A similar design graced 16 Sprint Cup Series cars on Friday morning at Chicagoland Speedway, noted by a yellow splitter, spoiler and roof number.
The design marks drivers that qualified for the Chase for the Championship and will spend the next 10 weeks fighting for the chance hoist the Sprint Cup championship come November at Homestead Miami Speedway.
While the Field of 16 is likely four cars too many, the roster does represent the best in Stock Car Racing. It represents all three manufacturers and eight teams — and seven former champions. Due to the deep field, not all Chase drivers are created equal however and some teams have a stronger shot than others to reach the Final Round at South Beach.
Joe Gibbs Racing has entered the NASCAR playoff as the overwhelming favorites with Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart Haas Racing all working to close the gap. The field also includes drivers from underdog organizations like Richard Childress Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and one from Furniture Row Racing.
Much can change over 10 weeks in terms of momentum, research and development but here is how the Chase stacks up entering Race 1 and Round 1 this weekend in North Illinois.
- Kevin Harvick
To be the man, you must first beat the man.
At this juncture, Kevin Harvick is the only driver in the field that has proven that he is capable of winning the championship under the elimination format. Even more frightening for the rest of the field is that his No. 4 team is even better than they were last year — 7.7 average finish through 26 starts.
The assumption on Kevin Harvick was always that he would win multiple championships once he got the first one out of the way. Even with a wild card championship format that encourages parity, Harvick seems completely capable of creating a dynasty with crew chief Rodney Childers.
The path to a championship, just as it did in 2014, runs through Harvick and Stewart Hass Racing.
- Kyle Busch
From the moment that NASCAR announced it was shifting to a low horsepower and high downforce, momentum-based competition package, Kyle Busch was the easy favorite to win his first career Sprint Cup championship.
After all, this is virtually the same package that Busch has dominated the NASCAR XFINITY Series with the past several seasons. Despite missing the first 11 races of the season due to his violent crash at Daytona, Busch proved just as adept with these configurations in the Cup Series as well, winning four times in 15 starts and posting an 11.4 average finish.
Combine his familiarity with this package with the overall prowess of JGR right now and there are very few reasons that Busch can’t win his first race in the Chase and contend for his first career championship.
- Matt Kenseth
Simply put, the Chase Grid format was made for a driver like Matt Kenseth. It rewards sheer consistency while allowing for automatic advancement each time a driver wins a race. The 2003 champion has proven that he can win on any given weekend especially provided the current might shown by Joe Gibbs Racing.
Consistency won him a championship over a decade ago and it can also carry him to his second title – with most in the garage believing the 43-year-old to be the de facto favorite entering the final 10 events.
- Joey Logano
After winning the Daytona 500 in February, Logano went dormant for most of the regular season. It’s not that the No. 22 team was bad — they were a consistent presence in the top-10 each week, but they just weren’t challenging for the win until late in the summer.
But it appears that Logano and company flipped the switch — winning two of the final five events and contending each one. If momentum is the most important factor entering the Chase for the Championship than no one has more of it than Logano.
Logano showed the moxie necessary to survive from round to round last year and made it all the way to Homestead and will once again have the speed to execute again starting this weekend.
- Brad Keselowski
Much like his teammate, Keselowski won early and vanished from the top-5 until late in the season. Despite not winning again during the regular season. Keselowski has never shown any degree of concern and appeared to biding his time for this most vital stretch, beginning this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
Having defeated the Jimmie Johnson Championship Buzz Saw back in 2012 — Keselowski has the poise needed to win his second crown even if he is more under the radar than ever before.
- Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch looks every bit like the driver that won the inaugural Chase for the Championship back in 2004 — and maybe even better. His 10.9 average finish is a career high and his chemistry with Tony Gibson is similar to the one he enjoyed with Jimmy Fennig at Roush Fenway Racing during the first half of his career.
- Martin Truex Jr.
This is an interesting team to analyze in that Furniture Row has certainly developed the speed to contend deep into the Chase but the lack of experience in Big Race situations from Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn might hold them back when the pressure is at its heaviest.
At their best, Truex and team is capable of historic runs. He posted 14 top-10s through his first 15 starts – tying a mark set by Richard Petty back in 1969. Should they set a similar mark over the next 10 races, they will make it to Homestead.
- Jimmie Johnson
This is a complicated forecast for Johnson. On one hand, the No. 48 team has won four times and enters the Chase for the Championship as a top seed alongside Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. On the other hand, they just haven’t been able to consistently reel off top-5s the way they were when they won six championships in eight seasons.
Johnson has admitted that Hendrick Motorsports is behind and is looking for speed. But is that really the case or is Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus employing a smoke screen in advance of their latest Chase run?
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In many ways, Earnhardt and the No. 88 team is the most consistent force in the Hendrick Motorsports stable and likely their number one bullet if not for the championship pedigree of Johnson and the No. 88 team.
Earnhardt still needs to prove that he can win on a track other than a restrictor plate venue this season but they’ve also been so consistent over the course of 26 starts that a few more wins feels inevitable. Hendrick certainly has work to do in order to catch Gibbs and Penske but Earnhardt, and his 10.9 average finish, feels more than capable.
- Carl Edwards
Even though the results don’t show it, Carl Edwards has been just as fast as Busch and Kenseth this season but just hasn’t been able to avoid crashes or costly DNFs. That could be a factor in the Chase or could be completely the byproduct of luck. Based entirely on speed and veteran savvy, Edwards is certainly a trendy pick to win it all given the speed of Joe Gibbs Racing.
- Denny Hamlin
While most around JGR and the garage are discounting the ACL injury, it has the potential to play a factor into some of the races — especially high load tracks like Dover, New Hampshire and Martinsville.
- Jeff Gordon
Certainly, there are few reasons to believe that Jeff Gordon is a championship contender at this point of his final season. Twenty-six races into the 2015 campaign and Gordon has yet to go to Victory Lane and has looked downright off the pace.
Make no mistake, they are scuffling and Gordon has admitted it.
But like Hendrick Motorsports as a whole, Gordon should have additional speed when he needs it come the final 10 races. Those tracks are amongst some of his career best and all he has to do during this playoff is win Dover, Kansas, Martinsville and Homestead.
That’s certainly not an easy task, but Gordon winning at those tracks and securing the storybook ending wouldn’t be the biggest upset in the history of the Sprint Cup Series.
- Clint Bowyer
Even though Bowyer scuffled for much of the first half of the season, the swan song championship effort of Michael Waltrip Racing and the No. 15 team has picked up in the second half of the regular season. They are routinely cracking the top-10 and have a favorable schedule to advance from round to round. It’s a long shot but few drivers maximize his equipment quite like Bowyer.
- Paul Menard
The strength of the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team this season has been avoiding bad finishes and consistently finishing just outside of the top-10. That’s enough to squeeze into the playoffs but not likely enough to get all the way through it based on his 16.7 average finish.
- Ryan Newman
Much like his teammate above, Newman should be given credit for making the Chase. He was dealt a heavy blow earlier in the year with his tire tampering infraction but top-15’d his way into the title picture. But a 13.8 average finish likely won’t be enough to replicate what he did last season, surging all the way to Homestead and taking runner-up honors in the Chase for the Championship.
- Jamie McMurray
With a 15th place average finish, McMurray made the most of his equipment but just isn’t capable of running any closer to the front this season. He has only led 14 laps and needs to pick up the pace considerably should he have any hopes of advancing to the Round of 12.
Matt McCall is a brilliant crew chief and McMurray is a solid veteran but the Chip Ganassi Racing organization as a whole just isn’t where it needs to be right now.
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