The Chase is here! NASCAR's innovative playoff system. Seems to me that if NASCAR can figure out an equitable playoff system for stock car racing, the NCAA could come up with a solution, but we'll leave the Rev to stand on that soap box.
So, 12 drivers made the chase, and now Rusty will try and handicap the competition and give a few tips for our dedicated readers.
1. Kyle Busch (18) - The shrub has been hot all year. He's had 8 victories in just the Sprint Cup alone. Compiled with his 10 wins in Nationwide and Trucks, there's no way to argue he's not been the hottest driver this year. The Chase presents several tracks where the shrub's already won this year, 'Dega, Hot-Lanta, and Dover, but Rusty just does just not have a good feeling about his chances. When the shrub doesn't do well, he really doesn't do well. And when added together the Chase doesn't present a great overall picture for him. Kyle only averages a 20.5 average finishing position on the 10 tracks of the Chase. It ain't the worst, but it ain't the best. Rusty predicts a strong 10 races, but shrub will slip. Prediction: 4th
2. Carl Edwards (99) - Ole Carl has quietly snuck up to the 2nd position going into the chase. He's had 5 victories this year, and a few exciting battles with the shrub this summer. Mr. Ed averages a 14th place finish at the 10 upcoming tracks, giving him a little bit of an advantage over the shrub. The chase is also full of intermediate tracks, where Carl excels; places like Kansas, Lowe's, Atlanta, and Homestead. A trophy might be in Carl's future, but not sure it'll be the Sprint Cup. Mr. Roids just moved into 2nd place in the Nationwide series, only 207 points behind leader Clint Bowyer. That 2nd place might be an omen, cause that's where Rusty's predicting he'll finish here in Cup. Prediction: 2nd
3. Jimmie Johnson (48) - Ladies and Gentlemen, the 2008 Sprint Cup Champion! Jimmie is hot, pure and simple. WIth back to back victories in pretty dominant fashion, the driver of the 48 is peaking at the right time. Like Carl, Jimmie also excels at the intermediate tracks, including an almost uber-dominance at his sponsor's home track, Lowe's Motor; 5 victories in only 14 starts. That means he's won over a 1/3 of the time he's been on the track in Concord, NC. Jimmie also has one of the best average finishes at the 10 playoff tracks, a 10.4 After 2 consecutive years being the bridesmaid (2003, 2004), Jimmie is now knocking on the door of history. Jimmie is the two time defending champ (2006, 2007), and only 1 driver has ever won 3 consecutive championships; Cale Yarborough (1976 - 1978). Jimmie will join Cale, this year. You can count on it! Prediction: Champ
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) - What a comeback year. There were big questions for June-bug moving from his daddy's team to the powerhouse of Hendrick Motorsports, but with 3 wins and staying top 3 in the points throughout most of the year, Rusty's pretty sure most questions have been answered. Now, little E's been a little off these past few weeks. For whatever reason, he just doesn't do well throughout the summer. However, starting this past week with Richmond, Junior's got some stronger tracks coming up, including 'Dega, where he's recorded a series best 5 wins. Overall, he averages a 16th place finish for the Chase. Not too shabby, but as much as it may pain me to say it, I just don't see him offering a realistic challenge for the championship. He probably needs another year learning the Hendrick organization. He'll finish with at least another victory, though. Prediction: 3rd
5. Clint Bowyer (07) - Now, I'm not going to say that anyone doesn't belong in the Chase, but Clint's going to be the closest thing to not belonging. This Kansas boy's one victory comes from the shrub punting my boy from the lead at Richmond; Clint was just in the right place at the right time. So, I just don't know that Clint's a serious challenge for the title. He qualified for the chase 12th, but will jump to 5th because of his one victory. Now, I say all that, but we must remember last year. Clint qualified for the chase without a victory in 2007, only to lay down a dominant performance at New Hampshire to take his first checkered flag of the season. Clint found something in the chase, and finished a career high 3rd in the points, albeit 346 points behind champion Jimmie Johnson. Don't bet your biscuits on a repeat performance, this year, though. Clint will slip down in the standings, and fast. Prediction: 11th
