Commentary

How will 2012 Chase picture look?

Updated: November 28, 2011, 12:38 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Between now and Friday's Sprint Cup awards banquet at the Wynn Las Vegas, there will be a lot of parties and a lot of adult beverages consumed -- if rumors that Kevin Harvick plans to break his personal record of ordering 790 Budweisers at one time is true.

There will be a lot of strange discussion about Wednesday's driver version of "The Newlywed Game" -- hosted by Bob Eubanks himself -- in which there is potential for Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch as well as Kyle Busch and Harvick to couple up.

There will be a lot of reminiscing about the 2011 season, which arguably was one of the greatest in the history of the sport.

There will be a lot of jokes thrown at and delivered by champion Tony Stewart, who won his third title by virtue of a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.

But what many of you -- at least a third of you, if merchandise sales are correct -- will be talking about will have nothing to do with what happened during the past year or will happen on the famous Vegas Strip.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Can NASCAR's most popular driver take the title from Stewart?

With the Daytona 500 just more than two months away, it's time to predict how next year's Chase contenders will finish. A warning to those who read ESPN.com like the Bible: Our crackerjack staff had Stewart finishing seventh in 2011. Not one of the seven who participated had him higher than third.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. is going to break his winless streak at some point. Our man bets it happens in 2012.

We also didn't have Earnhardt making the Chase. We didn't have him in our top 18.

He finished seventh.

But we did have Edwards finishing second and correctly had nine of the 12 drivers who made the Chase, so we have something to hang our "da da da" on.

Only now I'm flying solo.

While my esteemed colleagues are digesting Thanksgiving turkey and dressing, I'm crunching numbers on what the 2012 Chase class will look like. It's a non-scientific method that combines all that works with the BCS, which is little, with about 15 minutes of deep thought.

We'll start in reverse order to leave a little suspense for the end.

12. Jeff Gordon -- He was my dark horse to win it all this year and it didn't turn out so well. So I'm trying reverse psychology and picking the four-time champion to finish last. Being picked seventh apparently fired up Stewart to start driving like a young man again.

11. Clint Bowyer -- Was going to put Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip in this slot because they, like Stewart said repeatedly before this year's final race, really have nothing to lose. But then somebody reminded that one driver has to be in all the races to be Chase-eligible. Therefore, Bowyer makes it for MWR. Makes sense, doesn't it?

10. Kyle Busch -- Something always seems to go wrong in the Chase for NASCAR's greatest driver, whether it's self-inflicted or organization-inflicted. Until that changes he's staying right here. And if you expect to see the other Busch brother in this, don't. He'll be too busy apologizing to people he offended in '11 to make the Chase.

9. Kasey Kahne -- Some people will pick him to be a contender until the end, saying he had the third-best average over the final 10 races and now is in better equipment. What they may forget is he wasn't in the Chase this season, so his average is irrelevant. But he will be driving for Hendrick Motorsports, so that has to be worth something.

8. Carl Edwards -- There's a curse to being the runner-up in the Chase, you know. Denny Hamlin went from second in 2010 to ninth this season. Martin went from second in 2009 to 13th in 2010. Edwards went from second in 2008 to 11th in 2009. Edwards also went from tied for second in 2005 to 12th in 2006. You get the picture.

7. Denny Hamlin -- No truth to the rumor that since moving out of his home on the lake he's been living in his courtside seats at the Charlotte Bobcats' arena until the NBA returns to action. But it's no rumor that Joe Gibbs Racing has been having engine issues, and until those are solved Air Hamlin has a better chance of beating Michael Jordan one-on-one than winning the title.

6. Tony Stewart -- You can't dump the crew chief who got you your third title and expect to repeat even if you did try to get him drunk the night of the championship. Plus, remember what happened the year after Stewart won his last title in 2005: He didn't make the Chase. So picking him this high is a gift.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- Did you really expect him to be No. 1? It did make you read this far, though, right? One thing is guaranteed: NASCAR's most popular driver will win a race and end his losing streak that goes back to 2008. That has to be said since my prediction for this season was for a win. Sooner or later it's going to happen.

4. Jimmie Johnson -- My gut says he'll storm back and win his sixth title. But judging from questions and answers prior to this year's final race, he needs to stay out of contention so he can be a party planner for whoever wins the title. Everybody has a special talent.

3. Kevin Harvick -- If there's going to be a repeat, it's here. He'll finish third for the third straight year. Then 10 years from now, when another driver comes along and finishes third a couple of times, people will say he is the Harvick of the sport like Edwards is becoming the Mark Martin of NASCAR for finishing second.

2. Brad Keselowski -- Was going to put him in a tie for the top spot. Then I figured he would say something completely innocent after winning the final race about how he thinks NASCAR chairman Brian France made a disaster out of, well, something, and get fined three points.

1. Matt Kenseth -- Bet you thought Brian Vickers would bump him out of the top spot. Seriously, think about it. Kenseth drives an unsponsored car to the title. It'll shorten the postrace speech by at least 15 minutes because the 2003 champion will have nobody to thank outside of team owner Jack Roush for giving him a car and his wife for giving him time to tweet.

Kidding.

Earnhardt is going to win it all.

Still kidding, and Harvick hasn't served the first Budweiser.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.

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