With the 2008 Chase for the Cup starting this weekend at New Hampshire, it would appear a preview of the 10-race "playoff" was in order. These predictions are by no means expert, and there's a fairly good chance I'll be wrong in most of my thinking, but here they are nonetheless.
We'll start with the drivers making up the 12-man field.
1. Kyle Busch (5,080 points, 8 wins)
NASCAR's most despised driver has won a series-high eight wins so far this season, earning him the top seed in the Chase in spite of a 15th-place finish at Richmond. It's entirely possible for Busch to win another race or two once the playoffs start, and he is one of the three drivers with a realistic shot at the Cup. The only things working against Busch? His overly aggressive style, the fact that a few drivers still owe him payback and a little thing called Jimmie Johnson.
2. Carl Edwards (5,050 points, 6 wins -- 10 bonus points from Las Vegas taken away)
Perhaps more important than Edwards' six wins in the regular season is the fact that he refused to back down to Busch after he used the bump-and-run to win at Bristol. When he turned Busch after the checkered flag, Edwards served notice that not only could he keep up with Busch on the track, but that he wouldn't let him rough him up, either. The one thing going against Edwards, and this is true of Busch as well, is his lack of championship experience. Edwards won the 2007 Nationwide Series title, but that was a runaway -- and that series doesn't have the Chase.
3. Jimmie Johnson (5,040 points, 4 wins)
The two-time defending Cup champion won back-to-back races heading into the Chase for the second straight year, setting himself nicely to become the first man to win three straight titles since Cale Yarborough. Johnson is traditionally a driver who heats up in the Chase -- as evidenced by his winning the last four races of the 2007 season. Johnson has that championship experience and pedigree that both Busch and Edwards lack. For that reason alone, make Johnson the favorite.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (5,010 points, 1 win)
In June, Earnhardt would've easily been considered one of the few guys with a shot at challenging Busch, thanks to his consistency. But since winning the June race at Michigan, Earnhardt has just two top-10 finishes: eighth at Daytona in July and fourth this past Sunday at Richmond. Earnhardt has led laps, but inconsistency late in races and with his crew chief have left Earnhardt searching for answers while Busch, Edwards and Johnson take checkered flags left and right. Earnhardt might very well win a race or two in the Chase, but he's not a title threat.
5. Clint Bowyer (5,010 points, 1 win)
Last year's Chase darling -- he finished third behind Johnson and Jeff Gordon -- Bowyer snuck in this year after a rough race at Richmond. Bowyer won the May race in Richmond, the beneficiary of Busch and Earnhardt's late-race tangle. But since then, Bowyer has had neither the speed nor the consistency, which will carry over into the Chase. Bowyer does run well at a few of the remaining tracks -- like New Hampshire and Charlotte -- but Bowyer can't keep up with the Big Three, especially since his attention is divided between the Chase and the Nationwide Series title.
6. Denny Hamlin (5,010 points, 1 win)
After saying his team didn't deserve to be in the Chase after blowing a motor at Michigan, Hamlin enters the Chase with three straight third-place finishes. He hasn't found the speed teammate Busch has this season, but Hamlin won the Martinsville race in the spring, which will make him a threat when the series returns in October. Hamlin also performs well at New Hampshire, Phoenix and select 1.5-milers, and he's got enough momentum to possibly make a run at the title.
7. Jeff Burton (5,010 points, 1 win)
Before the July race at Daytona, Burton hadn't finished worse than 15th all season. That consistency hasn't been easy to find since, though Burton is in the Chase and has one win to his name: Bristol in March. But Richard Childress Racing as a whole doesn't have the speed to keep up with Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. It's impressive that RCR has all three cars in the Chase field, but I don't see Burton being a title threat. He could be a threat at Dover and a few other tracks, but Burton won't be a problem for Busch, Edwards and Johnson.
8. Tony Stewart (5,000 points, 0 wins)
Most years, I would consider Stewart a serious threat for the title. But even though Stewart could easily have three or four wins this season, don't look for him to make any noise in the Chase. He could win his first race of the season, but with his attention slowly turning to Stewart Haas Racing in 2009, tensions are starting to boil over between Stewart and his team. Their post-race bickering in Richmond isn't just a bit of frustration from Stewart finishing second to Johnson, it's indemic of bitterness about Stewart's decision to leave -- and it will keep him from winning the Chase.
9. Greg Biffle (5,000 points, 0 wins)
It's kind of hard to believe Biffle hasn't won yet this season, as well as he's run at times. Then again, Edwards aside, Roush Fenway Racing as a whole hasn't quite been at the same level as the better teams in the garage. For that reason alone, Biffle won't be much of a threat; he might win a race at some point in the final 10 races, but I really don't see the No. 16 team being a serious threat to Busch, Edwards or Johnson. At best, Biffle can make a push to put himself in position to make a run at the title in 2009.
10. Jeff Gordon (5,000 points, 0 wins)
Are we serious? Has Gordon really gone all season without winning a race? You have to be kidding, right? Gordon and his No. 24 crew have struggled throughout much of the season, trying to find a handle on the new car. By their own admission, the team fell behind because of their pursuit for the title last season, when Gordon finished second to Johnson, and there have been races where Gordon hasn't even been competitive, and for that reason alone, Gordon won't make a push for Championship #5. In fact, he could very well go winless for the first time since his rookie year of 1993.
11. Kevin Harvick (5,000 points, 0 wins)
Harvick hasn't seen Victory Lane since he edged past Mark Martin to win the Daytona 500, and there have been times this season in which the No. 29 team hasn't even looked competitive. But since getting caught up in a wreck with Kurt Busch at Indianapolis, Harvick has run better, and even led laps at Richmond. Harvick isn't fast enough this year to win any races, though, let alone challenge Busch, Edwards and Johnson for the title. Like his Richard Childress teammates, Harvick won't be a threat.
12. Matt Kenseth (5,000 points, 0 wins)
That Kenseth is without a win isn't that surprising -- he won the 2003 title with just one victory -- his lack of consistency has been. After Phoenix, Kenseth was 22nd in points, and while he's worked to establish a rapport with new crew chief Chip Bolin, teammate Carl Edwards has found something no one else at Roush Fenway has. Kenseth will go winless this season, and we're probably likely to forget he's even in the Chase.
2008 Sprint Cup Champion: Jimmie Johnson
2008 Chase Race Winners
Sylvania 300, New Hampshire: Denny Hamlin
Camping World RV 400, Dover: Kyle Busch
Camping World RV 400, Kansas: Carl Edwards
AMP Energy 500, Talladega: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Bank of America 500, Lowe's Motor Speedway: Jimmie Johnson
TUMS QuikPak 500, Martinsville: Jimmie Johnson
Pep Boys Auto 500, Atlanta: Carl Edwards
Dickies 500, Texas: Jimmie Johnson
O'Reilly Auto Parts 500, Phoenix: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ford 400, Homestead: Jimmie Johnson