Guess Again: Revisiting And Revising Our 2011 NASCAR Chase Predictions

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Gluck: Jimmie Johnson Will Win 2011 NASCAR Chase For The Sprint Cup

Here's how I think the 2011 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup will go:

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion: Jimmie Johnson

My favorite movie is the Shawshank Redemption. And matter how many times I watch it, it always ends the same way: Red uncovers the tin of money and the letter from Andy Dufresne under the old oak tree, skips out on his parole and winds up walking toward his friend on a beautiful Mexican beach.

You remember the name, right? Zihuatanejo.

Anyway, the ending never changes. Sure, you wonder if perhaps a depressed Red will follow the route of Brooks and hang himself to escape the frightening world outside the prison walls. Or maybe Andy will be caught and arrested long before Red ever arrives in Zihuatanejo.

But guess what? They always meet on the beach. Andy is working on his boat and looks up to see Red walking toward him. Cue the music, cue the hug and roll the credits.

Why do I bring this up? Because Jimmie Johnson's run is just like a movie you've seen a bunch of times: The ending never changes.

Every year at this time, people talk themselves out of declaring Johnson as the champion. They pick some hot driver who has been doing well lately and seems to have momentum, and proclaim that Johnson's reign has come to an end.

And guess what? It never happens!

Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin. All the challengers eventually come up short, and Johnson is the one hoisting the trophy at the end.

Why would it be any different this year? People think Johnson and the No. 48 team are off their game because they only won one race, but the guy finished the regular season just three points out of the lead. He's not exactly struggling.

Jimmie Johnson will win his sixth straight championship in 10 weeks from now, which will be beyond incredible. Just don't be surprised when it happens.

Chase runner-up: Carl Edwards

Remember the 2008 Chase? Edwards gave Johnson a tremendous challenge, but it wasn't quite enough to win the title.

I think something like that will happen again this year. And to be honest, I'm not sure it will be Edwards. But one of the favorites – Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick – will challenge Johnson until the very end before falling.

The drivers I just mentioned will be the ones who finish in the top five in points, and there will be a big gap back to positions 6-12 in the standings, where drivers like Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth will end up after decent Chase runs that encountered a couple hiccups.

Biggest disappointment: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt Jr.'s Chase will be a disappointment only in that his rabid group of fans undoubtedly have their hopes up. But there are very few facts to support that idea.

To win the Chase – or even contend – a team needs to win races and run consistently in the top five. The No. 88 team isn't going to be able to do that just all of the sudden out of nowhere.

Let's be real here: Earnhardt Jr. has been about a 10th-to-15th-place car for most of this season. And that's not a bad thing – it's a big improvement over last year.

But the team needs to take another big step before we're talking about an Earnhardt Jr. championship run.

Biggest surprise: Ryan Newman

No one is talking about Newman at all, but he's capable of putting together a nice Chase campaign and flying under the radar for awhile.

These are good tracks for Newman. It wouldn't be surprising to see him finish in the top five in points if his team can avoid a bad race or two.

The Busch factor

Why don't I think points leader Kyle Busch will win the championship? Because while Busch has done many of the right things needed to contend for his first Cup title this season, I simply don't trust the reliability of the Joe Gibbs Racing engines and other mechanical aspects of the team.

It always seems like something goes wrong for JGR in the Chase, and a driver can't overcome equipment failures no matter how talented he is.

As for Kyle's brother, Kurt? He has championship experience, but it sure doesn't seem like he's carrying a championship mindset into the Chase.

My 2011 Chase predictions:

  1. Jimmie Johnson
  2. Carl Edwards
  3. Jeff Gordon
  4. Kyle Busch
  5. Kevin Harvick
  6. Matt Kenseth
  7. Brad Keselowski
  8. Ryan Newman
  9. Kurt Busch
  10. Denny Hamlin
  11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  12. Tony Stewart
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Pennell: Jeff Gordon Will Win 2011 NASCAR Chase For The Sprint Cup

Here's how I think the 2011 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup will shake out:

2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion: Jeff Gordon

Heading into the Chase, it seems Jeff Gordon and his Alan Gustafson-led team have the competition on its heels. Gordon has six finishes of sixth or better in the last seven races, including Gordon's historic 85th win in Atlanta.

Nearly winning this weekend in Richmond, Gordon and the No. 24 team have been able to overcome adversity in the race to not only salvage a solid finish, but to emerge as a contender for the win. With momentum on their side and a sold track record at the next 10 races, Gordon and Gustafson could be the combination capable of ending the dominance of Jimmie Johnson.

