After 26 races, the NASCAR "playoffs" comes down to 12 drivers from 4 teams. The drivers include Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin from Joe Gibbs racing, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. from Hendrick Motorsports, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle from Roush Fenway Racing, and Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer from Richard Childress Racing. Jeff Gordon won the title 4 times in the past, Jimmie Johnson won the last 2 titles, Tony Stewart won 2 titles and Matt Kenseth has one championship in 2003.
Looking at the 10 races that comprise the Chase, it is easy to surmise that the races favor Hendrick and Roush cars. In fact, last year Hendrick cars won 6 of the 10 races, while Roush cars won 3 of the 10 races (Clint Bowyer won the other race). This year, however, Joe Gibbs cars (particularly Kyle Busch) have been just as competitive as Hendrick and Roush on the same types of tracks. Kyle Busch already won on 2 tracks featured in the Chase - Talladega and Dover. Furthermore, Kyle Busch has dominated in laps led, with 65% more laps led than his closest competitor, Jimmie Johnson, and more than double any other driver in NASCAR. Busch also has a 30 point lead over Edwards, 40 points over Johnson and at least 70 points more than the rest of the field heading into the Chase, thanks to his 8 victories and the 10 point bonus system per win. Last year most people expected Jeff Gordon to easily bypass Jimmie Johnson in the Chase as he dominated Johnson most of the year and was only 20 points behind Johnson, but Gordon said those 20 points effectively killed his chances, stating he just couldn't make up the 20 point differential. While the 70 points may not sound like much, it can be a massive undertaking given the structure of the NASCAR points system, not to mention the fact that all drivers after Johnson have to pass 3 other drivers to get to the lead.
Naturally Busch has to be the prohibitive favorite given his domination this year, but if he has one Achilles heel it is his over aggressiveness in an effort to win races, not to mention he has never really been under any pressure. While a desire to win is not a negative thing, the championship is almost always won by consistent high finishes and points racing. If Busch becomes too aggressive, as he is known to do (hence his nickname Rowdy Busch), and ends up with a couple of 30th plus finishes, it is not inconceivable that he relinquishs the lead to one of the other drivers. Busch is available between 3/2 and 9/4 odds depending on the sportsbook; 9/5 odds are probably reasonable for the points leader. Looking at drivers who can beat Busch, the most likely driver is Jimmie Johnson. Johnson enters the Chase with consecutive wins and he dominated the playoff races last year. He's always competitive on the larger tracks and should hold his own at Talladega, New Hampshire and Phoenix. Chad Knaus has somehow turned around the Hendrick Motorsports program that struggled somewhat early on in the year, and Johnson has proven in the past that he can points race and salvage a good finish when it is clear he doesn't have the best car . The same, however, cannot be said for his teammates.
Jeff Gordon has struggled all year and was lucky to make the run for the championship. He has given no indication that the #24 car is ready to turn things around, and while he could conceivably emerge from nowhere, that would be unlikely. In the past the champions had some momentum heading into the Chase, and Gordon has been going backwards. It is hard to believe that the favorite to start the season is now available between 20/1 and 30/1, but even at those odds it is hard to justify the risk on Gordon. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has shown signs of greatness during the year, but he also seemed to falter in races that he seemed ready to win. His sole win this year could be attributed to fuel conservation. While other drivers pitted for fuel late in a race at Michigan, Earnhardt decided to roll the dice and survived a green-white-checker finish, running out of gas as he crossed the line. It was his first win in 76 races and he has none since. The fan favorite did have a respectable average finish of 12th, and 13 top 10 finishes this year, but it is very difficult to see him overcoming the 70 point deficit. Besides, like Busch, he can be a little over aggressive. His 8/1 odds to win the championship are more likely a result of the popularity with fans and bettors more so than his talent and realistic chance of winning the title. Jimmie Johnson enters the Chase as a co-second choice pick with odds available between 5/2 and 7/2.
