FORT WORTH, TX - APRIL 12: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Mobil 1 Advanced Fuel Economy/Office Depot Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 12, 2012 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
We took 14 top drivers and divided them into contenders and also-rans. Which ones fell into which categories?
It's hard to believe we're already more than one quarter of the way through NASCAR's regular season, but it's true. Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway will be the eighth of the 26-event schedule leading up to the Chase, and now is the time when we're starting to get a good idea of where drivers stack up competition-wise.
Some drivers have clearly established themselves as bona fide title contenders, while many others still find themselves searching for the keys to success.
Is it too early into a grueling 36-race season to make rash judgments on who I think will be battling it out at Homestead? Absolutely.
Nevertheless, it sure as heck isn't going to stop me from taking 14 drivers who I think will be competing for the 12 spots in the Chase and dividing them up into three categories based on their respective championship prospects.
To win a championship, you need to win and to consistently finish in the top five. Which is why before last weekend, I would have placed Greg Biffle in the category below – regardless of him leading the points for five of seven weeks.
But after returning to Victory Lane for the first time since the fall of 2010, Biffle has the look of a driver who is going to be a fixture up near the front of the field for the balance of the year. When you consider the prowess of he and his team on the intermediate tracks – which make up half of the 10-race Chase schedule – he has to be on the short list of favorites.
Like his teammate above, Matt Kenseth has shown consistency, the knack for finding the winner's circle and is also very capable on the intermediate tracks. Add everything together and you have a sure-fire recipe which should have Kenseth sniffing his second Sprint Cup championship.
Even with a new crew chief atop his pit box, the defending series champ hasn't missed a beat, as he's the only driver thus far to record multiple victories.
Although Jimmie Johnson may be the only driver in this category not to have won a race this season, it's only a matter of time before the driver who's led more laps than anyone else car rolls off a couple of wins. On top of that, since starting off his year in the worst way possible with a 42nd-place showing in the Daytona 500, Johnson hasn't finished worse than 12th and in his last six starts and owns an average finish of 6.5.
Almost There, But More Work To Do
I could probably be persuaded to move Kevin Harvick up to the category above, but to me, something still feels amiss with this team. The flagship car for Richard Childress Racing still has too many races where they just miss the setup, like at Martinsville, where Harvick entered as the defending winner but lost the handle on his Chevrolet and finished 19th, two laps in arrears.
Then again, if Harvick can win a couple of races this summer, ignore everything I said above as my mind will quickly change on whether he can win RCR's first Cup title in 18 years.
Carl Edwards has yet to lead a single lap in 2012 while both of his Roush Fenway teammates have won a race. But Edwards, despite a so-so start to the year, does have four top 10s and sits 11th overall. There are a lot of drivers who would love to struggle to that level. Long story short, I'm going to give Edwards a little more time before I make a definitive call one way or another.
Considering Jeff Gordon is still winless and hasn't finished better than fourth, this may be considered a tad high. But when you look at how fast the 24 car has been since the green flag waved at Daytona, factor in that Gordon has led at least one lap in every race and has had to deal with some of the worst luck this side of Kasey Kahne, it's easy to think he's one hot summer stretch away from being a factor.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
If NASCAR's favorite son were to ever win a championship, the cheers emanating from Daytona Beach could be heard from coast to coast. However, for that happen, Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to do something he hasn't done in nearly four years – win. Until then, all bets are off.
More Questions Than Answers
Brad Keselowski's pattern in 2012 is to have one good race followed by a finish in the 30s, which explains why he has yet to put consecutive top-10s together. It's not exactly a formula for winning Roger Penske his first Sprint Cup trophy.
Although the speed is obviously there as shown by Keselowski's dominant victory at Bristol, until Penske Racing figures out its reliability issues, Keselowski appears doomed to having a see-saw year, where he'll be forced have to rely on a wild card to make the Chase.
After a strong start to the year which saw him open with a fourth at Daytona and a win at Phoenix, it looked as if the Denny Hamlin/Darian Grubb pairing was going to pay off in a big way for everyone involved. However, since that victory Hamlin has just one top-10 and, more worrisome, his Joe Gibbs Racing team has struggled to keep pace on the mile-and-a-half tracks.
Maybe it's the distraction of starting his own Nationwide Series team or the reshuffling JGR undertook this past offseason, but either way Kyle Busch has looked nothing like the driver who won four races a year ago and was the No. 1 seed in the Chase.
Regardless, it would be silly to think Busch is going to go winless, which means at a minimum he should find his way into the Chase via the wild card. That, however, doesn't equate to him contending for his first series title.
Then again, maybe Busch will do what Tony Stewart did last year and come the Chase, find a magic switch to flip and steamroll his way to the title? It's possible.
While the win at Martinsville was nice – albeit surprising and all but handed to him on a silver platter – does anyone really think Ryan Newman is going to bring home Stewart-Haas Racing's second consecutive title? Maybe he'll shock everyone like his boss did last year, but I'm skeptical to say the least.
Martin Truex Jr.
The surprise of the season so far, Martin Truex Jr. finds himself fourth in points on the strength of five top-10s. But if Truex, who is in a contract year, truly wants to be considered a contender, he has to start winning – something he's done just once in 232 Cup starts.
Can Michael Waltrip Racing really put two cars in the Chase, considering it's never had one car in the Chase? If I was forced to choose between Truex and Clint Bowyer, I would feel more confident giving the nod to Truex.