2015 NASCAR Chase predictions for all 16 drivers
Sure, the Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway lacked drama Saturday night - it often has in recent years. The drivers on the right side of the Chase cutoff entering the event are the ones that leave the .75-mile Virginia track in NASCAR's playoffs. The field, in its second year of the 16-driver, elimination format, has two first-timers, an amazing comeback story, a driver in the twilight of his career, one team in its last season, and one straight-up dominator all year-long. Now the only thing separating the 16 championship hopefuls are the three bonus points each regular season win brought them. And after 26 races, the final 10 events will file this big field by four, every three races, until the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November decides who takes the crown. Here are the prospects for each driver. You'll probably burn this after the first three races.
Winless Drivers (-12 points):
Paul Menard: Menard struggled mightily at Richmond and almost opened the door for 2014 Chase driver Aric Almirola to skip ahead of him into the field. But Menard secured his first Chase berth for the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team and did so quietly. Menard only has four top 10 finishes this season and has led only one lap, but made the Chase by scoring only one DNF. His average finish of 16.7 won't be good enough to make it past the opening Challenger Round. Unless Menard, crew chief Justin Alexander, and company find more speed, Menard's first Chase appearance in his 9th full-time Cup season will last just three races.
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer gotinto the field sweating some bullets, much like Menard (and has the exact same average finish). Unlike Menard, Bowyer has seven more top 10 finishes and has been faster in the 2nd half of the season than the first. The future closure of Michael Waltrip Racing and the future of Bowyer and all MWR employees is certainly a distraction, but the team is generating more speed lately. Bowyer is decent at both Dover and New Hampshire, so making the Contender Round does not seem too outlandish for the No. 15 team.
Ryan Newman: Newman ran better in the first half of the season, but still is preserving his racecar and squeaking out better finishes than his car shows. This sneak attack is what carried Newman and the Luke Lambert-led No. 31 team all the way to the Championship Round last year. Can history repeat itself? Newman has led 19 laps all year and there are full stables of cars dialed in at Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. Newman may make the Eliminator Round, but don't put money on him driving to the final race with a chance to win it all.
Jeff Gordon: Championship pedigree is about the only reason to bet that this four-time champ will grab a ring for the thumb in his final season. Gordon is winless this season after a big time 2014 campaign and did not easily make the Chase. Gordon makes the Contender Round of the Chase, but doesn't get past Talladega, unless he can actually finish that race in Victory Lane. Gordon has only led double digit laps in three races this year and two of them were the Daytona 500 and the Talladega May race.
Jamie McMurray: Here's the problem with McMurray - he has not scored a top 10 since Michigan 11 races ago. He's been steady and mostly stayed out of trouble. His hopes in his first Chase appearance in his 13-year (can you believe that?) Cup career will fizzle in the first round, unless the No. 1 team and crew chief Matt McCall can run ahead of more cars. McMurray has not led a lap since the spring Richmond race and has the second-fewest top 10s in the 16-driver field (seven).
One-win drivers (-9 points):
Martin Truex Jr.: The No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team peaked too early. Even though both Truex Jr. and the Colorado-based team are having breakout seasons, their recent results have been a tick behind their first-half pace. Truex Jr. led 90-plus laps in four-straight races from Kansas thru Pocono in the late spring/early summer. He's led 11 since. Truex Jr. has a stout 17 top 10s, but notched 14 of them in the first 15 races and only three in the 11 since. Truex Jr. is having that bad racing luck again and that will not carry him past Talladega. The No. 78 is lucky to get past the first round.
Brad Keselowski: This is Keselowski's fourth Chase appearance and he has made himself a factor late in the playoffs. Last season, Keselowski scored a mandatory race win at Talladega and went to the Eliminator Round, before falling out after Phoenix. He raced with edge and fire, but has only scored one win this season. Still, Keselowski has been consistent of late and should have won several more races. It's tough seeing the No. 2 team make the final four for the Championship Round at Homestead, but Keselowksi and crew chief Paul Wolfe are clutch. Much crazier things have happened.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin is a tough read. He has cracked under pressure before and he has maintained a full, healthy championship run. If we're playing odds, do three JGR make the Homestead race in contention? If you're picking two, all things being equal, seeing Hamlin beat Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch to the final round doesn't seem likely. But, again, he made it last year. If the No. 11 can stay out of trouble, Hamlin could put himself into position to win his first championship.