6. Denny Hamlin (11) - The fellow Chesterfield-ian (not even sure if that's a word) is on a Earnhardt hot streak. He's posted 3 consecutive 3rd place finishes, and is on fire coming into the Chase. That's the problem, though . . . Denny's been streaking this year. There's not much middle ground for the driver of the FedEx Toyota. When Denny's not finishing in the top 10, he's typically been in the back half of the pack. Hamlin's got an average finish of 14.9 over the 10 upcoming tracks and 2 wins. He starts with his best track in New Hampshire, but follows that up with his two worst. Winning the Championship is all about consistency, and that just didn't seem to be Hamlins mantra through the first 26, and I don't reckon it will be through the next 10. Prediction: 7th
7. Jeff Burton (31) - What a nice guy. I mean, I just don't know if you can find a nicer guy than Jeff Burton in this collection of the 12 best. Unfortunately, niceness don't win championships. However, i just talked about how consistency does. Jeff might be the most consistent driver over these next set of tracks. He averages between an 11th and 19th place finish on the Chase tracks, that's pretty darn consistent. With a combined average of 15.5, though, not sure that consistency is good enough to cut the mustard. Add that to the fact that he's in a bit of a slump lately, only 2 top 10's and an equal number of DNF's in the last 10 races, and you get a guy not really in a position to mae a serious challenge for the Cup. Prediction: 8th
8. Tony Stewart (20) - Tony's one of two former champions in the Chase without a victory this year, although the current slump might be hitting Smoke a little harder than the other guy. Tony's had great cars, and gave us one heck of a show at Richmond this past weekend. However, a late pit stop left him in the 2nd spot and unable to catch Jimmie who took the checkers just ahead of Tony. To say Tony wasn't happy at the end of the race would be quite an understatement. Tony looked madder than the Ole Ball Coach after 4 picks in the season opener against Rusty's Wolfpack. Looking at the 10 upcoming races, Tony has to feel confident about finally getting into victory lane. He's had a win at every track except Talladega, though he's been there in the Nationwide series. So, look for Tony to get a victory . . . or two, but he'll also have a few slip-ups, and probably only move up a few spots. Not a serious title contender this year. Let's hope it doesn't take him too long to get going with his own team, next year. NASCAR won't be the same without Tony running up front. Prediction: 6th
9. Greg Biffle (16) - Bug eyed dummy!!!! Man, I miss Sterling Marlin. Yeah, Biffle will challenge at Dega, he might do well in Atlanta, and he'll probably even win at Homestead, but other than that, he ain't going to be near the front. If you're a betting man, and want a long shot, here's your boy. He's got the talent, and he's shown some flashes of brilliance, but just not long enough to really challenge for the Cup. He'll fall slightly from his current 9th place position. Prediction: 10th
10. Jeff Gordon (24) - Jeff's had some bad luck and some bad cars, and for a myriad of reasons, he's yet to take the checkered flag this year. That's not to say that he won't be mount a challenge for the Cup. With the points now reset, Jeff is only 80 points out of first place. That doesn't bode well for those above him, cause Jeff knows how to get to victory lane, and he knows how to win a championship. Jeff's really going to put up a fight. Take a look at the numbers. Jeff averages an amazing 12.17 place finish over the 10 Chase tracks, has recorded 32 wins, 107 top 5's, and 146 top 10's. When you average that out over his 233 starts, that's a win nearly 14% of the time, a top 5 over 45% of the time, and a top 10 nearly 2/3rd's of the time. Those are some stats. Jeff might not have found victory lane in the first 26 races, but he'll find it at least once, maybe twice over the next 10. The 24 team is going to be a tough bunch of guys to beat. Prediction: 5th
11. Kevin Harvick (29) - Happy Harvick started hot this year, and he's on a bit of a hot streak right now. In the first 5 races of the year, he had 4 top 10's and a 14th place finish in the 500. In the last 10 races, he's racked up 4 top 5's and 7 top 10's. Like ole Jimmie, Happy seems to be peaking at the right time. Now, all that being said, I just don't see a serious challenge from the driver of Dale Sr.'s former ride. He averages a top 10 finish on only one of the 10 chase tracks, Homestead, and figuring that's the last race, might be a little too late at that point to mount a serious challenge. To top that off, when the 29's been bad, this year, it's been really bad. Kevin will finish higher than he qualified, but he won't challenge for the Cup. Prediction: 9th
12. Matt Kenseth (17) - Yeah, not a chance. Matt has struggled with a crew chief change this year. Rusty's pretty darn amazed he's even been able to make it into the Chase, but again that shows what consistency can do for ya. Matt's not had any DNF's this year, although he's also not had any wins, either. He may do well at a few tracks, including getting off to a good start at New Hampshire, but he'll fade. Prediction: 12th