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Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Updated: September 14, 11:59 AM ET
Eight of 12 Chasers have legitimate shot

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

Eight contenders and four pretenders. That sums it up for me.

Two-thirds of the drivers who will start the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday have a legitimate chance at winning the 2011 Sprint Cup championship. The other third do not.

And eight is enough, especially if half of them get to the season finale at Homestead-Miami still in contention.

"I think it's real difficult to pick a clear favorite," Jimmie Johnson said Saturday night at Richmond. "There are probably seven or eight drivers that have had momentum at some point and are getting warm at the right time."

Johnson
Does Five-Time become Six-Time after the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup? Jimmie Johnson hopes so.

Eight, actually, but let's not quibble.

NASCAR got everything it wanted in the final regular-season race Saturday night at Richmond -- a wild and crazy, tempers-flaring, car-bashing 400 laps in which Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin coaxed damaged cars to decent finishes to retain their playoff spots.

It showed how good both teams can be when they need it most, but I have some bad news: Neither Earnhardt nor Hamlin can win this Chase. Not this time.

Nor will the Stewart-Haas Racing drivers -- Ryan Newman or Tony Stewart. SHR still doesn't have a new competition director, and the organization hasn't looked as strong this season as past years.

"We won the battle; now we have to go out and win the war," Newman said Saturday night at Richmond.

Sorry, Ryan, but I don't see it happening. For the other eight teams, if they race up to their capabilities, the championship is waiting. Here's a look at each of those eight drivers, in no particular order, and why they can win the Chase. Stick around until the end and I'll give you my pick for the win, along with why I picked him.

• Jimmie Johnson: Do you really have to ask? Would anyone really be surprised if Five-Time became Six-Time?

Of course not, but JJ is beatable. Johnson has only one victory this season, the first time in his five-year run at the top that he has started the Chase with fewer than three wins.

Here's what won't happen: Johnson won't lose the championship because he gets into another on-track scrap with Kurt Busch. Saturday night's have-at-it moments between them were an anomaly. Neither driver had anything to lose.

Now they do. They won't deliberately try to wreck each other with the title on the line, because there's too much risk. Even if one guy is out of the title hunt with three races to go, he's not going to wreck the other guy just to ruin his championship chances.

Whatever you think of either driver, they aren't that unethical.

The only scenario for wrecking each other would be at the end of a race if they were running 1-2, which could bring about a bump-and-run.

• Kurt Busch: Might as well list NASCAR's current bad boy next. The senior Busch brother was a big part of the news at Richmond, not only for his problems with Johnson (calling him a "five-time chump"), but also his anger at reporters.

He cursed at one reporter on pit road and reportedly had to be restrained, then tore up a piece of paper another reporter gave him to prove something he said.

So the question is this: Is Kurt Busch out of control?

No. He won't allow his blow-up at reporters Saturday night to affect his playoff run. Athletes get mad at reporters in the heat of the moment. It's just part of the drill.

If I had a dollar for every time in my career Barry Bonds and Ralph Sampson (and a few NASCAR drivers) wanted to choke me, I wouldn't be writing this column. I'd be sipping champagne on a yacht in Monaco.

If anything, Busch will use Saturday night as motivation to win a second championship. He is one of the best drivers in the sport, and Penske Racing now has the equipment to take advantage of his skills.

• Jeff Gordon: Team owner Rick Hendrick clearly did the right thing by pairing Gordon with crew chief Alan Gustafson this season. Gordon has three victories (he had none last year), and he's a contender to win almost every week.

And there's no doubt it was the right thing to pit Earnhardt with Steve Letarte. Junior was 19th in the standings a year ago. He still hasn't won a race, but he's in the Chase and has made a giant move forward this year.

As for Gordon, he's more confident now than he has been in years. He knows he can win that fifth title this year, and so do all the other teams in the Chase.

"This team could not be more pumped and excited about this Chase," Gordon said Saturday night. "And Chicago is a great track for us. I feel like our team is really, really strong. We're competing with everybody out there right now, and lately I feel like we've been better than most on a lot of different types of racetracks."

• Kyle Busch: Ah, yes, the quiet and friendly Busch brother. Now there's a sentence I never expected to write. He starts the Chase tied with Kevin Harvick for the top spot with four wins.

"It's been a good 26 weeks, and we've certainly built off some pretty good consistency," Busch said Saturday night. "But we've got to make sure we keep that going the next 10 weeks."

This could be the year when Busch parlays his enormous talent into a title. If I could give him one bit of advice it would be to stop running feeder-league races for the rest of the season. Just concentrate on the Cup.

In his five championship seasons, Johnson ran a total of 10 Nationwide races, and never more than four in one year. Tony Stewart ran 12 Nationwide races when he won the 2005 championship, but only one during the Chase. And Kurt Busch didn't run any when he won the first Chase crown in 2004.

All of them focused on the job at hand in the playoff. Kyle Busch should do the same.

• Carl Edwards: He looked like the clear favorite at midseason before all the contract distractions took a toll. Edwards said crew chief Bob Osborne was trying a lot of experimental stuff the past few weeks, knowing they had a secure playoff spot.

He said the No. 99 Ford team is ready to go now. We'll see. And I would give Edwards the same advice I gave Kyle.

• Brad Keselowski: He's the surprise of the Chase field, and the hottest driver entering the playoff. There's a fine line between believing you can compete up front every week and knowing you can. Keselowski knows he can now.

He had six consecutive top-10s (including two victories) entering Richmond before finishing 12th on Saturday night. Chicagoland Speedway is the track most similar to Kansas, where Keselowski won in June on fuel mileage.

So look for Paul Wolfe to keep Keselowski near the front this weekend. Wolfe is the crew chief of the year in my book.

One problem: Keselowski has to start the Chase tied for last, 12 points behind Kyle Busch and Harvick.

• Kevin Harvick: He was the forgotten man before winning at Richmond. It was Harvick's fourth victory of the season, but his first since the Coca-Cola 600 in May. He finished 22nd in two of the previous three races and hadn't posted a top-5 since Pocono in June.

All three of Harvick's Richard Childress Racing teammates failed to make the Chase, which isn't all bad. RCR can use all of its best people to try to get Harvick his first Cup championship.

• Matt Kenseth: He's the best in the sport and racing under the radar, so to speak. He quietly goes about his business, getting the most out of his equipment every week.

"It seems like we always overachieve," Kenseth said Saturday. "It's when you're having a bad day and you've got a 16th-place car and you figure out how to finish 11th with it. But those results aren't good enough to win a championship. We've got to get the best finishes, and we've got to do the right things every week."

The one flaw in the new points format is that winning takes a backseat again once the Chase starts. It's about consistency and staying away from bad finishes, especially now, when each spot is worth only one point.

That's great for Kenseth. It plays right into his skill set. He also has two victories this season at Chase tracks -- Texas and Dover. If he gets a couple of wins in the playoff (he has won at five of the 10 Chase tracks), he could join Stewart as the only driver to win the pre- and post-playoff era.

So who's my pick to win it? Five-Time himself.

Here's why: Eight of the tracks in the Chase had races earlier this year. Johnson finished in the top 11 in seven of those and won at Talladega. Charlotte was the only exception. He was 28th there, but he blew an engine with five laps to go that night. He also led the most laps at Chicago last year and finished second at Homestead.

For the other seven contenders: Catch him if you can, boys. All of you are capable of getting it done.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.