It looks like the strongest Chase field in history as the 12 biggest stars in NASCAR will battle it out for the 2011 Sprint Cup championship.
Heading into the 10-race playoffs, there are four different groups of contenders starting with the favorites.
Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson has to be at the top of the list. Although the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has just one win so far this season, he has six top-five finishes over the past nine races.
Johnson has 17 top-10 finishes overall, but the most important stat is winning five straight championships. It’s a situation where he remains the man to beat until proven otherwise.
Kyle Busch is the top seed coming into the Chase with four wins. Even without the bonus points for wins, Busch would be No. 1 in the standings, thanks to a series-leading 13 top-five finishes.
Called by many the most talented driver in the sport, he has led over 400 more laps than any other driver this season in addition to racking up eight wins in the Nationwide Series and five wins in the Truck Series.
The other favorite is Carl Edwards, who threatened to run away from the pack early in the season. Edwards led the standings for 16 of the 26 weeks during the regular season and with a couple of more laps would have likely won Saturday night’s race at Richmond.
He was tied with Johnson for the most top 10s during the regular season, but, only had one win, seeded fifth entering the Chase.
The next group features the major contenders.
Of these, four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon looks to have the best chance to unseat his teammate. In six of the last seven races, he has finished in the top six and could have entered the Chase with three straight wins if not for late cautions at Bristol and Richmond.
He has been strong on all types of tracks and his victory over Johnson at Atlanta one week ago was an important step for Gordon and the No. 24 team.
Kevin Harvick’s four wins ties him with Kyle Busch for the top seed, but his win at Richmond was a first top-five since Charlotte in May. Despite that, Harvick stayed in the top five in the standings all through the summer.
With no other Richard Childress Racing team in the Chase, most of the team’s resources should go to the No. 29 Chevrolet. Harvick has an ace in the hole with Gil Martin, perhaps the most underrated crew chief in the sport.
Final among this group is Brad Keselowski. He stayed outside the top 20 in points as late as Indianapolis, but no one has been hotter over the past month and a half.
Keselowski had two wins and four consecutive top-three finishes from Pocono to Bristol, and followed it up with solid finishes of sixth at Atlanta and 12th at Richmond.
Following the trio of major contenders are the credible threats.
This group consists of former champions Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart, along with Denny Hamlin, the preseason favorite to win the championship.
Kenseth is fourth entering the Chase with wins earlier in the year at Texas and Dover. The 2003 Cup champion has been remarkably consistent with his only finishes lower than 25th coming at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega.
Overshadowed by his younger brother, Busch matches Kenseth’s numbers of seven top-five and 14 top-10 finishes. His No. 22 Dodge has been a fast race car all season, evident by three pole positions. However, it appears that Busch’s attempt at playing mind games with Johnson has actually backfired.
Both Stewart and Hamlin have been terribly inconsistent, but neither can be discounted. The Chase is custom-made for Stewart, who usually runs better in the second half of the season. Still winless, the two-time champion has come back strong the last couple of weeks after a weak 28th place run at Bristol.
Hamlin should have won the championship last year, but a poor qualifying effort at Homestead started off a terrible weekend where he lost the title to Johnson. It has appeared his team has yet to fully recover from that disappointment, but the Chase gives the No. 11 team a fresh start.
The final two are the longshots -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman.
Despite a 118-race winless streak entering the Chase, I believe Earnhardt has a better shot than Newman. He’s had stretches throughout his career of running well for 10 weeks. However, it’s certainly not been the last 12 races where Earnhardt has just one top-10 finish. Despite that, he did hold on to make the Chase and could become a serious contender with a strong start.
Newman has outperformed his teammate Stewart for most of the season, and in theory should have better odds in the Chase. Keep in mind, however, Newman has never finished higher than sixth in the point standings, and has only led the points one time for a single week over a 10-year Sprint Cup career.
n Johnson City’s Dale Ball and Jonesborough’s Jerry Broyles were the winners in twin features for the Pro Late Model class at Volunteer Speedway this past Saturday night.
Broyles won the pole in race No. 1, but Ball pulled past him on lap 3 and led the rest of the way for his sixth win of the season.
Broyles started fourth in the second feature, but quickly charged up through the pack to pass polesitter Todd Brooks for the lead. Kenny Peeples Jr., who got by Broyles for the runner-up spot in the first race, held off Ball for second place The win was Broyles’ second of the season.
Veteran dirt track racer Ray Cook of Brasstown, N.C., won the pole and led all 60 laps in the Carolina Clash Super Late Model Series race.
Ross Bailes of Clover, S.C., finished second, followed by Jonathan Davenport of Blairsville, Ga., and Chad Ogle of Sevierville.
Shannon Davidson of Mooresburg became a first time Volunteer winner by holding off Blake Kelley in a 25-lap Hobby Stock feature.
n Picture perfect weather greeted the DER Bracket Series competitors at Bristol Dragway last weekend with Chris Johnson of Maryville beating Kingsport’s David Starnes in Saturday’s Super Pro final.
Josh Wyatt of Blountville beat Carl Widner of Elizabethton in Pro, and C.J. Elsea defeated Ben Knight in a battle of Bristol racers driving Mustangs for the Sportsman win.
Other Saturday winners included Jerry Turner of Bluff City in Motorcycle, Bill Roberts of Bluff City in Trophy, Blountville’s Carson Brown in Jr. Dragster, Division 1 and Gabe Ellison in Jr. Dragster, Division 2.
Gary Goldberg won the featured Super Pro class to highlight Sunday action.
Brandon Bailey of Glade Spring, Va., beat Johnson City’s Larry Barr in the Pro division final, and John Isom of Bristol was victorious against Randy Walters of Bluff City in Sportsman.
Other Sunday winners were: Michael Waller of Ivanhoe, Va., in Motorcycle, Michael Nuttall of Rutledge in Trophy, Dylan Howard of Corryton in Jr. Dragster, Division 1 and Joseph Beeler of Knoxville in Jr. Dragster, Division 2.
Bristol Dragway has the Fas Mart Street Fights Series scheduled for Thursday, while the DER Bracket Series crowns its champions during this weekend’s action.
Jeff Birchfield is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.