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:
- Jeff Gordon
- Kevin Harvick
- Matt Kenseth
- Carl Edwards
- Jimmie Johnson
- Kyle Busch
- Brad Keselowski
- Denny Hamlin
- Ryan Newman
- Tony Stewart
- Kurt Busch
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.