There's an old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the case of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, given all the discussions regarding possible changes to the Chase points system, one racer has emerged with a familiar face - albeit covered with a beard and hairdo almost echoing to Johnny Damon stature.
Yes indeed, friends, Jimmie Johnson won Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, which has done one of these two things to fans and competitors:
- Suck the life out of the Chase, basically making those around the No. 48 believe it's their title once again.
- Lead everyone to believe that there's still a chance to win it, although really...haven't we seen this story before?
OK, so there's still eight races to complete and as Yogi Berra (or for you music buffs out there, Lenny Kravitz) once said, "It ain't over til it's over." But the truth is, even when the No. 48 got collected in a pair of crashes at Loudon in the Chase opener, was there ever any doubt that driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus could come back with a sound rebound?
I could name all the oft-used cliches in the book, like "the fat lady hasn't sung," but instead I'll just say that the No. 48 team has still got one driver to pass in the standings, and he's one particular racer on a mission to derail the Johnson Express from capturing an unprecedented fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Denny Hamlin's a man on a mission, along with his No. 11 FedEx Toyota team, aimed and focused on delivering a third title for Joe Gibbs Racing. So far, their Chase has been good enough to lead the points race by 35 markers over Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe's team, which is basically razor thin and shows this points battle could go in the two aforementioned directions.
Will it be a Hamlin-Johnson battle to the end or is the complexion of this year's championship battle hardly taking shape? Every track from Kansas to Homestead-Miami is a wild card and a crap shoot to the finish. Variables like a last lap pass, ill-handling car, or the inevitable "Big One" could play a hand in who wins the championship in 2010.
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 Dover and a preview of what's to come for each team for this Sunday's Price Chopper 400 at Kansas Speedway, complete with a probability percentage of their chances to win the title this year.
1) Denny Hamlin, No. 11 FedEx Toyota/Joe Gibbs Racing
6 wins, 11 top-fives, 13 top-10's, 1 pole
Dover was probably the most eventful weekend thus far for the Hamlin camp, and it warranted attention that wasn't needed for this hearty, determined unit.
In the days leading up to last Sunday's AAA 400, let's just say that honesty wasn't exactly the best policy. Hamlin spoke his mind on the Richard Childress Racing controversy regarding Clint Bowyer's No. 33 Cheerios Chevrolet, which failed post-race inspection.
As expected, RCR wasn't quite happy with the 2006 Raybestos Rookie of the Year winner. How unhappy, you might ask? Well, let's just say "best bud" Kevin Harvick gave him a few retaliation shots with his fender during "Happy Hour" practice on Saturday.
In an attempt to defuse the situation, Hamlin was given a stern "talking to" by his team. A bit apologetic and taken by his words, he would clear the air between the two teams and focus on his points lead with the race.
Quiet, steady, and consistent, the Chesterfield, VA native piloted his Toyota to a ninth-place result, which salvaged their rocky times at Dover.
Now the series heads to Kansas, where Hamlin's not all that strong. However, he was able to net a fifth-place finish last year, which may be just in the cards for the aggressive, hard-charging driver.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 85-90%
2) Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet/Hendrick Motorsports
6 wins, 11 top-fives, 15 top-10's, 3 poles
How's that for "not in the picture" anymore? Not since Jeff Gordon's dominance in the late 1990s have we seen a driver and team that can easily put the rest of the tour on its collective knees - until Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus joined the fray in 2002.
They went to "college" from 2002-'05 and looked like proverbial geniuses who just needed a few occasions to get polished, appearing just a bit rough around the edges with their outside the box thinking and abilities. Well, since then, they've been the standard to a sport that resists changes, yet, it's the one constant in the sport.
Dover was a quintessential No. 48 performance of near perfection, when their car was basically on rails and he looked more like his teammate and team owner at "The Monster Mile." With his sixth victory of the season (and undoubtedly more on the way), the question then becomes, is anyone else going to step it up?
There appears to be no signs of this team slowing down. While improbable but not impossible, it's just a matter of time before the Lowe's Chevrolet will be atop the points standings. Anyone willing to bet it happens at Kansas?
