Five drivers who can win the Chase
By RANDY COVITZ
The Kansas City Star
Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet
Johnson, 38, is the only driver to have qualified for all 10 editions of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and the new format should play right into his bid for a record-tying seventh Cup championship. Johnson, who won six races last year, certainly will win at least once and qualify for the Chase. He should survive the elimination rounds on the Chase tracks where has won 24 times, leading to Homestead, a track where he hasn’t had to win in the past.
Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota
NASCAR’s busiest driver, Busch made a combined 73 starts (36 Sprint Cup, 26 Nationwide, 11 Camping World Trucks) and finished fourth in the Chase standings with four wins. Had it not been for his annual disaster at Kansas, Busch, 28, may have been a factor in the only trophy that has eluded him, a Sprint Cup title.
Matt Kenseth, No. 20 Toyota
Kenseth, 41, won a career-best seven races, including the Kansas spring race, in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, but he couldn’t overcome Jimmie Johnson down the stretch and finished second in the Chase. Now he has to battle the runner-up jinx. Five of the last six runners-up in the Chase failed to win a race the following year.
Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota
It was a lost season for Hamlin, who missed four starts because of a back injury and took a backseat to teammates Busch and Kenseth while missing the Chase for the first time in eight seasons. But Hamlin, 33, won the season finale at Homestead-Miami, won the Sprint Unlimited exhibition last week, and he’ll benefit from working with Busch and Kenseth.
Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Chevrolet
Harvick, 38, finished third last year in the Chase for the third time in four years while in a lame-duck year at Richard Childress Racing. Now with Stewart-Haas Racing, a new crew chief in Rodney Childress and three volatile teammates, Harvick, who won 23 Cup races, including last fall’s race at Kansas Speedway for RCR, appears energized by his change of scenery.
Five drivers on the hot seat
Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet
Can Junior, the sport’s Most Popular Driver for 11 years running, really be turning 40 on Oct. 10? Earnhardt’s 22 top-10 finishes last year were a career high, but he hasn’t won a race since 2012 and just two in the last seven years. If this were any other driver, Hendrick Motorsports might be looking to make a change.
Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Toyota
It’s a contract year for Emporia’s Bowyer, who went winless for Michael Waltrip Racing last season after finishing second in the Chase in 2012. Bowyer, 32, still carries the stigma from last year’s controversial spin at the end of the fall Richmond race that led to a cheating scandal and ended up costing MWR its sponsorship with NAPA and Martin Truex Jr. his ride with the team.
Carl Edwards, No. 99 Ford
Edwards, of Columbia, won two races (one was the tainted Richmond race), but like his Roush Fenway Racing teammates, has not performed up to his usual standards the last two years. He missed the Chase in 2012 for only the second time in eight years and finishing 13th last season.
Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford
Biffle, another Roush Fenway driver, managed just one win in 2013 and was an also-ran in the Chase, finishing ninth. Biffle, 44, is in the last year of his contract, and he no doubt must be looking in his rear-view mirror at younger Roush developmental drivers Trevor Bayne (Nationwide series) and Chris Buescher (trucks), who could become the future of the organization.
Danica Patrick, No. 10 Chevrolet
This will be Patrick’s second full season in the Cup series and third fulltime NASCAR season, and it’s time for the former IndyCar driver to show some progress in a stock car. Patrick, 31, made history last year by winning the Daytona 500 pole and finishing eighth in the race. She would finish no better than 12th the rest of the season.
| Randy Covitz, firstname.lastname@example.org