races to Go in NASCAR’s Chase

For better or worse, the Chase is now one week old, meaning one of 12 drivers will be anointed Cup champion in just nine weeks’ time. So, let’s put aside for a moment the continuing debate surrounding the validity of the format, and take a look at what each contender brings to the table – along with what liabilities dog him as we begin this unholy pilgrimage towards Homestead.

Kyle Busch

Pros – OK, he’s not going to win the Most Popular Driver award this year or anytime in the foreseeable future. Busch is young, he’s brash, and he looks like Ichabod Crane – but never mind that. This young man has proven he can win on any sort of track the schedule throws at him in any sort of vehicle he drives.

Busch runs every race with a burning desire to win which has been unseen since the tragic demises of Dale Earnhardt the Original and Tim Richmond. The fact Busch has the bottomless pockets of TRD backing him can’t be discounted, either. You know the Toyota folks want this title and want it badly, and they are going to heavily back the biggest dog they have in this fight.

Cons – Well, things didn’t start out too well at New Hampshire, did they? But the last time others wrote off Busch’s chances, he responded by winning two straight races to quiet the critics and wow the crowd. Keep in mind that while Busch has been in the last two Chases, he’s never endured the pressure of entering a title race as the top dog. The media demands, fan loathing and peer pressure are a crushing weight that Busch must carry now that he’s a favorite, not an underdog.

My feeling (which will be borne out or disproved in the next nine weeks) is that he lacks a fundamental maturity to get the job done. Busch did acquit himself well when former teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson tried playing head games after his mini-slump at Indy and Pocono, responding to it all with an “in your face” win at Watkins Glen… but that was the regular season.

This is the playoffs. A fiery Busch could easily be goaded by an unwarranted bump or spin to retaliate against the offender, rather than look at the “Big Picture” – even as his crew chief begs him over the radio to calm down and as team owner Joe Gibbs offers animal sacrifices to whatever Pagan god wants Busch to be champion in the garage area.

Almost as notable as his record of wins in ’08 is the amount of potential wins Busch left on the table in ’07, a result of his passion getting ahead of whatever common sense this young firebrand actually does possess. If any one driver can deny Busch a title this season, it is likely Busch himself.

Carl Edwards

Pros – There’s no discounting Edwards’s six wins this season, mainly on the intermediate tracks (which dominate the remaining schedule) but also at Bristol of all places. Through diligent training, Edwards has his body and his mind in a good place this year, with an almost Zen-like attitude parodied in his latest TV commercials. When the physical and mental stresses of the Chase begin taking their toll, there seems to be nobody better able to shoulder the burden than Edwards – and that counts for more than you can imagine. If there was an award for taking substandard equipment to the front this season, it would belong to this man as well.

Cons – Like Mark Martin before him, Edwards has enjoyed a season to date that would herald a looming championship most years – only to live in the shadow of a rival having an unprecedented season. It happened with Martin when he squared off with Earnhardt and Gordon, years where the Roush organization was good, but not good enough to get their man over the hump. At the very least, there’s an eerie parallel between Edwards’s loss of 10 crucial bonus points after winning the second race of the season and Martin’s loss of crucial points after winning the second race of 1990 at Richmond for an unapproved carb spacer.

Martin would go on to lose that year’s title to Earnhardt by 26 points, and you know, history does have a nasty habit of repeating itself. The Fords that Edwards drive have also seemed at a disadvantage this season, with Chevy teams outnumbering them and Toyota teams simply outspending them. Finally, while his “OMMMM” mantra serves him well most weeks, we have seen the seemingly unflappable Edwards meltdown at times in ’08 – as with his unprovoked attack at teammate Matt Kenseth last year.

Can Carl keep his cool with the chips on the table? When you can grab the pebbles out of my hand, Grasshopper, it’s time for you to go.

Jimmie Johnson

Pros – Johnson is obviously the master of the Chase, having won the last two of these unholy aberrations that inevitably decide our champion. When it’s time to lay the cards on the table, Johnson, Chad Knaus, and the No. 48 team obviously know how to get the job done. One needs only look towards their two-race win streak heading into the playoffs, as well as their four consecutive victories in the postseason last year as evidence that this team hits their stride when the big money is laying on the table. New Hampshire’s runner-up finish just might be a sign of more good things to come for Johnson and Co. moving forward.

Cons – There’s no question that Johnson’s season to date has been maddeningly erratic at best. Prior to winning those two races, Johnson finished 17th and 33rd and has put together no more than four consecutive top 10s all year long. His finishes on the plate tracks that had become Hendrick playgrounds have also been less than impressive; Johnson has led just six plate-track laps in ’08, and Talladega looms large on the calendar.

