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
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.