It’s playoff time in NASCAR. The ten-race Chase for the Sprint Cup starts this Sunday at the Chicagoland Speedway, which will decide the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. Since I like to pretend that I am somewhat of an auto racing expert, I thought it would be fun to give my picks for the Chase. Disclaimer: When I made my picks last year I only correctly predicted one out of the four drivers to make the final race, so use caution when using this information to fill your Chase grid.
My picks are going to be a little more detailed this year. I am going to select which drivers are going to be eliminated at the end of each round of the Chase.
Pretenders not Contenders
Martin Truex, Jr.
Starting things out with a surprise by picking Martin Truex, Jr. to not survive the first round. Truex has had an amazing year to date by running near the top of the standings and winning at Pocono. The cracks are starting to show, however, after finishing in the top ten for 14 of the first 15 races. Truex crashed at Sonoma and finished 42nd. Since then he only has three top ten finishes, and slid from second in points to ninth. I just don’t see him returning to his early season form.
I know picking against Newman might be a mistake after his performance in the Chase last year. His consistency got him all the way to the Championship round at Homestead, and he nearly won it all. Now that everyone has lived through one season under this Chase format, I think teams learned from their mistakes from last year and will race smarter during the early rounds.
Menard and Bowyer got the final two spots in the Chase on points. Neither have been much of a factor this season, and I don’t see them setting world on fire now. It would be fun to see Bowyer make a heroic run through the playoffs to send Michael Waltrip Racing off with a flourish.
Eliminated before the Eliminator round
It’s hard to pick against a couple Joe Gibbs Racing drivers with the way the team has been dominating the sports as of late, but I think Busch and Hamlin eventually run out of steam. Hamlin isn’t at 100% with his knee injury, which I think will slow him down. Busch’s performance since returning from his injury has been remarkable, but his history in the Chase is less than stellar. Both drivers will have one bad day during the Contender round, which will keep them from advancing.
Gordon’s final season as a full-time driver will not end with a championship. He has been hanging around the bottom half of the top 16 points most of the season, and has not been factor.
McMurray is just like Ryan Newman, he’s been consistently good enough to get this far. Running in the top 15 every race will not get you to the final eight.
Not racing for the Championship at Homestead
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
It wasn’t easy to pair the field down from eight to four. Jimmie Johnson will have to wait another year to get his seventh title. I know the #48 team will have their yearly Chase resurgence after sleepwalking through most of the summer, but they will miss out on racing for a championship by mere points.
With Talladega being the final race of the Contender round, I couldn’t pick against Earnhardt, Jr. advancing out of the top 12. With that being the final restrictor plate race of the season, I don’t see him getting him into the final four. He’s been a solid performer once again this season, but I don’t think he’s championship material.
Kenseth has been on a tear as of late with three wins in the last six races, but I think he’ll cool down just enough to not make the final round. His stats before the hot streak were pretty pedestrian in comparison to the other driver remaining at this point.
Kurt Busch overcame his three-race suspension from the beginning of the season to become a weekly front runner in the Sprint Cup Series. Just like with Earnhardt he’s been one of the top drivers this year, but I don’t see him surpassing the the top four drivers this year.
Harvick has just been so dominant this season that it is hard to not see him repeat as champion. His 14th place finish at Richmond last week was only the fourth time in 26 races this season that he has not finished inside the top ten. Harvick has finished first or second in nearly half of the races run so far this year (12 out of 26). He may need to win at Homestead to do it, but Harvick will win the Sprint Cup championship in 2015.
Joey Logano has been nearly as good as Harvick has been this season. He’s finished outside the top ten only six times this season, and two of those were finishes of 11th and 13th. Logano has became a bonafide star in this sport since winning the Daytona 500 in February. It will be fun to watch him and Harvick race for the title.
Out of all the JGR drivers in the Chase it may be surprising to some that the one I have going the farthest in the Chase is the driver in his first year with the team. It took Edwards and his #19 team a couple months to get acclimated, but they have been on a nice run since winning the Coca-Cola 600 in May. Outside of crashes in Sonoma and Daytona that relegated them to 40th & 41st respectively, they have not finished outside the top 20 since Memorial Day. The other thing going for the Edwards is his crew chief, Darian Grubb. This is the same man that was on Tony Stewart’s pit box when he went on that unimaginable championship run in 2011 (the same year Edwards lost the title on a tiebreaker).
I thought last year was Brad Keselowski’s year to win a second title, but a bad day at Martinsville kept him from making the final four at Homestead. Keselowski has finished in the top ten in his last nine starts, and he won’t be slowing down now that the Chase is here. He will give Penske Racing a nice 1-2 punch combo to try and win the championship.