Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Don't Look Now ...

... but here comes Jimmie Johnson.

It's almost like clockwork, the way Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 team assert themselves in the final 10 races of the Sprint Cup season, even after everyone's written them off and deemed someone else "the favorite." This year, the favorite is Denny Hamlin (who, to be fair, is still the points leader) and Johnson had his share of "regular season" struggles that led everyone to think this might be the year someone unseats him.

Then Dover happened.

Johnson spanked the field at Dover International Speedway on Sunday, leading the most laps in winning his sixth race of the season. The Monster Mile is Johnson's personal playground (much like Martinsville and Fontana and Charlotte); he's won there six times -- including three of the last four.

That Johnson won in such dominant fashion at Dover is not surprising. But given the lackluster way in which the No. 48 team opened the Chase in New Hampshire -- struggling to a 25th-place finish -- the team needed a rebound like this. There are still eight races left, including wild card tracks Martinsville and Talladega -- and Hamlin has consistently outperformed Johnson on the intermediate tracks this season, but make no mistake ... the Chase still goes through the No. 48 team, and it will not be taken from that team easily.

There's a reason Johnson is the four-time defending series champion; he and Knaus have mastered the seven-year-old championship format better than any other team, altering NASCAR history in the process. Without the Chase, Johnson would have one championship, maybe two.

Without the Chase, Johnson's mentor, Jeff Gordon, would have six titles and we'd be talking about whether or not he can tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most Cup Series championships ever.

Without the Chase, Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards might've won in 2008 -- and Tony Stewart very well could've won it last year in his first year as an owner-driver.

Without the Chase, Kevin Harvick would be well on his way to winning his first Cup Series title, giving car owner Richard Childress his first championship since Earnhardt won his seventh in 1994.

These scenarios make for rousing debate -- particularly among fans who don't like the Chase format -- but I can't help but wonder how much of this is based on Johnson's dominance. If we'd had four different champions over the past four years, would we still see all of this anti-Chase sentiment?

What if Edwards won in 2008? Or Stewart last year? Would we still be crying foul over the Chase? Or are we all getting our collective panties in a bunch because the No. 48 team has figured out how to win the Chase better than anyone else? Is this a case of "Don't hate the player; hate the game"?

Though I'm noticing a lot of hate for both player and game.

Make no mistake; I'm no Johnson fan. But what he's accomplishing can neither be denied nor compared to other great champions in the sport. Petty never had to deal with a Chase, and all four of Gordon's titles were pre-Chase. That's not to say their championships are better or worse than Johnson's; they're just different.

But Johnson has already made history, and if his performance at Dover is any indication, he might just make more. And if any fan wants to let that be the reason he stops watching, then maybe he wasn't really a fan in the first place.

Like it or not, the championship still goes through Jimmie Johnson.

Monday, September 13, 2010

2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup Preview

Now that the 12-driver field for this year's Sprint Cup Series championship is set, it's time to look at all the contenders and determine who really has a shot at the title.

The Schedule
Sept. 19 -- New Hampshire
Sept. 26 -- Dover
Oct. 3 -- Kansas
Oct. 10 -- Fontana
Oct. 16 -- Charlotte
Oct. 24 -- Martinsville
Oct. 31 -- Talladega
Nov. 7 -- Texas
Nov. 14 -- Phoenix
Nov. 21 -- Homestead

The Drivers
1) Denny Hamlin (6 wins, 10 top-5s, 11 top-10s)
Hamlin was a trendy preseason pick to unseat four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, and seemed to prove all the experts right after winning five races following knee surgery. But a summer swoon plagued the No. 11 team before Hamlin spanked the field at Richmond on Saturday for his series-leading sixth win of the season -- making him the points leader now that we've reset for the Chase. Hamlin's got the speed, but reliability issues -- see blown motor at Atlanta -- could do him in. If the equipment stays together, Hamlin will be a factor.

2) Jimmie Johnson (5 wins, 10 top-5s, 14 top-10s)
Don't let the summer swoon fool you; Johnson is every bit the Chase threat he was the last four years when he won them all. The No. 48 has always had a rough stretch during or before the summer that leads everyone to think they're vulnerable -- before they turn around in the final 10 races and spank everyone. That could well happen this year, because the Chase tracks are great for Johnson. Never underestimate Johnson or crew chief Chad Knaus. This title is still Johnson's to lose.

3) Kevin Harvick (3 wins, 11 top-5s, 17 top-10s)
Think Harvick should get something for being the points leader --by a commanding margin, at that -- at the end of the "regular season?" Well, so do I, but his three wins leave Harvick third after the reset. The No. 29 team has been fast and consistent all season, and his win in Michigan last month shows that Harvick is a threat on intermediate tracks -- which make up half the Chase. Don't be surprised if Harvick gives car owner Richard Childress his first Cup Series title since the late Dale Earnhardt won his seventh in 1994.

