Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Top Ten Drivers Most Likely To Win the Sprint Cup Championship

2012 Chase For The Sprint Cup Gear at the NASCAR Superstore!
Article by Jack Payton
The NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason is only weeks away, and with only three races left in the regular season, ten drivers – those currently in the top ten of the points standings – have virtually assured themselves of a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, while a handful of drivers battle it out for the remaining wild card slots.

With the bulk of the field set, and the top contenders for the final two spots identified, it is time to play NASCAR Nostradamus and make some predictions for how the always-exciting ten-race Chase for the Cup will play out.

#48 Jimmie Johnson 2012 Kobalt Tools 1/24 Nascar Diecast Car Chevy Impala Action Platinum Series LncJimmy Johnson
If consistency is a jewel, then Jimmy Johnson is a whole string of pearls.
Though his streak of five consecutive championships was broken last year – he finished a disappointing sixth – the odds on favorite has to be Johnson, driver of the Hendricks Motor Sports #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet.  Nobody knows better than Johnson and Crew Chief Chad Knaus how emotionally, physically and mentally demanding the Chase for the Cup can be, and nobody is better prepared to deal with that grind than the #48 team.

Johnson has, per usual, been a model of consistency in 2012, notching three wins on the year to go with 11 top five finishes and 16 top tens – each of these marks leads (or is tied for the lead) in the circuit.
Consistency has been Johnson’s hallmark throughout his incredible career, and that is why he simply must rank at the top of any objective list of the top contenders.  It isn’t that he wins every race – of course he doesn’t – but he and his team seem to do all the little things right that put the #48 in a reasonable position to win every week.

Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart has had a pretty pedestrian year so far in 2012; he does have three wins, but he ranks only ninth in the standings owing to seven races where he failed to crack the top 20. 
So how does a driver that is barely qualifying for the Chase get ranked up among the favorites?  Well, if you are asking that question, you obviously didn’t pay attention last year, when Stewart and his #14 Office Depot Chevrolet staggered into the Chase with no victories and seemingly no momentum.  

All Stewart did was rattle off five victories – including back-to-back checkered flags in the first two Chase races and a heart stopping victory over Carl Edwards in the season finale – to earn his second NASCAR title.

Bottom line: Stewart is a big time competitor that gears his whole season towards being at the top of his game when it counts.  Bet against him at your own peril.

Brad Keselowski
The brash, young Keselowski has proven to be everything that Penske Motorsports could have hoped he would be when they handed him the keys of the famous #2 Miller Lite Dodge.  In fact, in two short seasons, Keselowski has easily eclipsed his mentor Kurt Busch as top dog in the Dodge racing family. 

Coming off a stretch that has included back-to-back runner up finishes, a victory and seven straight top tens, Keselowski has naturally become a chic pick to challenge Johnson and Stewart in the upcoming Chase.
Perhaps helping Keselowski is that fact that he got his feet wet in the 2011 Chase, when he qualified as a Wild Card entrant and then solidified his status as NASCAR’s most up-and-coming racer by finishing fifth in the final standings.

No longer a prospect, the time could be now for Keselowski, who possesses a unique combination of steadiness and bravado that has characterized many race car champions of lore.

Greg Biffle
Biffle’s career has been marred by inconsistency, both from race to race and from season to season.  Some races – and some years – he seems like one of the best race car drivers in the world.  Other times, however, you hardly even know he is there.  Fortunately for Biffle, 2012 has been more of the former than the latter, as the #16 3M Ford has vaulted to the top of the Sprint Cup standings following his win at the Michigan 400.  It’s a far cry from 2011, when Biffle disappointed everyone by failing to win a race or make the Chase.

It’s anyone’s guess how Biffle will fare once the intensity of the Chase sets in.  Biffle finished second in the Chase in 2005 – only his second full-time Sprint Cup season – but failed to make any waves in Chase appearances in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Biffle has stated that his goal this year is to be in contention going into the final races of the season, and furthermore asserted that anyone that overlooks him will regret it.  Only time will tell, if Biffle will be a legitimate challenger or an afterthought again in 2012.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Junior is far-and-away the most popular NASCAR driver on the circuit, and one of the most marketable and recognizable athletes in American sports competition.   The problem is that his on-track performance has lagged significantly behind his fame for several years.