And finally, one must consider history. Only Cale Yarborough, when paired with the inestimable Junior Johnson, has won three straight titles. Other drivers of notable talent like Earnhardt with RCR and Richard Petty with his own team have failed to do so – even in their salad days. You can compare Johnson to Gordon if you must, but the fact remains he isn’t worthy to carry Cale’s, Dale’s or the King’s sodden shoes to their motor coach during a flash flood.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Pros – NASCAR needs a Junior championship, and Junior needs a title this season to prove he’s more than a famous son with a top notch ride courtesy of Rick Hendrick. There’s no blaming Teresa this year, as Earnhardt has the right stuff post-DEI – proven by Hendrick’s present title-winning routine. Earnhardt has already led nearly 800 laps this season and has been in contention for far more than his one win collected to date.

Can he step up as a darkhorse to win this year’s title? I won’t completely discount the chance, due to fear of Junior Nation finding my home address and strangling me in my sleep. If genetics count for anything, Earnhardt also has a lot in his corner when it comes to contending for championships.

Cons – Earnhardt has a lot on his plate these days, and sometimes seems more interested in the off-track desserts than the meat and potato business of racing. But when it comes to what happens on the race track, there’s one issue that really bothers me this year when it comes to Earnhardt’s title chances. In their glory days, the hallmark of Gordon and the No. 24 team was the ability to take a bad car and turn it into a contender for the win late in the race.

Well, Junior’s team has shown a maddeningly consistent ability to take a dominant car early in the race and turn it into an also ran by the end. In my opinion, complete blame can’t be placed at the feet of Tony Eury Jr., as in many races Earnhardt has sounded like a petulant child over the radio complaining about how unhappy he is with the car rather than relaying any useful information as to what he needs to make it better. Sometimes, it seems Earnhardt needs a mind reader, not a crew chief atop his pit box.

His radio transmissions at New Hampshire indicating that he feels his tires are being tampered with sounded like the rantings of a lunatic, and may be a sign this man may be cracking under the pressure rather than reveling in it.

Clint Bowyer

Pros – Bowyer won at Richmond this spring – I guess that’s a start. Plus, he drives for RCR, and Childress knows a thing or two about winning championships. This year, like last, Bowyer has been consigned to be little more than an asterisk in the 12-man title hunt. But when the same thing happened last year, he responded in a big way, fighting back against criticism he wasn’t worthy of being in the Chase by dominating the NHMS event that kicked off the frivolity of last year’s playoff run.

Cons – I’m old enough to have learned “never say never,” but I wouldn’t bet a warm cup of spit against a tricked out Harley Fat Boy that Bowyer is going to win this year’s title. Since winning at Richmond, he’s managed just one additional top-five finish – and that was at Sonoma of all places. Off the record, Bowyer has to be fuming that next year Casey Mears will be inheriting his place in the owner points, the No. 07 car and the Jack Daniel’s sponsorship despite his yeoman’s efforts the last two years at RCR.

Denny Hamlin

Pros – The kid has talent. Hamlin was once Joey Logano, remember? He won races as a rookie and has made all three Chases since he started driving in Cup, highlighted by a standout third-place result in the standings during his rookie year. With three straight third-place finishes, it’s hard to deny Hamlin had some momentum on his side entering this Chase. This kid is the real deal, and I won’t discount the fact he’s capable of ripping off three straight wins as well. It’s not like the JGR cars haven’t been dominant this season.

Cons – While Hamlin has led 700 laps plus in ’08, he’s only been able to convert that dominance into one win – scored at Martinsville a long, long time ago. Throughout the season, Hamlin has been the embodiment of “whatever can go wrong, will” law laid down by Mr. Murphy. And all those bitter disappointments seem to have Hamlin on edge with his team, whom he tossed under the bus after losing an engine at Michigan by saying they didn’t deserve to be in the Chase.

It’s the latest example in how the previously low-key Hamlin has seemed to develop a bit of an ego issue this year, perhaps as a result as having been overshadowed by new teammate Busch in what amounts to be the same equipment. But regardless of the reasoning, those words might come back to haunt him.

Jeff Burton

Pros – If anyone is bringing maturity and experience to this year’s title Chase, Burton overshadows them all. He’s been running NASCAR races since most of his competition was struggling with potty training; at 40, he’s the oldest man in this year’s field. Few drivers deal with adversity better than the calm of Burton, who can be seen as NASCAR’s Charlie Brown when it comes to lost chances at greatness. The old law states that you have to lose a few titles before you can win one; well, to paraphrase Jackson Browne, Burton has been losing for so very long.

Cons – After a stellar start to his season, Burton has waded back into the morass of mediocrity. His last top-five finish prior to New Hampshire occurred at Martinsville – all the way back in March. In the 20 races since, Burton has managed to lead just 14 laps, with Indy the lone event where he’s been out front for a significant period of time. Oh well, so much for bonus points. Beautiful loser, where’s it going to fall, when you realize, you just can’t win it all…

Tony Stewart

Pros – Stewart is typically a late-season driver who starts the year quietly, but gathers momentum going into the summer and fall. Busch has proven that JGR equipment is top notch, and Stewart is capable of winning a string of races with little notice. With my old buddy Mike Calinoff spotting for the No. 20 car starting at NHMS, he also has the best pair of “eyes in the sky” working for him.

