2011 NASCAR Chase: Who Has The Best Shot At Replacing Jimmie Johnson As Champion?

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 10: (Back row L-R) Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, Kurt Busch, driver of the #22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's/Power of Pride Chevrolet, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, (front row L-R) Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Budweiser Chevrolet, Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Kellogg's/Cheez-it Ford, Ryan Newman, driver of the #39 U.S. Army-9/11 Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Ollie's Bargain Outlet Ford, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, pose after clinching spots in the "Chase for the Sprint Cup" following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 10, 2011 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

This year's title will be won by someone other than Jimmie Johnson. The question remains: Which driver will it be?

Take a moment to think about it: The last time someone other than Jimmie Johnson hoisted the Sprint Cup Series trophy was in 2005.

Six years later, it will once again be someone other than Johnson.

This has clearly been Johnson's worst Chase performance, as our Jeff Gluck pointed out on Monday, allowing the competition to jump at the opportunity.

Now that it appears Johnson's reign as defending champion is all but over, let's take a closer look at those in contention to become the first new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion in six years.

Carl Edwards

Carl Edwards has remained a steady championship contender throughout the first six weeks of the Chase, leading the points for the past four weeks.

Edwards has an average finish of 5.6 thus far in the Chase, but is without a win. His 11th-place finish Sunday at Talladega was the worst of his Chase, but was like a win considering the fate of other Chase contenders. With Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch getting caught up in a wreck, Edwards extended his lead to 14 points.

Yet looking ahead, Edwards cannot simply cruise to his first Sprint Cup Series championship. Martinsville has not been his best track, with an average finish of 16.9 in 14 events. Edwards finished 18th there earlier in the year, with two top-10 finishes in 2010.

Edwards' chances at hoisting the Sprint Cup Series trophy should increase if he can survive the test this weekend at Martinsville. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has three wins at Texas, one win at Phoenix and two wins at Homestead.

They often say you have to lose a championship before you can win one, and Edwards has certainly learned from his failed title run in 2008. Johnson got the best of him that year, but this year Edwards has a host of other competitors nipping at his heels.

Matt Kenseth: (Second in points, -14)

The 2003 series champion was the last driver to win the title before the implementation of the Chase, doing so while winning just one race and using typical Matt Kenseth consistency.

This year, Kenseth has three wins, including one in the Chase at Charlotte. Again using a consistent approach to the season, Kenseth has an average finish of 11.4, second only to Edwards' 10.0.

Much like his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Kenseth will also need to have a solid showing at Martinsville, the only track left on the Chase schedule he has yet to win at. Kenseth finished sixth at Martinsville earlier this year, but had only one top-10 in the previous six races.

Also like Edwards, Kenseth has a pretty good track record at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.

Kenseth is a proven champion and has the experience of Jimmy Fennig calling the shots atop the pit box. This year's title battle could come down to a battle among Roush Fenway teammates, but don't expect any team orders to play out over the final weeks between these two. 

Brad Keselowski: (Third in points, -18)

Wait, Brad Keselowski is actually in the title hunt with only four races left? You better believe it.

Not only is he "still in contention," Keselowski believes his team has "a damn good shot at winning" the title.

If Keselowski has proven one thing this year, it is not dwelling too heavily on past statistics. Since his season turned around this summer, Keselowski has been bucking the trends while remaining a consistent championship contender.

Keselowski has also proven he is capable of beating the odds. He and crew chief Paul Wolfe are hungry for the championship and cannot be written off. Look for this dark horse contender to make some noise over the final four weeks of the Chase.

Tony Stewart: (Fourth in points, -19)

Before the 2011 Chase began, Tony Stewart had a bleak outlook on his chances at a third Sprint Cup Series championship. The 2002 and 2005 champion lamented his team would do nothing more than occupy a spot among the final 12 and had no real shot at the title.

However, once the Chase got underway, that completely changed. Stewart opened the final 10-race stretch with two victories, shocking many of his critics and competition. Right back in the thick of it, Stewart has been able to recover from a 25th-place finish at Dover and a 15th-place finish at Kansas to jump to fourth in the standings, 19 points behind Carl Edwards.

Stewart has two wins at Martinsville, but those came in 2000 and 2006. Lately, Stewart has struggled on the paperclip short track, scoring three-straight finishes of 24th or worse, including a 34th-place finish earlier this year.

Once through Martinsville, Stewart also has wins at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. Yet it seems Stewart faces a big hurdle this weekend at Martinsville. This team has overcome adversity and struggles throughout the entirety of the season, but it may take a number of mistakes on the part of his competition to allow Stewart back in the hunt.

Kevin Harvick: (Fifth in points, -26)

Kevin Harvick had been in the thick of the championship battle until a wreck this past weekend at Talladega dropped him to fifth in the Chase standings. Now sitting 26 points out of the lead, it appears Harvick's chances at his first Sprint Cup Series title are starting to slip away.

Harvick is the latest Martinsville winner, edging Dale Earnhardt Jr. there earlier this year. He also finished third in last year's Chase race.

Unlike most of his competition, Harvick has no wins at Texas or Homestead, but has been to Victory Lane twice at Phoenix. With the repave of that facility, however, there are many unknowns for the upcoming Phoenix race.

Harvick has shown to be a consistent threat for the title the past two seasons, but without a little help from the struggles of those ahead of him, it may be another disappointing result at the end of the season.

Kyle Busch: (Sixth in points, -40)

Also a solid contender for much of the first half of the Chase, Kyle Busch's title hopes took a major hit when he was involved in the same wreck at Talladega that involved fellow Chaser Kevin Harvick.

While Busch is not officially out of the title race, his chances at his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship are all but over.

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