Sunday, September 07, 2008

NASCAR Chase Field Set; Who's Going to Win?

After Richmond's race ended Sunday afternoon (instead of late Saturday as originally scheduled), there were no surprises for entrants into the Chase field. Yes, the most-disappointing miss was Kasey Kahne (with 2 wins, the only multiple-race winner not in), but his fate was almost set before he ever got to Richmond with multiple poor showings leading up to and including the Race to the Chase races. David Ragan came up short with a damaged race car, but his effort is commendable regardless of not making the field.

The simple rundown of who's in (with new point totals):
1. Kyle Busch - 5080
2. Carl Edwards - 5050 (minus 10 points for Las Vegas infraction)
3. Jimmie Johnson - 5040 (10 nice additional points for Richmond win)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. - 5010
5. Clint Bowyer - 5010
6. Denny Hamlin - 5010
7. Jeff Burton - 5010
8. Tony Stewart - 5000
9. Greg Biffle - 5000
10. Jeff Gordon - 5000
11. Kevin Harvick - 5000
12. Matt Kenseth - 5000
The sort order for the multiple drivers at 5010 (with 1 win) and at 5000 (with no wins) is by number of runner-up finishes, third-place, etc. until ties are broken.

I was going to break down somewhat "statistically" whose chances are best, but I think, given an emphasis on "momentum" as a factor that the numbers won't necessarily bear out, Jimmie Johnson is poised for a three-peat. That statement comes with some consternation on my part, as Johnson is my wife's favorite but Tony Stewart (still winless on the season) is mine. Johnson is peaking at just the right time with favorable tracks (as evidenced the past few seasons) ahead on the schedule. Historically, Johnson can dominate the 1.5-milers that make up so much of the Chase, specifically Charlotte, Texas, Atlanta, Kansas, and Homestead. With a win at Richmond and previous win at Phoenix, the shorter tracks (including Phoenix again as well as Dover) will probably suit him, too. That's not to say Johnson is going to run away with this championship ... but things are certainly favorable for his cause.

The two most-publicized names, for good reason, have been Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards ... but are both limping into the Chase? OK, limping is a stretch, given that the two combined won over half of the first 26 races (with 8 to Busch and 6 to Edwards) and both won races preceding Johnson's mini-flourish (with Edwards pulling back-to-back wins at Michigan and Bristol immediately before and Busch winning Watkins Glen prior to that). Arguably, all three drivers - Johnson, Edwards, and Busch - have a degree of momentum on their sides.

If the three favorites are clearly known, what about everybody else? Well, using history as somewhat of a guide, let's base some prediction of what's to come on earlier season facts. Every Chase track excluding only Kansas and Homestead-Miami has hosted a race this season. Who were the respective winners in Chase-race order?
New Hampshire - Kurt Busch (although Tony Stewart was most dominant and weather determined the outcome)
Dover - Kyle Busch (Greg Biffle led the most laps, but Busch was nearly as dominant in lapping most of the field)
Talladega - Kyle Busch (Tony Stewart but was caught in a race-ending accident)
Lowe's (Charlotte) - Kasey Kahne (Junior led the most laps but had a blown tire ... Stewart was leading near the end but also blew a tire)
Martinsville - Denny Hamlin (Junior led the most laps ... more weather strategy)
Atlanta - Kyle Busch (dominant car, most laps led)
Texas - Carl Edwards (dominant car, most laps led)
Phoenix - Jimmie Johnson (fuel-strategy win ... but a win nonetheless)

On a "wins-basis" alone, Kyle Busch looks pretty favorable with the repeat-track factor (no suprise with his many wins), but the dark-horse candidates are Stewart (who was strong in most of those races but came up short) and even Dale Jr. The best statistical argument would be made on average finish in those 8 races, but even that could be skewed by accident-caused DNF's or other premature failures that changed the outcome for respective Chase drivers.

When all is said and done, the best driver entering the Chase is not guaranteed to win the Chase. The first year of the Chase, 2004, is the best example of this, as Jeff Gordon was best heading in but surprise driver Kurt Busch stole the crown. Arguably, 2005 and 2006 featured the best drivers winning - Stewart and Johnson, respectively - but Gordon was again probably slightly better than Johnson in 2007. What does ALL of this mean for 2008? Who knows!?!

I am going out on a limb here and saying that while the top three drivers are most deserving, a dark horse is going to win this season. Who is that driver going to be? My gut tells me that Jeff Gordon is going to lose the "four-time" moniker and become "five-time" (or, ala the Steelers, "one for the thumb"). I have no fancy statistics to back this up ... or even momentum on his side. Gordon deserves, in this author's not-so-humble opinion, the fifth championship that he should already have. No, he is not 2008's best driver by any measure, but I see a deja vu potential from 2004 for 2008. He is not "entitled" to a title ... but I think it would sum up his career better than going out with a fizzle.

BTW ... if Gordon doesn't win, I'll stick with my original Johnson "momentum / statistical" pick. If Gordon does win, then I'm a genius. ;-)