Two-win drivers (-6 points):
Carl Edwards: Edwards may be riding the Joe Gibbs Racing performance wave into the playoffs with two wins. One win (Coke 600) was a fuel mileage victory and his recent Southern 500 triumph was impressive, but wouldn't have happened without a fast pit stop at the end. He only has nine top 10s in his first season in the JGR No. 19 Toyota. However, seven of those top 10s are in the last nine races. Still, Edwards has crashed in the plate races this year, so Talladega will be a landmine he needs to dodge. That race will take him out and strand him in the Contender Round, if he even makes it that far.
Kurt Busch: Busch may be the toughest driver to predict in this Chase. His No. 41 team has been very fast, but has had trouble closing out races and scoring great finishes. The fact that Busch overcame the questionable domestic violence suspension the first three races this season is evidence enough to think that this team can overcome anything. They may have the speed, but the magic may not follow them all the way through the Chase. Busch makes the Contender Round, but either Talladega or another race in the second bracket of the Chase will knock out Busch.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Hendrick Motorsports' struggles have been a big summer storyline. The fact that Earnhardt Jr. hasn't led a lap since he led 96 and won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July is haunting for a driver and No. 88 team that want their first championship badly. But they have been a Top 10 Machine all season and have been the most consistent lately of the HMS bunch. Earnhardt Jr. also has an excellent chance of winning Talladega, just as he did in the spring. He also runs well at Charlotte, Martinsville, and Phoenix - all races that are late in the Chase. Earnhardt Jr. may just ride his consistency into the Championship Round in Homestead, but that will be a stretch.
Kevin Harvick: Wait - Harvick isn't the top seed in the Chase? Nope. He has only won twice this season, but he has 10 runner-up finishes and leads laps almost every week (Almost 600 more than anyone else all season). Harvick and the Rodney Childers-led No. 4 team have had a stellar 2015 season with much more consistency and follow-through than the 2014 campaign that crowned them champs. If there is one Achilles' heel for the team, it is the lack of wins. Last year, Harvick and company turned up the wick and won three races in the Chase, including the final two, all of which were mandatory in winning the Cup. There is little reason to think they cannot do that again and repeat as champs or at least qualify for the final round. NASCAR has not had a repeat champion since Jimmie Johnson did it five-straight times from 2006-2010.
Three-win driver (-3 points):
Joey Logano: Can we call him the veteran driver of the No. 22 Ford for Team Penske? In his 7th-full season, Logano has won the Daytona 500, has run well most of the season, and has recently peeled off some big wins at both Bristol and Watkins Glen. While the No. 78 team of Truex Jr. has fallen off, Logano has kept in step with Harvick since the start of the season. He has 20 top 10s, second to Harvick's 22 and has led the second most laps - 862 to Harvick's 1,450. If not for running out of fuel on the last lap at Pocono, Logano would have a top 10 in each of the last nine races. Just like last year, look for Logano at Homestead as one of the final four drivers and don't be surprised if he goes toe to toe with Harvick for the Cup and wins it.
Four-win drivers (tied for lead):
Matt Kenseth: Kenseth was having a non-descript campaign, before rattling off three wins in the last six races and pocketing on the recent Joe Gibbs Racing surge. Kenseth finished top 10 in every second half race, except for his engine failure at Bristol and his early wreck at Darlington two weeks ago. He will go deep into the Chase, but there is reason to think that one of the drivers behind him now could out-pace him to the Championship Round. However, if Kenseth is hot right now, he may have just started peaking at the right time. The 2003 champ has never won a Cup in the Chase format, but he has won at many Chase tracks and been in the battle many times. The No. 20 team will be fun to watch.
Jimmie Johnson: One sidehas to consider how well Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus, and the rest of the No. 48 perform in the Chase. They are outstanding, having won it six times and been in the hunt at least three more. But the other has to wonder how much HMS equipment has fallen off in the last couple of months. Like teammate Earnhardt Jr., Johnson hasn't led in the two months since Daytona. Unlike the No. 88 team, Johnson has fallen victim to worse finishes, due to performance, bad race strategy (ran out of new tires at Darlington), and wrecks. Johnson is tied for first in points, but few probably have the No. 48 team as one of the 10-hottest in the sport right now. Like last season, Johnson doesn't get past Talladega. It's not his year.
Kyle Busch: He has never done it before. Nope. Kyle Busch has never seriously been in championship contention to the very last race. He had a shot last season, but got wrecked at Talladega. This year will be different. The fact that Busch missed 11 races and then drove to four victories is amazing. The fact that he was able to sustain enough good finishes to make up for some bad early ones is also eye-popping, as he needed to be in the top 30 in points to make the Chase. Busch's team has not fallen off since those June and July wins and the only strike against them is Busch's past tendencies to meltdown with the stakes against him. That will not be this season - he will drive to the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, barring any horrible racing luck, which can always strike.