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The field is set, including Jeff Gordon's dramatic late-race comeback at Richmond (finishing second to Clint Bowyer) to edge out Kyle Busch for the final Chase spot. Gordon joins the dynamic dozen to start the 10-race playoff for the Sprint Cup championship.
So which man will win the Chase? Who can win it? Did Gordon go from outside the lucky 12 to a man capable of winning his fifth championship?
The truth is anyone can win it. Last year proved that point. One year ago, I listed Tony Stewart as one of four drivers in the 2011 Chase with no realistic chance of winning the championship.
I wasn't alone. Stewart also didn't think he could win. He didn't even think he belonged in the Chase. He entered the playoff winless and frustrated over how his No. 14 Chevy team was running.
Obviously, he was wrong and so was I.
Now I get to do it all over again. It's time for my fearless Chase predictions. Hey, I can't do worse than last year.
First, a couple of interesting tidbits. Four drivers from the 2011 Chase -- Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards -- are not part of the 2012 Chase.
Few people believed Kurt Busch had any realistic shot at making the Chase this year on the underfunded Phoenix Racing team, but Kyle Busch and Edwards falling short are shockers.
Edwards tied Stewart for the 2011 title (in points), but the runner-up jinx continues. It's the third time in nine Chase seasons that the previous season's runner-up failed to make the playoff.
The 2012 Chase doesn't have a single newbie. All 12 drivers have been in the playoff at least one other time in their careers.
Kasey Kahne made the most of his first season at Hendrick Motorsports to get in the Chase for the first time since 2009. Martin Truex Jr. is in the playoff for the first time since 2007.
Michael Waltrip Racing, which never had a Chase driver in the past, has both its full-time drivers in the 2012 playoff: Truex and Bowyer.
So without further ado, here's my countdown list to the 2012 Chase champion:
12. Kevin Harvick Happy Harv is one of only two drivers (along with Truex) who made the Chase without winning a race. He also is the only RCR driver in the playoff. It hasn't been a great year for the organization, but things are looking up for Harvick and the No. 29 Chevy since Gil Martin returned as crew chief last month.
11. Kasey Kahne Considering how horrible the season started for Kahne, it's impressive that he made the Chase. He finished 29th or worse in four of the first six races and ranked 31st in the standings. But Kahne and long-time crew chief Kenny Francis settled in at Hendrick Motorsports and gradually moved up the standings, including wins at Charlotte and New Hampshire. However, I don't see Kahne beating his three Hendrick teammates for the title. Not this year, but soon.
10. Martin Truex Jr. He probably would have won two weeks ago at Atlanta if not for a late caution. Truex finished 11th or better in seven consecutive races before his 21st-place showing at Richmond. But he has only one top-3 in the past 18 races. And he has only one career victory. That was five years ago.
9. Clint Bowyer Bowyer has been a great fit in his first season at MWR after failing to make the Chase last season in his final year at RCR. His victory Saturday night was his first on an oval track this season. He also won on the road course at Sonoma, but there are no road courses in the Chase. Starting the Chase after a victory doesn't hurt, but MWR probably is a year away before it's ready to win a title. Bowyer does have wins at two Chase tracks -- New Hampshire and Talladega.
8. Matt Kenseth Two words explain why I don't think Kenseth can win the title: lame duck. Kenseth has enjoyed a strong season and he's the most consistent racer in Cup, but I don't see him winning a second championship until he moves to Joe Gibbs Racing. I'm not sure Jack Roush could swallow it if the man leaving him to go to Toyota won the crown this year in a Roush Ford.
7. Jeff Gordon Talk about starting the Chase with a bang. Gordon made one of the most remarkable late-race comebacks I've ever seen in his run to the front long after many fans had gone to bed Saturday night at Richmond. During the first red flag for rain, Gordon was 25th after starting the race on the front row. But crew chief Alan Gustafson's changes enabled Gordon to slowly move through the field to earn the last Chase spot. So the No. 24 team starts the Chase with some major momentum. Is that enough? Probably not.
6. Greg Biffle It's too bad that the regular-season points leader (Biffle) doesn't receive any bonus points in the Chase, a situation that should be rectified before next season. Biff has enjoyed the best year of his career overall, leading the standings 14 weeks and never falling lower than fourth. His one advantage is his history at some of the Chase tracks. Biffle has won at Dover, Kansas, Texas and Homestead. He won earlier this season at Texas. If he's still in the hunt at the last race, look out. Biffle has won three times at Homestead.
|Denny Hamlin has his eyes on that trophy.|
5. Tony Stewart Well, at least I'm not picking him in the bottom half of the Chase. Last year's Chase was a dream playoff for Smoke, but I don't see him catching lightning in a bottle two years in a row. Frankly, I don't see anyone doing what he did by winning five Chase events. Stewart also doesn't have Darian Grubb calling the shots on the pit box this time.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. This is the best chance of his career to win the title. Earnhardt has consistently run near the front all season. But I think the man who wins this Chase will have to win some races, and I'm not convinced the 88 Chevy team can get that done in the playoff events. The best scenario for NASCAR is to have Earnhardt still in contention heading to the finale at Homestead. If he finds a way to win it, the entire sport wins because of his enormous popularity.
3. Jimmie Johnson He's not exactly coming in on a roll. Johnson has finished 13th or worse in four of the past six races. He's has three DNFs in the past nine races, including two wrecks and a blown engine when he had the race won at Michigan. But Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 Chevy team are at their best in the 10 Chase races. One possible issue: The Hendrick boys lost a little advantage when NASCAR changed a rule last week on the bushings in the rear suspension, which had enabled the chassis to move and add speed. It's a small thing, but it could make a big difference for the Hendrick cars.
2. Brad Keselowski This guy is a gambler, which is why I like his chances. He goes for it and so does his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, a rising star among the men who call the shots in Cup. Keselowski and the No. 2 Dodge team are capable of getting on a roll and winning several times in the Chase. One possible issue is he's racing with a lame-duck manufacturer. I don't think that matters, but it will be an awkward moment to stand on the podium with Dodge officials if he wins the title. By the way, Brad was the guy who complained often enough to force NASCAR to change the bushings rule. He knows how to play the game, in the car and out.
1. Denny Hamlin: He went to the final race of 2010 with the points lead, but lost the title to Johnson. Hamlin's team blew it, and the entire 2011 season looked like they still felt the pain. This year he's looked more like the guy who was a near-champion in 2010. One big change has helped make the difference: Grubb. The man who won the 2011 Chase with Stewart could make it two in a row with Hamlin, who won two of the last three races before the Chase. Hamlin soon will become a father for the first time. He might become a Cup champion for the first time, as well.
Whatever happens, it's unlikely the 2012 Chase can equal the final race drama of 2011, when Stewart won the season finale to earn the title over Edwards, who finished second that day.
But someone can step up and surprise us, as Gordon did Saturday night and as Stewart did last year.