After one of the most tumultuous weeks in NASCAR Sprint Cup history, the Chase for the Championship finally ensued in the style it should at Chicagoland Speedway: with competitive hard racing. There was all the hype about racing at 100 percent, restart zones, 13 drivers in the playoffs instead of 12, and also the Michael Waltrip Racing fallout that somewhat marred the festivities leading up to the first Chase race in Joliet, IL. Thankfully, that was all put to rest (for now) and our attention was put to the hard-charging, exciting action on the track with the title contenders who didn't cut an inch or give any breaks to each other at all in the Geico 400.
Although Matt Kenseth and his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team captured the checkered flag for the sixth time in this rain-delayed Sunday night special, his challengers weren't far behind with runner-up Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Gordon in the top-six race rundown. Sure, the JGR group is off to a fast winning start but the fast Chevy teams of Hendrick Motorsports aren't too far behind as well as the No. 29 Richard Childress collective (a team with a driver who's on a "lame duck" status). Much can happen between now and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, with drivers surely having that one "mulligan" race down the stretch.
Consistency will be the name of the game as well as winning races during crunch time in NASCAR. Very little to no margin can happen for these elite racers and teams, who've worked hard to be in contention for the title battle. The difference between winning the championship and sulking in disappointment on pit road or in the garage in mid-November could be that split second decision to avoid the big crash at Talladega or leading that extra lap in Texas. From here on out, it could be the craziest nine weeks of racing coming up and it won't have to involve team orders or manipulating race results.
Starting this week through the final race of the year at Homestead-Miami, "The Podium Finish" will evaluate each of the Chasers, look back at their previous race, and forecast how they'll fare down the stretch. Don't think of this as your typical power rankings piece - instead, consider it a true gauge down the stretch for your 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title field. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the Chasers as we'll go through the playoff pack!
1) Matt Kenseth (previously 1st) Considered by many as the title favorite, "Matt the Brat" certainly backed up those sentiments with his sixth win of 2013. Having won four of the seven 1.5-mile track races this year, can he actually win at any other track (aside from Bristol)? We'll see - something tells me there's more to just a smooth ride throughout the Chase. But then again, this same person wasn't too keen on him in 2003 and he made a fool out of this guy. I'll put him at least alongside Kyle Busch in terms of title strength - and that's saying it's a good shot to win the Cup.
2) Kyle Busch (prev 2nd) OK, so maybe he didn't sweep the NASCAR race weekend at Chicagoland but what he'll be more concerned about is finally winning that elusive first Cup title. With confidence and swagger like he's had all year long, there's no doubt that the 28-year-old Las Vegas, NV has what it takes to hoist the most precious prize in all of stock car racing. If he can keep on racing with this "new" attitude, he could actually pose a huge threat to the man and team who've figured out the Chase - Jimmie Johnson.
3) Jimmie Johnson (prev 2nd) Quite the Sunday for our bearded five-time Cup champ, who overcame a blown NASCAR official pit stop call and some handling difficulties to challenge for the race win and come home in the fifth spot. Some may have written off JJ from the title race after his tough month of August, but usually when Team 48 is near the front of the points battle, they'll experiment with their cars and see what can be done to make them faster and stronger. Clearly, they've worked out the kinks and while they haven't won a title since 2010, this is about the most dangerous team in the playoffs. Watch out for them at Loudon.
4) Kevin Harvick (prev 4th) "The Closer" looked quite solid at Joliet, running near the front of the field when it really mattered after hovering just outside the top-10 during the daytime portion of the Geico 400. While Harvick might be a lame duck with RCR for the remainder of 2013, he's putting in the best nine week notice that anyone could ever compile. A win could be in the offing, especially at a place like Kansas or Charlotte. And don't count them out at Talladega, as this duo seems to have the makings to win at a plate track at any time.
5) Carl Edwards (prev 4th) Somewhat of a ho-hum performance for "Cousin Carl," who'll surely run stronger than he did at Chicagoland. An 11th place performance was somewhat pedestrian and we all know how good crew chief Jimmy Fennig is with setting up cars. Additionally, Edwards is a helluva racer and unless he's forgotten how to drive a racecar, look for Team 99 to rebound with a strong performance at Loudon, NH. If they don't at least nab a top-five within the next three weeks, there could be some trouble for this group.
6) Kurt Busch (prev 8th) I still wonder why Kurt Busch is departing Furniture Row Racing when he's seemingly gelling with this group so well. Finishing a strong fourth at Joliet, the driver of the No. 78 Chevy SS is gunning for a victory at Loudon. In the July race weekend, he was bad fast and when observing his lines during happy hour, he just seemed to have that car hooked up and dialed in for optimum corner entry and exit. Not quite a crazy prediction for a race win for any one daring to think outside the usual suspects' box for wins.
7) Jeff Gordon (prev 13th) For all the talk with some critics saying that the No. 24 didn't deserve a Chase spot, Gordon and the Drive To End Hunger team surely silenced them in fine fashion with a solid sixth last Sunday evening. That said, they're still somewhat of a madly inconsistent team in 2013. However, since that 17th place finish at Michigan at August, Gordon's placed seventh at Bristol, sixth at Atlanta, eighth at Richmond, and sixth at Chicagoland. If ever there's a good time to win, it could happen at Loudon this Sunday.
8) Clint Bowyer (prev 8th) Not bad for a driver and team who had to be distracted from the Richmond controversy, rallying back to finish ninth on Sunday evening and keeping within striking distance of the points leader. This team is clearly not as strong as they were in 2012, but that doesn't mean they've lost the magic and ability to challenge for the Cup. In fact, if we've learned anything with Rawhide and his crew, they seem to turn up when we least expect them.
9) Ryan Newman (prev 12th) A pretty good performance at Joliet with a 10th place finish, as they weren't really in the running for the win. Newman and crew chief Matt Borland seem to have that chemistry they had back from 2002-'05, pulling off a great win at Indy last month. Perhaps they're up for one more rabbit from a magician's hat trick down the stretch, particularly at Dover or say Martinsville.
10) Greg Biffle (prev 6th) Struggled on Sunday evening and didn't have that killer instinct speed and attitude they had in the summer. The No. 16 team just seems to be a bit off lately. Can they get their act together before they're settling to become the first driver to speak at the banquet in Las Vegas?
11) Kasey Kahne (prev 11th) This team is quite the enigma. When they're hot, nobody can stop them from winning races or challenging for victories against Kenseth or Johnson. However, when they're off just by a little, it can truly be a struggle for success on the track. Too early to hit the panic button for this group but it sure would make the Farmers Racing' Twitter account tweet "Whoop Whoop" if the Kahne and Francis combination work out of their funk soon.
12) Joey Logano (prev 6th) From pole position to smoldering in the garage area with motor issues, it had to be very frustrating for Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon to really have nothing to show for with their title efforts so far. Way early in the going and this is their first hiccup all things considered since Loudon back in July. Since then, they've been bad fast at each track and they could dig their way out of this hole.
13) Dale Earnhardt Jr. (prev 8th) It would be wrong to count out the No. 88 team of Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte but they just haven't had that fire and spark like last year. After winning at Michigan on Father's Day 2012, they've lacked that potent winning attitude as they had on that race day. Before anyone else tries to diagnose why they've been off, perhaps some should blame it on a beardless Earnhardt - or not. If they have one more mulligan in the coming weeks, maybe it's time to consider working on 2014.
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!