California Dreamin': Chasing the Top 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup Contenders
While Greg Biffle and his No. 16 3M Ford crossed the line first to win last Sunday's Price Chopper 400 at Kansas Speedway, the real winner had to be Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet team, which jumped atop the points standings with a slender eight point lead.
Slender, huh? In any occasion that Johnson has the points lead, it seems like a stranglehold rather than something within reach. That's not to say that the rest of the Chasers have quit, but they've seen this song and dance far too many times.
Kyle Busch has to be glad that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is no longer in Kansas after two heartbreaking races. First, he relinquished the lead late in the Nationwide event and to add insult to injury, his Cup race efforts were far worse, relegated to a 21st-place finish after two dust-ups with David Reutimann.
Although the Cup Chase complexion may look like Hendrick Motorsports vs. Joe Gibbs Racing, don't count out the Richard Childress Racing duo of Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton as well as Roush-Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. Auto Club Speedway has traditionally lent itself to being the house that Hendrick and Roush somehow co-own.
Who'll make their presence known against the dominant Jimmie Johnson, a five-time winner at ACS? Will his teammate Jeff Gordon step it up and push his No. 24 Chevy to the MAX (Pepsi MAX) or will Matt Kenseth recapture the glory that led him to his three wins at the 2-mile superspeedway?
Here's a look at the top 12 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship contenders, including a glance at how they performed last Sunday at Kansas and a preview of what's to come for each team for this Sunday's Pepsi MAX 400 at Auto Club Speedway, complete with a probability percentage of their chances to win the title this year.
1) Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet/Hendrick Motorsports
6 wins, 12 top-fives, 16 top-10's, 3 poles
Despite a relatively inconsistent regular season, Johnson and the No. 48 team have found themselves in a familiar seat - the points lead in the Cup Series. Since his mediocre finish at Loudon (25th), he won at Dover and has a runner-up result at Kansas.
Now heading to a track where he's won five times, you have to believe that the Lowe's Chevy, prepared by crew chief Chad Knaus, has to be atop the list of favorites heading into Sunday.
A surefire pick for fantasy race owners as well as any sane person who just wants to cut to the "chase," if you want to act surprised or marvel at a driver who'll most likely make history of some kind this year, you have to go with the El Cajon, Calif. native.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 90-95%
2) Denny Hamlin, No. 11 FedEx Toyota/Joe Gibbs Racing
6 wins, 11 top-fives, 13 top-10's, 1 pole
It was a rare off-performance for Hamlin and Co. last Sunday, struggling to a 12th place result that might come back to haunt this team at some point in the Chase.
Sure, it could've been more devastating like what happened to teammate Kyle Busch, but in the end, on a day when his rival placed ten spots higher, should this team come close to losing the Cup, they'll look back at this race with absolute scrutiny.
Making matters more urgent, Hamlin doesn't exactly have the greatest track record at Auto Club Speedway, with a single top-five and three top-10's in his previous nine starts. It's go time or no time for the FedEx team led by J.D. Gibbs, driver Denny Hamlin, and crew chief Mike Ford, who need to put it together when it really counts.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 85-90%
3) Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Shell Chevrolet/Richard Childress Racing
3 wins, 13 top-fives, 19 top-10's, 2 poles
Now that's the Kevin Harvick from the regular season - consistent climber in the points race aiming for the best possible finish.
In the case of their race last Sunday at Kansas, it meant a third-place finish at the 1.5 mile speedway, which certainly has to inject some hope into the somewhat shaken Richard Childress Racing campus.
While their numbers aren't too strong at ACS (two top-fives and six top-10's in 16 starts), consider how he won at Fontana's sister track in Brooklyn, MI in August. RCR has the horsepower, the cars, and drivers to do it and their best hope for their seventh Sprint Cup title is with "Happy" Harvick.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 80-85%
4) Carl Edwards, No. 99 AFLAC Ford/Roush-Fenway Racing
7 top-fives, 16 top-10's, 2 poles
Nearly coming home with a top-five finish at Kansas (ultimately placing sixth), the RF9 engine seems to have given the No. 99 team (as well as any Ford team) hope that they just might end the 2010 racing season in style - with checkered flags and possibly a championship.