With one win, two top-fives and six top-10's in his previous eight starts at this facility, chances are, especially based on how he fared at Chicagoland (before his spin), that we'll be seeing that blue and white Impala at the front of the field - probably pulling into Victory Lane for a seventh time.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 90-95%
3) Kyle Busch, No. 18 M&M's Toyota/Joe Gibbs Racing
3 wins, 8 top-fives, 16 top-10's, 2 poles
All the while when Denny Hamlin was stirring things up with RCR, JGR teammate Kyle Busch had a relatively solid weekend at the concrete beast, posting his 11th win in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this season along with a strong sixth place finish in the Cup division.
Clearly, all the talk about his potential, promise, and abilities are being fulfilled right now. We're seeing "Rowdy" at his best, when his composure is relatively cool, sometimes battle tested, but most of the time, focused on plain old winning.
While there wasn't a "W" produced for the '05 rookie winner, what's certain is that JGR has two heavyweight contenders ready to throw some punches at the current and four-time reigning champion. As long as he keeps his cool and has some fun in what's truly the most intense 10 weeks of the season, rest assured, it will at least be a three horse race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
As far as how they'll fare at Kansas, his best finish at this venue is a seventh back in 2006. A track similar to Chicagoland, if not a victory, the No. 18 team is a solid bet for a top-five finish on Sunday.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 85-90%
4) Kurt Busch, No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge/Penske Championship Racing
2 wins, 9 top-fives, 16 top-10's, 2 poles
This team's about as hard to truly gauge, likened to a Katy Perry hit more than sipping one of this team's products at a bar. That said, Kurt Busch is past champion, and some of that mettle and experience is showing now in terms of performance and leadership with this perennial racing organization.
Save for their pit road penalty for speeding halfway in the event, it was a great 400 miler for Busch, crew chief Steve Addington, and the No. 2 Dodge team. Turning up their performances when it really matters, perhaps my prognosis two weeks ago about them being merely intermediate track experts will be as accurate as Barry Melrose saying that you have nice hair.
Which No. 2 team are we going to see down the stretch? Will they be the one stepping it up, appearing like a solid dark horse or will the "Blue Deuce" not exactly have the legs to finish this crucial run to the finish?
Kansas isn't exactly kind to Busch, with only two top-tens in his past nine starts. His best finish is sixth back in his title campaign of 2004 - back in his Roush-Fenway Racing days.
While I'd like to think this team will turn their fortunes around and net a solid finish, I'm leaning more toward a sub top-20 finish - history is not on their side and this team has been hit or miss all year long.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 80-85%
5) Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Shell Chevrolet/Richard Childress Racing
3 wins, 12 top-fives, 18 top-10's, 2 poles
Despite backing up his teammate Clint Bowyer prior to the race, perhaps some of that talk and fury should have been saved for the 400-miler on Sunday at Dover.
Racing with an ill-handling beast rather than a bulletproof machine, Kevin Harvick looked a bit mortal with his 15th place finish. While it wasn't disastrous nor amazing, it's the kind of run that may leave some fans concerned as to whether or not they're really prime for a title or if it was just a one-off bad performance.
Richard Childress Racing has been there all year long, solid and steady as they've ever looked as a cohesive unit. From plate races to the bumping and grinding of the short track arenas, RCR, mainly with Kevin Harvick, has looked ready to hoist the Cup in November.
Experience is definitely on their side, as well as their consistency, which has been their strongest aspect all year long. They've been one of the best Chevrolet teams in 2010, proving that there's more than just one organization that can carry the Bowtie Brigade to glory.
While Harvick has yet to garner a top-five finish at Kansas, he does have three top-10's in his nine starts at the quad-oval facility, placing sixth in each of those runs. You might want to make that four top-10's after Sunday - ranging anywhere from a victory to a so-so 10th place finish.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 85-90%
6) Carl Edwards, No. 99 AFLAC Ford/Roush-Fenway Racing
7 top-fives, 15 top-10's, 2 poles
While Ford Racing hasn't exactly been praised at The Podium Finish, the manufacturer, mainly through Roush-Fenway Racing, has finally bounced back in style, with drivers Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, and Matt Kenseth carrying the Blue Oval banner into postseason play.
Yes, they weren't exactly spectacular in the regular season, but at Dover, their strength and potential as a title contender finally showed with a top-10 finish.
Is it that RF9 engine that's finally come into its own?
Has Jack Roush's survival from a near tragic aviation accident motivated this team?