Gordon has shown he can race hard, score wins and stay above controversy – something I feel will be a huge factor in this year's Chase. With momentum on his side, Gordon can be a threat to win multiple races and get on a roll that can be hard to beat.

While I feel the championship will ultimately come down to Homestead, it will be Jeff Gordon giving team owner Rick Hendrick the championship trophy this year, not Jimmie Johnson.

2011 Chase Runner-Up: Kevin Harvick

Entering the 2011 season, many thought Kevin Harvick would be a contender for the championship right off the bat. Despite a bad start to the season in Daytona, Harvick has shown he will be a factor in the championship hunt.

With three wins early in the year, the team admittedly got off their game in the summer stretch and tried some things for going for more victories. When that did not work out, crew chief Gil Martin was able to rally the crew and refocus them just in time for the Chase. Scoring his fourth win Saturday night in Richmond, Harvick put an end to the backslide that was taking place and proved to the competition he will be a threat over the final 10-race stretch.

Looking at the competition, it appears Harvick and Gordon are among the two fastest cars right now. Things will start off well for Harvick, as he has two wins and six top-10s in 10 races at Chicagoland Speedway.

The one part of the puzzle that has been missing at times for the No. 29 team has been the over-the-wall crew, even though they got the job done Saturday night in Richmond. While changes were made within the organization over the past few weeks – RCR fired its pit crew coach – that unreliability could be the difference between a championship and a runner-up.

2011 Chase Disappointment: Jimmie Johnson

The five-time defending champion's reign will come to an end this season, but it will not be for a lack of effort. Johnson appears to still be at the top of his game, but it might be outside forces that keep five-time from becoming a six-time champion. That outside force may just be Kurt Busch.

While Johnson will not concede that Busch is "in his head" going into the championship battle, the feud between these two is unlikely going to end. Over the course of the year, Johnson and Busch have found each other on the track numerous times and, on more than one occasion, their hard racing has led to wrecked race cars. With bad finishes hurting more than ever, just one incident with Busch could be the thing that ends Johnson's title runs at five in a row.

2011 Chase Predictions:

  1. Jeff Gordon
  2. Kevin Harvick
  3. Matt Kenseth
  4. Carl Edwards
  5. Jimmie Johnson
  6. Kyle Busch
  7. Brad Keselowski
  8. Denny Hamlin
  9. Ryan Newman
  10. Tony Stewart
  11. Kurt Busch
  12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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Grading Our Preseason NASCAR Chase Predictions; Did We Pass Or Fail?

When I unveiled my preseason Chase predictions on Feb. 19, I offered a guess about my guesses: After getting nine of the top 12 correct last year, I said "2011 is the year when I'm going to turn it all around and get every Chase driver correct."

Not surprisingly, that did not happen. In fact, I did even worse this year than in 2010.

Thanks to the unforeseen performance of Brad Keselowski, the resurgence of Dale Earnhardt Jr., a better year for Matt Kenseth and a quietly consistent run for Ryan Newman, I only got eight of the top 12 Chase drivers correct this year.

Who did I have instead of Keselowski, Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth and Newman? Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer were two of the guesses, which doesn't seem so bad. But the other two were AJ Allmendinger and – gulp! – Joey Logano.

Ouch.

Anyway, I picked Jimmie Johnson to win the championship – and that still seems like a possibility – so maybe I can feel OK about that.

Here's a look back at some of the smart things I said:

• "Alan Gustafson is a great crew chief. Jeff Gordon, who will win three races this season, is about to find out how good."

• "Tony Stewart gets into the Chase again, but still isn't as strong as in his Joe Gibbs Racing days."

• "Traditionally a slow starter, Denny Hamlin will struggle out of the gate before a summer resurgence. He won't match last year's Chase run, though (runnerups rarely do)."

• Kyle Busch will have four wins heading into the Chase.

And here's a look back at some of the dumb things I said:

• "Kevin Harvick will experience a Chase hangover from 2010."

• "Joey Logano makes his first Chase this year, and may never miss it again."

• "AJ Allmendinger establishes himself as a more consistent driver this season, allowing him to have a breakout year."

• Not one word about Brad Keselowski in the preseason predictions.

GRADE: C

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SBNation.com contributor Jay Pennell also got eight out of 12 Chase drivers correct.

Pennell picked Kasey Kahne to make the Chase, along with Jamie McMurray, Biffle and Allmendinger (we shared the 'Dinger optimism).

Who did Pennell leave out? Keselowski, of course, along with Kenseth, Newman and – a surprising omission here – Kurt Busch.

On the plus side, Pennell correctly predicted the Richard Childress Racing stumble and left both Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton off his list.

Pennell has picked Jeff Gordon to win the championship this year (more on that later).

GRADE: C

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