Parks Pit Report SPECIAL EDITION: Previewing the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup

Twelve drivers will have 10 races to determine this year’s Sprint Cup Champion. Who will it be at the end of the season hoisting the checkered flag trophy?

After 26 races, and some very intense battles, the field has been set.  There are 12 drivers that have clinched their spots to go into battle to determine the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.  Last season, an improbable and incredible run by one driver over the 10 race battle still resulted in a tie-breaker, but was enough to get the trophy when the last checkered flag waved.

But what happened last season no longer matters, but will always be remembered.  There are some new faces in this year’s Chase for the Cup, but there are no rookies in the field.  Every driver has some Chase experience, some more than others, and some are riding a wave of momentum.

A few of the drivers in last year’s Chase are now on the outside looking in, as both Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch were unable to race their way in at the end of last Saturday’s race in Richmond.

Among this year’s field are former champions, crowd favorites, hungry souls and determined eyes.  But who exactly will be the one hoisting the trophy after Homestead this year?  I’ll attempt to break down who should be watched for, who could be waiting in the wings, and the drivers with the longest shot to get the title.

FAVORITES

Denny Hamlin, FedEx Toyota:  When momentum is on your side, it’s hard to deny it.  The one driver riding the most momentum into the Chase was the one that two years ago finished runner-up in the title hunt.  Hamlin has found his mojo late in the season, running at the front and scoring wins in two of the last three events.

He wants to get back the momentum he had in 2010 where he took Jimmie Johnson to the limit to earn his title, but this time Hamlin enters the Chase as the leader, as his four wins put him atop the board.  That is critical as a majority of the tracks in the Chase are ones he’s consistently strong at, and he’s capable of winning at.

Hamlin is my pick to win the title overall, which would give owner Joe Gibbs his first championship since 2005 with Tony Stewart.

Tony Stewart, Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet:  It’s not often that I don’t put the defending champion as the top seed to win, but after how the recent few weeks have been for the No. 14 team, I simply can’t.  Don’t get me wrong, I do not doubt for one second that the man nicknamed “Smoke” will be a title contender.  His quest to win the title in back-to-back seasons is by far the biggest driving force of that entire team.

Last year, quite honestly, Stewart entered the Chase with no momentum, and in an instant had it.  This year, he’s seeded third, much better than he was last year.  Stewart himself is more confident at this stage in the season than he was last season, and that’s huge for the morale of the team.  At the same time, with one main sponsor leaving at the season’s conclusion, what better way to bring in a new sponsor than a second Sprint Cup title?

Smoke wants that title, and he’ll go after it with everything he and the No. 14 team has to offer.

Jimmie Johnson, Lowe’s Chevrolet:  Until last season, no driver was more of an expert on the Chase than the man that won five consecutive titles.  Let’s face it, that streak will never be equaled on any level; it was special, a moment, and brought attention to a team that was outright dominant when it came to the final 10 races.

Last year, things didn’t exactly pan out for Johnson, but this time he’s ready to get a sixth title for the trophy case.  He is second behind Hamlin, thanks to the tie-breaker of top-five finishes on the season.

I’m not counting out Johnson one bit in this title hunt.  If he gets things rolling early in the Chase, it will be almost impossible to beat him.

Greg Biffle, 3M Ford:  The one guy who saw the points lead the most over the first 26 races of the season was Biffle, something that he was very proud of.  That means he was the most dominant driver in terms of holding a lead through the season, and it was very difficult for others to get ahead of him.

Now, Biffle is seeded fifth, thanks to his wins at Texas and Michigan from this season.  At the same time, with one driver leaving the Roush field at season’s end, a title in the bank will be a great prize to bring home.

Biffle is well experienced at the Chase, but missed out on the title hunt last season.  This time, he’s loaded and ready to bring the No. 16 team its first title since entering Sprint Cup competition.

Brad Keselowski, Miller Lite Dodge:  Talk about having a season where an owner has experienced the thrill of victory, but also devastating loss.  The No. 2 of Keselowski won three races this year, practically securing his Chase spot long before many others.  At the same time, the other team in the Penske shop had the sad experience of having a driver fail a substance abuse test, and subsequently get suspended and terminated.

Still, Keselowski is putting the positive in this season, putting the only Dodge in the Chase in what will be the manufacturer’s final Chase.  Penske is switching to Ford next season, so what better way for Dodge to step into the sunset than with a big trophy on the mantle?

Watch out, cause last year Keselowski entered the Chase with a bad foot.  This time, he’s healthy.  That means problems for the rest of the field.

Dale Earnhardt Jr, Diet Mtn. Dew/National Guard Chevrolet:  Yes, that’s completely accurate.  I’m putting NASCAR’s most popular driver in the favorite category.  No, I don’t think he’s the top favorite, as I’ve already stated my pick for the eventual championship.  But, the confidence level of the entire No. 88 team is higher this season than in any of the previous years since Junior came to Hendrick Motorsports.