Two yeses there and Carl Edwards hasn't forgotten how to compete in the Sprint Cup Series. There's still quite a ways to go before he looks more like the driver who was the preseason favorite last year but wins aren't out of the picture - and neither is that title.
It may not be too bold to predict that Edwards and crew chief Bob Osbourne, along with the No. 99 AFLAC Ford team, will come home with another top-10 finish at Kansas. With two top-fives and four top-10 runs in their past sixth starts, chalk up another great weekend ahead for this "under the radar" unit.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 75-80%
7) Jeff Burton, No. 31 CAT Chevrolet/Richard Childress Racing
6 top-fives, 14 top-10's
South Boston, VA had to be on its collective feet last Sunday, probably ecstatic that their hometown hero in Jeff Burton had about his strongest performance since his win at Charlotte Motor Speedway two years ago, placing runner-up at Dover last Sunday.
While athletes tend to hype up an event (not just the media, you know!), perhaps Burton was speaking from the heart at a press conference a few weeks ago when he said that the Chase was "the most fun 10 weeks of the year."
Certainly, crew chief Todd Berrier and his No. 31 CAT crew have been partly instrumental with that, with their Chevrolet fleet looking more like winner material than just another face in the field.
If you were to ask fans who they had in their top-12 list during Daytona Speedweeks, Burton's name would probably not appear, along with Harvick, since RCR was out to lunch in 2009.
As such, that's why they're called prognostication - just imagine if meteorologists were 100 percent on the dot with their forecasts!
That said, "Senator" Burton looks about as ready and determined to get his first Cup championship and it may receive a boost with another top-five finish at Kansas.
Placing fifth in 2006, while his track record isn't exactly one of the best among active racers, this is a renaissance for a man whose career looked as bleak as an overcast autumn day back in...well, South Boston.
But these are sunny days for RCR, even with the Bowyer controversy. This team is for real and so is the '94 Raybestos Rookie winner.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 65-70%
8) Jeff Gordon, No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet/Hendrick Motorsports
10 top-fives, 14 top-10's
You just have to scratch your head and wonder what is going on with the No. 24 team. Jeff Gordon hasn't forgotten how to drive the wheels off his car and crew chief Steve Letarte isn't that bad of a team leader, competent enough to lead 10 of his 82 career wins.
However, the biggest letdown for "The Rainbow Warriors" last Sunday at Dover was well - the team themselves. Sure, a win was out of the question, as well as a top-five performance.
However, this group should have at least propelled Gordon to a top-10 finish and instead, left "The Monster Mile" with a somewhat disappointing 11th-place result.
As said on The Podium Finish since June, in order for this team to win, their cars need to be fast. At least on the driver's end, they've been doing well, and for the most part, Letarte's made good decisions.
The pit crew's been lightning fast for the most part but they had an uncharacteristic performance last weekend. If another aspect unravels down the stretch, with the assumption that this team cannot produce fast cars, you're looking at a potential third winless season for Gordon.
Heading to Kansas, this was the site of the No. 24 team's oh-so-close runner-up finish to Tony Stewart last year. They won the first two events at this venue and have four other top-fives along with a total of seven top-10s. If this team expects to even contend for the title, there's nothing acceptable but a victory.
Realistically though, look for them to have a car that starts off fast and slows down as the race progresses - just how far ahead will they be? Look at this team posting a top-10 finish at best but really getting another one of those questionable top-15 finishes.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 70-75%
9) Greg Biffle, No. 16 3M Ford/Roush-Fenway Racing
1 win, 5 top-fives, 14 top-10's
Ever had one of those time when you had all your plans laid out and it looked like you'd actually get to do all of them, only to have one thing leading to another?
Well, that was the case of Greg Biffle's story at Dover last Sunday, getting trapped a lap down while having a pit stop during a green-flag run, effectively setting the tone for the remainder of the race for this team and placing 19th when all was said and done.
Circumstances aside, this team is capable of posting top-10's on a regular basis, with a win sprinkled into the mix. They're not title material, but they're not just Chase fillers either.
Three years ago, Greg Biffle and his No. 16 3M Ford team were surrounded by controversy with their victory "on fumes" under caution at Kansas, which truly put the "frozen field" policy in question by competitors, fans, and the press. However, as the old adage goes, a win's a win, and they earned it.