Cons – Stewart might be a late bloomer, but last year he failed to impress in the Chase with three finishes of 30th or worse. To date, the man is winless this season, and at least part of that unwelcome fact has to be blamed on off-track distractions while making his plans for next year and the rest of his career. Stewart, Greg Zipadelli, team owner Joe Gibbs, sponsor Home Depot and most of the crew have been one of the longest-lasting stable units in the sport, but the change came from the top when the driver announced he was leaving the No. 20 car at the end of the season.

Undoubtedly, that led to hard feelings and bruised egos – as evidenced by radio traffic over the last few weeks. The team assures everybody that “that’s just Tony being Tony” and all is well; but I ain’t buying at that five and dime. My guess is after Joe Gibbs read the recent Rolling Stone interview of Stewart, he’s just as glad to be washing his hands of the talented driver at the end of this season.

Greg Biffle

Pros – Things started off nicely at New Hampshire, didn’t they? Biffle has run well at some of the other tracks that constitute the Chase; particularly Homestead, where he won three straight events between 2004 and 2006. And if any Chaser isn’t feeling much pressure, it must be Biffle, as nobody expects him to do much of anything in his first appearance since finishing second in 2005.

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Cons – Biffle’s 2008 season has been so erratic, it would make Paris Hilton dizzy(er). He’s finished second twice and last once with an average finish of about 14th, flying beneath the radar for most of the year. There may be no darker horse in the playoffs this fall.

Jeff Gordon

Pros – Hey, this guy has won 81 Cup races and four titles to date, and he didn’t get to where he is just by talking pretty. Gordon is another one of those drivers who could post multiple wins in a row in the flash of an eye without it being considered unprecedented. Throughout his career, Gordon’s managed the weight of being a championship contender with grace and dignity – this ain’t his first rodeo.

Cons – Gordon hasn’t gone winless in a Cup season since his rookie year of 1993; but to date, he’s been shut out of victory lane. Gordon seems increasingly flustered and befuddled as to what has gone wrong – and at times, even panicky over it. Race wins that once seemed his birthright are nowhere to be found, despite him being with the same dominant organization that has nurtured him all of his career.

Like Tantalus trying for a sip of water or that fruit just beyond his grasp, race wins continue to elude this team – despite being labeled as a preseason title favorite. If the Gordon and the No. 24 bunch aren’t the biggest disappointment of this season, whoever wins that award is at least going to thank them for a hard-fought contest to the end.

Kevin Harvick

Pros – Going into the Chase, Harvick had six straight top-10 finishes, and he got another at NHMS, although he’s still winless in the Cup Series in ’08. He also started the season really well before sailing into a midseason doldrum – very uncharacteristic of this driver and team. And let’s not forget, if you scrape the number 29 and that red and yellow circus wagon paint off his Chevy, Harvick is driving the once proud black and silver No. 3 that has had its share of title battles.

Cons – Will the real Harvick please stand up? Can he continue his consistency, or lapse back into mediocrity now that it’s time to put the cards down on the table? Harvick has happily allowed Busch to assume the bad-boy mantle he once wore so proudly, as he’s lapsed into a sort of supermarket brand mayonnaise blandness on and off the track. Oh, Harvick’s had his moments this season; but let’s not forget the last time he won a Cup race damn few fans had even heard of Logano, God bless his pointy little head.

Matt Kenseth

Pros – Throughout his career, Kenseth has never been the splashiest of drivers. He typically runs so-so early in an event, only to emerge as a solid top-10 contender late in races – leaving everybody scratching their heads as to where he came from. In that way, at least, Kenseth reminds me a lot of David Pearson. Maybe this year, Kenseth has applied that strategy to the championship (recall he’s already been a Cup champion); and this year, the Sleeping Giant is ready to awaken late in the going of the playoffs.

Cons – While Kenseth adapted to the new championship program adroitly, he just can’t seem to get his arm around this whole Car of Horror deal – and neither can his team. Except at three tracks noted as Roush playgrounds – Michigan, Las Vegas and Texas – Kenseth hasn’t led more than 10 laps at any other track this season, much less scored a win. Like Gordon, Kenseth sounds increasingly befuddled and frustrated with his lack of success and, at times, the normally bland Midwesterner sounds irritated with his team’s ability to sort things out.

“Talkies” doomed some stars of the silent screen, and the Car of Horror is undoubtedly going to relegate some past stars of the old cars to anonymity. That would seem to be the case with the No. 17 bunch this year.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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