It’s not just the fact that he won this year, a span of exactly four years since his last victory, but the way Junior has been driving and performing has people taking notice.  There’s no question this team is very capable of winning a championship, but the question is can the momentum they had during the regular season carry over?  Of the 10 races in the Chase, Junior has won on four of the tracks, with five coming at Talladega, the “wild card” of the Chase events.

I’m not doubting that it can happen, and I guarantee should Junior win the Sprint Cup title at the end of the year, the celebration will extend well into the holiday season.

SLEEPERS

Clint Bowyer, 5-Hour Energy Toyota:  The one guy in the Chase that is going by the slogan “Don’t forget about me” is last week’s winner.  Probably the one guy in the Chase, aside from possibly his teammate, that is not getting much hype as a title contender.

Bowyer’s Chase experience has been good and bad, as his experience at New Hampshire a few years ago where his team got penalized, appealed, and lost, certainly is the most memorable.  But, his first year at Michael Waltrip Racing has been his best regular season run to date.  His two victories seed him sixth in the standings, but yet no one is really talking about him as a championship contender.

Maybe that’s a good thing though, because if he does win, it means that he won’t be saying “Don’t forget about me” but instead will say “You’ll always remember me.”

Matt Kenseth, Best Buy Ford:  A win in the season-opening Daytona 500 was how Kenseth started the season.  Now, Kenseth is in yet another title hunt, and is hoping to walk into the sunset as a champion.

When the checkered flag waves at Homestead, it will bring an end to the career of Kenseth as part of Roush-Fenway Racing, the only team he’s ever raced for in his career.  Next year, he will take over the No. 20 car at Joe Gibbs Racing, hoping to give a boost to that team.  But, Kenseth made clear that his focus through the end of the 2012 season is to get a championship for this team, and he’s been true to his word.  Sure, he has yet to win a race since the opener, but he is still as focused as ever to win this championship.

I have him as a sleeper because he hasn’t made as much noise this year leading into the Chase.  Much like Bowyer, this could be a good thing.  It means that he’s not directly under the radar, but could be just waiting for the right time to strike.

Kasey Kahne, Farmer’s Insurance Chevrolet:  Time to talk a bit about the wild card drivers, as I have Kahne as a sleeper.  He’s got two wins entering the Chase, but both races he won came on tracks that are part of the 10-race stretch.  At the same time, his biggest strength has been the 1.5-mile speedways, which make up a majority of the Chase events.

If Kahne has a shot at winning the championship, he has to play on his strengths, and also keep an eye on his closest competitors.  He will also have to rely on teammates to get him through some of the tracks he’s struggled at, but who better to have than teammates with nine titles between them?

It’s been 16 years since the No. 5 was a championship winning team, but maybe now is the right time.

Martin Truex Jr, NAPA Auto Parts Toyota:  In a way, I do feel bad about putting Truex in this category, but I can’t necessarily rule him as a long shot either.  Truex certainly can get the job done, but entering the Chase with no wins is not the greatest scenario to be in, but then again, look at what Stewart did last season, as he was in the same place that Truex is in this year and yet made a run no one else may equal.

It could happen, but the hardest part for Truex is the fact that he’s yet to win a race as part of Michael Waltrip Racing.  That is hard to overcome, but anything is possible.

Maybe Truex will get the “NAPA Know How” to get the job done.

LONG SHOTS

Jeff Gordon, Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet:  I’m sorry folks, this is probably the most painful part of this entire article.  I outright admit the driver I hope wins each week is the No. 24, and this season has been one where I’ve been facing more disappointment than happiness.  When the race was halted at Pocono, where just by the stroke of luck Gordon was the one leading after the chaos happened ahead of, it wasn’t much of a celebration, but more of a relief to finally have things go my way.

Gordon is behind in the standings, as in dead last.  It took a gusty run at Richmond to secure the final Chase spot, but now the battle really begins.

If Gordon wants to finally complete his “Drive for Five,” he is going to need to get rid of all the bad luck he’s experienced in the regular season and make the hardest charge of his career to host that trophy at the end of the season.

Kevin Harvick, Budweiser Chevrolet:  Momentum can come in any form, but Harvick may have gotten his a bit late.  When Richard Childress made a crew chief change, bringing back Gil Martin on the pit box, it gave Harvick the spark he needed to get strong runs, and be competitive.  But it came with just two races left in the regular season.

Despite that, Harvick is a veteran of the Chase, having come closest to the title in 2010, finishing third.  There’s a chance that he could continue that momentum, but Harvick has not had a season where he could be considered a huge title favorite, not even when he won the Daytona 500 in 2007.  The worst part of Harvick’s season is the fact the momentum really came at a key point, but could have been given to him earlier.  This is the big reason he’s my second long shot.

Then again, I could always be wrong.

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