Edwards hasn't looked this solid since the 2008 season, when he was about the strongest performer not named Jimmie Johnson. With that in mind, there's still some curiosities with this group, such as wondering if they truly have what it takes to dethrone the Chevrolet and Toyota camps not only with their power plant motors, but with their talents.
A previous winner at this facility (February 2008), he's a fantasy owner's next best bet to take home the checkered flag at Fontana. With six top-five results and 10 top-10's in his previous 12 starts, you'd be foolish to overlook this Blue Oval speedway specialist.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 75-80%
5) Jeff Gordon, No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet/Hendrick Motorsports
11 top-fives, 15 top-10's
"If we're anything like we were at Michigan, we'll be one of the cars to beat."
Those are Jeff Gordon's words and confidence speaking volumes about his chances of winning at Auto Club Speedway, and why not?
Coming off a solid fifth-place finish at Kansas, complete with smart adjustments and stellar pit stops, the No. 24 team has a bit of life in them just yet.
He's a streaker at Auto Club, either finishing in the top-five or placing struggling to a sub-par finish. With three victories and 17 other top-fives (all of them accounting for his number of top-10's), it might be time to add to the win column for the DuPont Chevy team.
Anytime Gordon's confidence is alive, that's bad news for the rest of the competition. This race will definitely make or break the rest of the Chase for this unit.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 75-80%
6) Kurt Busch, No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge/Penske Championship Racing
2 wins, nine top-fives, 16 top-10's, 2 poles
He's not a bad driver to pick for a victory on Sunday, with a win, three other top-fives, and eight total top-10 finishes in his previous 16 starts. The only thing that would make a fan leery about picking the 2004 Cup Champion is that he's either going for a solid finish or for a trip to the garage area.
His go for broke style, much like younger brother Kyle, may be entertaining for the fans, but when it comes to big picture, it's somewhat costly. While he's relatively been clean on the controversy department, what's not needed is another middling finish, as in the case with Kansas with a 13th-place result.
There's no question this team has the horsepower and driver to go all the way - the only worth considering is this:
Can Roger Penske and the No. 2 team's crew chief Steve Addington figure out how to leapfrog past six drivers before Homestead-Miami?
Chances of Winning the Championship: 70-75%
7) Kyle Busch, No. 18 M&M's Toyota/Joe Gibbs Racing
3 wins, 8 top-fives, 16 top-10's, 2 poles
Come on Rowdy, we know you had to be absolutely dejected about David Reutimann essentially ruining a great day at Kansas. Running in the top-10 before getting a dosage called payback from earlier contact with "Franchise," Busch wound up placing 21st, costly in his pursuit for a first Cup title.
Busch questioned why Reutimann chose to exact revenge now rather than a regular season race but all for naught, there's another race and the No. 18 team has to gear up for at least another 400 miles of racing action at Fontana.
Having won at this facility back in the summer of 2005, which marked his inaugural visit to the hallowed grounds of Victory Lane in the Cup Series, he knows how to get it done at this speedway. With four top-fives and eight top-10's in 12 starts, bet a whole wrapper filled of M&M's candy that he'll mix it up for the win - unless he irks another driver.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 75-80%
8) Greg Biffle, No. 16 3M Ford, Roush-Fenway Racing
2 wins, 6 top-fives, 15 top-10's
While not exactly a longshot nor a realistic shot for the title, Biffle has dark horse material written all over him but he'll need more Sundays like he had at Kansas to even challenge the top seven drivers in the Chase.
Capturing his second checkered flag of the year in America's heartland premier racing facility, this Roush-Fenway Racing veteran has to be somewhat optimistic that the tour heads out to the West Coast for some California action.