Next to Gordon, "The Biff" is a fantasy owner's best bet for a victory at Kansas, with five top-10s in his past eight starts. All of those performances have been in the top-five, so rest assured, they'll be in the mix for yet another win on Sunday, perhaps serving as Ford's best shot to win at the track that even "The Wizard of Oz" couldn't conceptualize.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 70-75%
10) Tony Stewart, No. 14 Old Spice Chevrolet/Stewart-Haas Racing
1 win, 7 top-fives, 14 top-10's, 1 pole
Penalties are game breakers in any sport, be it in the gridiron fields of football, a relay race at an Olympic stadium, or a stock car arena in Dover, DE.
Such was the case for Tony Stewart and his No. 14 team, as they were doled a speeding violation which relegated this collective with a 21st place result. While some may say his hot run has fizzled in the Chase, Stewart hasn't always been a fast starter but that could hurt him down the stretch.
However, the circuit heads to a track that has treated the two-time Cup champion with open arms, logging in two victories, along with four top-fives and six top-10's in his previous 9 races at Kansas.
His victory last year was one of this owner/driver's highest moments in his career, about as ecstatic to win this event as a driver who's just won the Daytona 500. Successes are always appreciated by Stewart, but with his role increased as the driver and owner of his car, it's even more gratifying for the "Rushville Rocket."
Look for a top-10 finish for this team, although this unit may struggle and fall back to a top-15 run, as anything from a speeding penalty to an ill-handling machine might impede their run for at this year's title.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 80-85%
11) Matt Kenseth, No. 17 DeWalt Ford/Roush-Fenway Racing
5 top-fives, 10 top-10's
Not to sound like a broken record, but Matt Kenseth hasn't forgotten how to drive a racecar. In fact, he's a past champion in the Sprint Cup Series, having won the title in the last year before the Chase in 2003.
However, save for his 2009 Daytona 500 win, Kenseth hasn't done much in recent years. That could be due to the fact that Ford's struggled since the Hendrick/Chevrolet dominance set in 2006 or the fact that the team lacks a solid leader to inspire and raise the confidence level of the quiet and steady racer from Cambridge, WI.
Then there's mental errors, which are prone with even a top driver like Kenseth. As seen last Sunday at Dover, the driver of the No. 17 Ford blew a tire while attempting to pit during a green flag run, which relegated this team to costly 18th place finish.
Kenseth does have two top-five finishes at Kansas along with three top-10's at Kansas, but his average finish at this circuit is 22.1. This team cannot afford another mediocre finish so while the logic is always to get the best finish (a win), look for the DeWalt team to go for a somewhat conservative game plan on Sunday, opting for a top-10 rather than a win.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 60-65%
12) Clint Bowyer, No. 33 Cheerios Chevy/Richard Childress Racing
1 win, 5 top-fives, 15 top-10's
From hero to zero, from being on top of the world to being with Persephone in the underworld, it's been about the most hellish two weeks for Clint Bowyer, crew chief Shane Wilson, and the No. 33 team.
Two weeks ago, they looked about as poised for an underdog march to the title with a sounding victory at Loudon, NH. However, their car didn't conform to NASCAR's rules and while it wasn't by much in tolerance, the consequences doled out were largely heard and felt.
Dropping from second to twelfth in the rundown, there's absolutely no way for this team to win the title - barring a miracle with a triumph in Richard Childress' last appeal after their penalties were upheld midweek.
Distracted, distraught, and perhaps even defeated, this unit sulked to a 25th-place finish at Dover last Sunday, with their confidence shattered to almost Rick Ankiel limits.
However, nobody's looking forward to Kansas more than Bowyer and company, as the track is virtually the "Cheerios Man's" hometown facility. Growing up in Emporia, KS, the 30-year-old racer wouldn't like anything more but a victory, and his track record's favorable to that.
With a top-five and two top-10's in his previous four races at Kansas Speedway, if there's even a prayer to be heard from the racing gods for what would be one of the greatest comebacks in all of sports, it all starts on Sunday. While a win may be what they're aiming for, a fifth through 15th place finish may be more acceptable or in this case, more realistic.
Chances of Winning the Championship: 10-15%
Author's Note: Tune into the Price Chopper 400 from Kansas Speedway, which will be LIVE this Sunday at 1 PM ET on ESPN. Prerace coverage can be found on SPEED with NASCAR RaceDay at 10 AM ET on Sunday along with NASCAR Countdown at noon on ESPN!