The other driver that is likely to give Busch and Johnson the biggest run for their money is Carl Edwards. Not only did Edwards win 5 races, have a leading 19 top 10 finishes and is tied with Busch with an average 10th place finish, but Edwards has been dominant on the 1 1/2 and 2 mile faster tracks, of which 4 comprise the last 10 races. Edwards ran away at Texas, did well at Lowe's, and won at both California and Michigan which are very similar to Texas, Lowes and Atlanta. In Atlanta, Edwards dominated much of the race, but had to retire with a blown engine. Edwards is arguably the hottest driver entering the Chase along with Johnson, and like Jimmie he knows how to points ride. More often than not Edwards sits in the top 10 without wearing out his brakes or tires---he gets near the front when it counts. Edwards' ability to avoid trouble also puts him one up on Kyle Busch. As well, his 5 wins this year places Edwards only 30 points behind Busch, and he doesn't have to leapfrog anyone else to get to the points lead. One race that could hurt Edwards' chances is Talladega, since Edwards has never shown much on the restrictor plate tracks in the past. At odds between 3/1 and 7/2, Edwards does have value.
Edwards' teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle have their work cut out for them. While Kenseth has recorded 15 top 10 finishes, he also has 8 finishes of 20th or worse. He'll love most of the tracks in the Chase, but he has really given no indication he can compete with the others this year. A couple of poor finishes, which seems inevitable for Kenseth, would effectively kill any chances he has to win. Greg Biffle, like Edwards and Kenseth, will love the upcoming Chase tracks, in fact 11 of his 12 wins have come on intermediate tracks. Biffle actually won the Homestead finale from 2004 to 2006. Unfortunately for Biffle, he has struggled both with consistency and with engine issues all year, and it seems his pit crew has let him down far too often. Biffle certainly presents an upset chance (more so than Kenseth), but he is a longshot. Both Kenseth and Biffle are available at around 20/1 odds.
Kevin Harvick from Childress racing seems to be everyone's dark horse pick entering the Chase. He has 8 top 10s in a row including 4 top 5s, and he hasn't had a DNF in over 2 years. He has also fared well on most of the upcoming tracks. If there is a knock against Harvick, it has to be that he hasn't won this year and always seemed to be a notch or two below the drivers ahead of him. Harvick definitely has a good car, as do his team-mates Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, but none of the 3 seemed to have the whole package that Gibbs and Roush seemed to show all year. For Harvick, Burton or Bowyer to win the championship they will need the top 3 to have serious problems in a few races, which is highly unlikely. It should be noted that Clint Bowyer won the first race at New Hampshire last year and stayed competitive throughout the Chase, although he never really threatened Johnson or Gordon. The Childress cars are available at between 30/1 and 75/1 for those who believe the main contenders will falter.
That brings us to the last drivers who qualified for the championship run, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin who race for Joe Gibbs Racing. If there is a driver who can wrench the title away from the 3 main contenders it is Tony Stewart. Tony has been fairly solid all year and has been competitive for most of the second half. In fact if it wasn't for some mental lapses, Stewart could have 2 or 3 victories by now. Many believe that the reason Stewart hasn't been quite as dominant as he could have been is disinterest. Stewart will leave Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of this year to start up his own team, and many in the industry feel Stewart is focused on that. As well, some speculate that Gibbs is putting most of his resources into Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin (particularly Busch) because Stewart is leaving the team. In any case, all the tracks in the Chase are the type Stewart does well on, and he has the ability to overcome the 80 point deficit. At the same time, he has played second fiddle to Busch all year, and realistically there is no reason to expect him to start beating Busch with regularity now. He does represent value at 15/1 odds, but he will have to start off strong at New Hampshire to narrow the points gap. Denny Hamlin, like Stewart, has been a step behind Busch this year, and he also has had a bunch of clunkers thrown in with some brilliant races. With any luck, he too could have had 3 or 4 wins this year, but racing is very much about luck and it appears that isn't on Hamlin's side in 2008. As well, there are a couple of tracks in the Chase that Hamlin hasn't done particularly well on. At 20/1 Hamlin could represent some value, but he is a major longshot.
To sum up, the Chase for the Cup should between the 3 dominant cars this year: Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards. Logically, Busch is the favorite and will be hard to beat, but something tells me Carl Edwards will do well in all the races, while Busch will slip in a race or two. The public will likely be cheering for Edwards over Busch or Johnson, and if it comes down to the race at Homestead, Edwards clearly has an advantage with the Roush engine. At odds between 3/1 and 7/2, Edwards could represent a decent payday.
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