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