By Matt Weaver – While no one has been mathematically eliminated from championship contention after three races, the Chase for the Championship can be broken down into three distinct groups based on the likelihood that they will win the Sprint Cup this season.
Keep in mind that the following post is a matter of opinion and the final seven races will ultimately decide the Cup. The speculation is based on past Chase performances and the traditional notion that a championship will be won with roughly a 6.0 average Chase finish over the final 10 races.
The three groups have been split into favorites, those with an outside shot and those who have been largely eliminated barring a remarkable comeback that would become the stuff of legend. The brackets can be found below.
Safe Bets and Title Favorites:
1.) Matt Kenseth
Kenseth entered the playoffs with a three points championship cushion as the highest seed and has added to it with an average finish of 3.0 and two wins to open the format.
2.) Jimmie Johnson
The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has an average finish of 3.3 and responded to Kenseth’s consecutive victories with one of his own at Dover. The championship battle will go through Johnson and the 48 team one way or the other.
3.) Kyle Busch
Finally off to a steady and consistent Chase start, the younger Busch has an average finish of 3.0 through his first three races, comparable to both Kenseth and Johnson. All that is missing is his own trip to Victory Lane in the Chase.
Needs to Win and Catch a Break:
4.) Kevin Harvick
With an average finish of 9.6 and the one bad finish (P20) at New Hampshire, it could be argued that Harvick has used up his mulligan. With the early performance of the top-three, Harvick may need to be near perfect to win the championship. That means getting to Victory Lane and inching ever-closer to the expected 6.0 average finish to earn the Sprint Cup.
5.) Jeff Gordon
See “Kevin Harvick.” The four-time champion may have used up his bad finish with a P15 at New Hampshire. Gordon has had speed for each of the last eight races and now is the time for him to capitalize. It’s a fascinating subplot considering the controversy surrounding the fact that he’s even in the Chase to begin with. Average finish: 8.3
6.) Greg Biffle
“The Biff” returned to his borderline top-10 status at Dover. His average finish sits at 9.3 which seems to be his ceiling this year given that Ford just appears somewhat behind both Chevrolet and Toyota through three Chase races.
7.) Ryan Newman
Newman has been steady but not spectacular in all three Chase races with finishes of 10th, 16th and 8th — good for 11.3 average finish. Newman is on the fringes of likely contention but can not afford an accident or other misfortunes over the final seven.
8.) Clint Bowyer
At 51 points behind Matt Kenseth, Bowyer is the first of the drivers that is more than a full race behind the leaders. With a 12.0 average finish, Bowyer has yet to show the speed or results over the first three races to contend. He hasn’t won at all this season and there is a “dark cloud” hanging over his head from Richmond.
9.) Kurt Busch
Average finish: 12.7. Kurt just has too many things working against him in the first half of the Chase. Be it the stigma of being a one-car operation or the struggles of his various pit crews, Busch is fighting for every spot on the track. His talent is undeniable for the variables appear to be catching up.
10.) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Considering his sixth and second place finishes over the last two races, it’s an even bigger disappointment that NASCAR’s most popular driver suffered an engine failure at Chicagoland. At 57 points behind Kenseth, even 10 more spots gained at Chicagoland could have kept him in the fringe of contention. His average finish looms at 14.3.
11.) Carl Edwards
The mechanical failures at Dover served as a major hit on Edwards championship hopes. His average finish dipped all the way to 18.3 and is 65 points behind Kenseth. That’s a race and a half’s worth of points just to make even with the leaders.
12.) Joey Logano
With finishes of 37th, 14th and third, Logano’s Chase never got off to the start needed to win a championship. He’s 66 out of first with an 18.3 average in the Chase.
13.) Kasey Kahne
Yet to finish in the top-10 in the Chase, Kahne is most arguably the only driver you can assuredly eliminate ay 78 points out of the lead. Kahne still has the speed to win races during the Chase and may play spoiler or valuable (but a 100 percent effort) chess piece for his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. Average finish: 20.6