Talking Heads probably put the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the best possible style, especially with the top-two finishers: same as it ever was, same as it ever was. Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing flexed their muscles once more with their second straight 1-2 finish at "The Magic Mile," starting this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship battle in fine fashion. Both had solid machines and regardless of the two or four tire pit strategies during the latter portion of the 300-miler, not many in the field could challenge Kenseth and Busch for the front positions.
Hendrick Motorsports seems a bit off, although at times on Sunday, they looked strong, especially when the sun was beaming over the cool Loudon, NH racetrack. Jeff Gordon led for a portion of the race along with Kasey Kahne. Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also had strong cars, but ulimately, only the 48 and 88 mustered top-ten finishes while Gordon struggled home to 15th and Kahne relegated to a 37th place effort following a crash along the frontstretch inside retaining wall.
It's looking like the race for the Sprint Cup trophy's so far shaping up as a battle between the Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, the strongest teams with their Chevrolet and Toyota powerplants. Not too far behind are the Roush-Fenway Racing Fords of Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, but it's truly becoming a duel between the top two Cup efforts in NASCAR. Clearly, Matt Kenseth is looking like the man to beat and his No. 20 team are as deadly scary as the 2003 No. 17 Roush-Fenway Racing team, except with the ability to win a bunch of races. Fortune does favor the bold - will the No. 20 Dollar General/Husky Tools Toyota Camry team continue to win and rack up points or will the competition step it up at Dover International Raceway? Let's take a gander at the 13 drivers and teams as well as their odds to win it all!
1) Matt Kenseth (previously 1st) It's safe to say that the pride of Cambridge, WI is going to continually make a mockery out of the Cup field or he's just been so lucky, that he was able to win his seventh race of the year. That's a lot in these days of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, in an age where parity and tight competition is highly emphasized and marketed. Lucking in to his win or not, this team is the best right now in the sport. Heading into Dover, a track similar to Bristol, you'd have to think that Jason Ratcllff and the No. 20 team's looking forward to making an eighth trip to Victory Lane on Sunday.
2) Kyle Busch (prev 2nd) Second first, same as the first. Arguably the second best team this year in Cup, the JGR duo have proven to be a powerful 1-2 punch much like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon back in 2007. Dover is a good track and much like Kenseth, this is another golden opportunity to return back in Victory Lane and settle this championship chase between himself and Kenseth.
3) Jimmie Johnson (prev 3rd) Five-Time looked solid on Sunday at Loudon, never for a moment flinching or looking concerned despite starting "far back" in 11th spot. No matter, because the 48 team put together a cool and collective race effort to fourth and keep within striking distance of the JGR pairing. Is vengeance a proper word for how they'll perceive Sunday at Dover?
4) Carl Edwards (prev 5th) Started 26th and not many really considered the 99 team as a factor for the race win. Fair enough, but what some may have not forgotten is how calculating and cunning that Edwards and crew chief Jimmy Fennig are as a force together, putting together a solid ninth place effort at Loudon. They'll need to win races if they want to mount a solid challenge against the Gibbs and Hendrick efforts and that could happen at Dover.
5) Greg Biffle (prev 10th) From relatively forgotten to whoa, oh yea, that team status, let's not forget how quiet and brilliant the No. 16 team is on race day. They may possess one win at Michigan back in June but when they're about written off, they just find a way to come back into the championship picture. Previous winners at Dover, this could be a good weekend ahead for Matt Puccia and the 3M crew. Did I mention how awesome they ran at Loudon with a third place finish?
6) Kevin Harvick (prev 4th) An off day for the usually steady No. 29 Budweiser team with Gil Martin and the boys just struggling to find the right combination at Loudon, NH. They just couldn't find the speed to not only pass others, but to also close in and pace with the lead lap contenders. Not quite dismissing this bunch as they can still get it done, but is RCR starting to pull back with Harvick, who heads to Stewart-Haas Racing next year?
7) Kurt Busch (prev 6th) Kurt Busch was an oft-mentioned name in the stands as a favorite on Sunday at NHMS prior to the Sylvania 300. Before getting into a Katy Perry "Hot 'n Cold" match with Ryan Newman at Loudon in July, the No. 78 team was up front and looking like they'd win their first race as a group with the 2004 champ. Sunday at Loudon was like a drive on the Sabbath Day of the week, as it was ordinary and just middling. The most exciting team of the Chase heads into Dover wondering if they'll find their mojo that got them into the playoffs.
8) Jeff Gordon (prev 7th) At times on Sunday, the No. 24 team looked amazing and strong. When crew chief Alan Gustafson made a bold decision to take only two fresh tires for Gordon's machine, being in clean air and the lead was looking brilliant. Not so great was Gordon's mistake on pit road, sliding just a bit beyond the pit box and having to back into his stall properly with less than 100 miles to go proved costly for the win. Will it be the difference maker in their Chase efforts for 2013? This bunch does have two consecutive top-three finishes at Dover, but mainly on luck and fuel mileage. Can they have a legit good run and finish?
9) Ryan Newman (prev 9th) Somewhat of disappointing effort for the pole sitting team at Loudon, a 16th place effort only dug a bit of a deeper hole for Newman and crew chief Matt Borland. Dover is a decent track for Rocket Ryan, although right now, they'll have to be more creative and bold with their pit strategies and adjustments.
10) Clint Bowyer (prev 8th) Is the Michael Waltrip Racing fallout distracting the No. 15 team? With the No. 56 team's troubles losing the NAPA Auto Parts sponsorship following this season, and 5-Hour Energy wondering what's next after 2013, is there more to the story with Bowyer and his race team or is this just a minor blip in their otherwise decent season?
11) Dale Earnhardt Jr. (prev 13th) Solid sixth place run for the No. 88 team, who did have an aggressive game plan and that two tire pit stop just before the last 100 miles was what helped them with their faint but still existing title chances. This Sunday's race at Dover is a middling one in terms of track history, but this could be a pivotal, make or break type of weekend for this bunch right here led by crew chief Steve Letarte.
12) Joey Logano (prev 12th) While the No. 22 crew did score a 14th-place effort at Loudon, which was alright, while it was a mediocre finish, it kept them within the big picture but it's clear that they've used their only mulligan of the Chase (unless everyone DNF's early in the coming weeks). At this point, they'll need a couple of aggressive, risky races to go for top-fives.
13) Kasey Kahne (prev 10th) Fast car, great pit stops, but ultimately, even those weren't enough to capitalize on Loudon, a good track for the No. 5 team. Getting caught up in a crazy wild start and crashing hard into the inside retaining wall of the frontstretch, a 37th place effort was costly and has put them into a very difficult spot. We've seen how eventual champions have started their bids rather slowly but something is amiss with the two-time race winners of 2013.
Agree or disagree with my assessments? Feel free to talk about it with me on Twitter right now or if you'd like to express your thoughts on this year's Chase field, tweet me and I may include it in next week's piece! Till next time, friends!