The good news is that he's won here before, taking the checkered flag in February 2005 in a race he made good on a promise to take the lead at a certain lap.
On the flip side, he's only got three other top-fives and five total top-10's to account for at the 2-mile, D-shaped speedway. Which Biffle will fans see - the one who'll make a bold prediction for victory or one that's just glad to be in the Chase?
Chances of Winning the Championship: 65-70%
9) Jeff Burton, No. 31 CAT Chevrolet/Richard Childress Racing
6 top-fives, 14 top-10's
It'd be easy to dismiss Jeff Burton and his No. 31 team as just fillers for the Chase - after all, just when it seems like they've hit on the right combination, they go two steps backwards and fall flat on their collective feet.
After placing 18th at Kansas with an ill-handling Chevrolet, there's not much more that this collective can do but go for the best finish possible at Fontana, where the '94 rookie winner has collected six top-fives and seven top-10's in 20 starts. Not bad for a guy who's yet to win at this track.
They'll certainly mix it up for a top-10 late in the race but consider variables like their car's handling as well as late-race restarts. Burton absolutely hates them, somehow ending up on the short end of the stick when it all adds up.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 60-65%
10) Tony Stewart, No. 14 Office Depot Chevy/Stewart-Haas Racing
1 win, 8 top-fives, 15 top-10's, 2 poles
It's not exactly over for the two-time Sprint Cup champion but things aren't looking quite sunny for "Smoke," who needs more solid runs to offset earlier struggles in the Chase if they're looking to make a run for another title.
Placing fourth at Kansas, Tony Stewart and his No. 14 team have some reasons to believe it could be a good weekend near the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. Consider this:
In 18 starts, he's collected four top-fives and 10 top-10's, all the while leading 234 of the 4342 laps he's completed at the 13-year-old speedway.
A win on Sunday would be like that victory for a team on the brink of being eliminated in the 2010 MLB Divisional Playoff Series. Just imagine the joy that those teams may experience if they stave off elimination - that's the kind of moment this team needs to challenge for this year's Cup.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 55-60%
11) Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Crown Royal Ford/Roush-Fenway Racing
5 top-fives, 11 top-10's
So it wasn't all bad news for Matt Kenseth fans last week, when their man placed seventh in a day of rebounds for the RFR group. That much can be enough to make even the Eeyore's of racing smile.
However, they're way too many markers behind to make a legit challenge for the title. Too many struggles early in the year meant this team, while good enough to make the Chase, may not have enough to place in the top 10 in points.
There's simply too many good teams ahead of this bunch, although its driver hasn't forgotten how to win or drive a racecar. And there's hope in the form of three wins, seven top-fives and 12 top-10's in 17 starts.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 45-50%
12) Clint Bowyer, No. 33 Cheerios Chevy/Richard Childress Racing
1 win, 5 top-fives, 15 top-10's
Aside from Ryan Seacrest and anyone planning to be at Times Square on December 31st, nobody else is looking forward to 2011 more than the No. 33 team led by driver Clint Bowyer and crew chief Shane Wilson, who'll be replaced by Scott Miller, RCR's Director of Competition.
Give this team credit for making the most out of a stormy September, opening the month of October with a 15th at Kansas. That's not exactly stuff that'll excite any of the other Chase teams but given all the load and stresses since Loudon, they'll take a weekend that's quiet for the most part.
Auto Club may give this team a reason to smile, with Bowyer logging in a top-five and five top-10's in his previous nine starts. Look for this bunch to at least go for a top-10 finish, which just may be enough to say "Cheerio!"
Chances of Winning the Championship: 0%
Author's Note: Catch the Pepsi MAX 400 at the Auto Club Speedway LIVE on ESPN and MRN Radio, Sunday at 3 PM/ET. Pre-race coverage for the race begins at 2 PM on ESPN2 with NASCAR Countdown.
For Twitter users, view exclusive pictures and read on any breaking news from Fontana by following me @RTiongson and Auto Club Speedway via @ACSUpdates.