Junior and his #88 National Guard Chevy team have made some progress towards closing that gap between public perception and on-track reality in 2012, including getting a huge monkey off his back by finally winning a race at Michigan in June after 143 straight starts without a checkered flag. 

And that lone win probably understates the performance of Earnhardt, Jr. this year, as he has been remarkably consistent, earning 16 top ten finishes (tied with Johnson) and 10 top fives (one behind the leader).
If the #88 can keep up that level of dependability and find a way to sneak into victory lane a time or two, then NASCAR officials and fans might be treated to having their hero – or at least their hero’s son – actually compete for a title this year.

Matt Kenseth
You might not realize it, but Matt Kenseth is one of only three past champions on this list.  We’ll forgive you if you forgot about Kenseth’s 2003 championship season, as the driver of the #17 Best Buy Ford is so unassuming and understated that you’d almost forget he exists – if it wasn’t for all those top ten finishes and Chase entries that he has racked up over the years.

2012 is a microcosm of Kenseth’s career as he has failed to generate many headlines, despite the fact he is in second place in the standings.

He might not be flashy, but Kenseth is a pure racer, and probably an undervalued pick to become the 2012 champion.

Kasey Kahne
Kasey Kahne’s up and down career can perhaps be partially explained by the frequent team changes he has endured since he debuted in 2003.  He started racing for Everham Motorsports, switched over to Richard Petty’s team for a couple years, then had an ill-fated year running for Red Bull Racing, before finally landing on the acclaimed Hendrick Motorsports roster for 2012.

Through it all he’s been a solid, if unspectacular, racer, and while he is a racer that generally wins a race or two every year, he has yet to finish higher than 8th in the final standings.  Perhaps 2012 is the year Kahne reverses that trend.

Denny Hamlin
Hamlin was on the verge of winning the 2010 Championship, but melted down in the final race and conceded the title to Johnson.  The somber mood continued into 2011, as Hamlin gave lackluster performance after lackluster performance, only winning once after earning eight victories the year before.

Hamlin has taken some steps towards returning to contender status in 2011, picking up a couple of wins to go with nine top fives and 11 top tens. 

You know he is itching for a chance to make up for that last day of the 2010 season when he choked the championship away, so we’ll see if he gets it this year.

Kevin Harvick
The always feisty Kevin Harvick has become a consistent driver a decade plus after taking the seat of the immortal Dale Earnhardt for Richard Childress Racing back in 2001.  He has consistently gotten himself into the Chase, consistently been a threat to win any given race no matter where he starts, and much to the chagrin of his fans, consistently been an afterthought by the time the final races of the season come around.

Perhaps this year will be different for the #29 Budweiser Chevrolet and Harvick can live up to his nickname “The Closer” and finish the season like he finished several races in the 2011 season – coming out of nowhere to win it all.

Carl Edwards
You don’t need to be an ichthyologist to know that dead fish smell funny, much in the way that you don’t have to be a NASCAR expert to know that Carl Edwards has stunk in 2012.

But with apologies to Martin Truex and Clint Bowyer – two top ten drivers that are certainly going to make the Chase – I’m choosing Edwards for the final spot on this list.  Though Edwards might not even make the Chase – he’ll need to pull off at least one victory in the final three races of the season to do so – I still find it more likely that he could run off a string of victories and end up winning it all, than either Truex or Bowyer to do the same.

Edwards lost the closest championship battle by a whisker last year, finished fourth the before, and had another runner-up finish before that. How and why he is sitting in 12th place this year is a mystery to me, and judging from his recent comments to Carl himself. Can he turn it around?

Author Bio
Jack Payton is a car nut and motorsports fanatic in the purest form. He loves to write about everything gear related, and rebuilt his first engine at 15. He works as a freelance writer for the online tire retailer Tires Easy. In his spare time he enjoys cruising, following NASCAR, and collecting vinyl.

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