4) Kyle Busch (3 wins, 8 top-5s, 14 top-10s)
Kyle Busch is a hard one to figure out -- he has the talent to rack up wins and top-5 finishes without so much as a sweat, which makes him a legitimate threat for the title. But Busch is also capable of bad runs and mechanical issues -- which sunk him in 2008. There's been a lot of talk this season of a "new Kyle Busch," one who's calmer in the car and can make the best out of bad days. If Kyle is to win the title, we'll need to see a lot more of the new Kyle than the old one -- and that's no guarantee.

5) Kurt Busch (2 wins, 8 top-5s, 15 top-10s)
The only member of the Busch family to actually have a Sprint Cup Series championship -- he won the inaugural Chase by eight points in 2004 -- Kurt has won both his races this season on 1.5-mile tracks (Atlanta and Charlotte). That bodes well for Kurt, who has bonded well with Kyle Busch's former crew chief Steve Addington. Busch has also run well historically at tracks like New Hampshire and Martinsville. While his relative lack of wins have him in a little bit of a hole, Kurt is very much a title threat.

6) Tony Stewart (1 win, 7 top-5s, 14 top-10s)
Don't let the one win fool you; Stewart is coming on strong at the best possible time. He won Atlanta last weekend in convincing fashion, and Stewart has had his typical strong summer, even without multiple trips to Victory Lane. That win in Atlanta might've been just what the No. 14 team needed after a slow start to the season, and I really consider Stewart one of my darkhorses for the championship -- Kurt Busch being the other. Stewart's the only driver to win a title both before and after the advent of the Chase, and he'll be looking to be the first guy not named Jimmie Johnson to win multiple Chase titles.

7) Greg Biffle (1 win, 5 top-5s, 14 top-10s)
Like Stewart, Biffle has come on strong over the summer, hitting his stride at Indy and Pocono -- where he picked up his only win of the season in August. Roush-Fenway Racing as a whole has found itself after struggling for much of the season, but I don't think the No. 16 team has enough to keep up with Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick. Biffle might repeat his performance in 2008, where he won the first two Chase races, only to fade as the races wore on.

8) Jeff Gordon (0 wins, 10 top-5s, 13 top-10s)
It really seems like Gordon should be higher, doesn't it? Well, he would be with a few wins -- I can think of at least four races this season Gordon should've won, and his lack of wins will be Gordon's downfall. It might be mathematically possible to win the championship without winning a race, the only way the No. 24 team is gonna pick up its fifth championship is if Gordon makes multiple trips to Victory Lane. The way he's finishing races this season, I don't see it.

9) Carl Edwards (0 wins, 6 top-5s, 14 top-10s)
Like Stewart and Roush teammate Biffle, Edwards has really improved in the last several weeks, as the No. 99 team has found much-needed speed and consistency. We've yet to see that patented backflip -- at least in the Cup Series -- and like Gordon, that will be Edwards' downfall. He's starting too far back and I'm not sure he can consistently outrun Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick -- who I consider the co-favorites.

10) Jeff Burton (0 wins, 5 top-5s, 13 top-10s)
Like Gordon, Burton could've won multiple races so far this season. But he hasn't, which also puts the No. 31 behind the proverbial 8-ball. Speed and consistency are also an issue compared to some of the other Chase teams, and I don't really consider Burton a true title threat. He's capable of proving me wrong, but his performance throughout the season has me thinking he'll finish somewhere in the lower half of the top 10.

11) Matt Kenseth (0 wins, 5 top-5s, 10 top-10s)
How is Kenseth even in the Chase? It really doesn't seem like he's run all that well this year, even as teammates Biffle and Edwards are picking up steam heading into the Chase. Kenseth's worked his way through three crew chiefs this season, quietly making laps and apparently compiling enough points to make the Chase, but I really don't see the No. 17 as anything more than an afterthought.

12) Clint Bowyer (0 wins, 4 top-5s, 14 top-10s)
Bowyer gives Richard Childress three teams in the Chase, clinching a spot with a strong sixth-place run in Richmond. Consistency has been a bit of an issue for the No. 33 this year, and Bowyer hasn't had the same speed teammates Harvick and Burton have enjoyed. Bowyer did a nice job getting himself into the Chase, and he's won races before, but I don't see Bowyer as a true threat this year -- unlike 2007, when he finished third behind Johnson and Gordon.

My 2010 Champion: Jimmie Johnson -- he's the favorite and the champion until someone beats him. It's that simple.