Thursday, September 13, 2012

Who Will Win NASCAR's 2012 Chase ?

It's hard to believe it's been three weeks since my last post. Time has flown by, and I needed the break. It's also hard to believe that NASCAR's 2012 "regular season" is already over, and it's time for the 10 Race Playoff known as "The Chase for the Championship."

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 10:  (Back row L-R) T...
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. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
When the players for the Chase were set last Saturday night at Richmond, there were some surprises. For instance, who would have thought that Kyle "Whiny" Busch would choke away his shot at making The Chase, or that Jeff Gordon would squeak in because of it ? Gordon has had bad luck on top of bad luck this year. Additionally, who would have thought at the beginning of the year that Carl Edwards would not make The Chase and be winless ? Or, that Michael Waltrip racing would have two cars in it ? It's been a strange year for NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, and who knows - it may get even stranger before it's over in November.

When The Chase starts this weekend in Chicago, many of the usual players will be involved. Defending Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart will be trying to repeat. Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have both made The Chase again but still seeking their first Cup, and Jimmie Johnson will be trying to become a 6-Time Champion. What about Dale Jr. ? He's had the most consistent season of his career since joining Hendrick Motorsports. Could this be the year that he finally joins his dad in being called "Champ" ? In two months, we'll find out, but today The Sheepdog is gonna give his pick as to who will win the 2012 Sprint Cup.

The following twelve drivers qualified for The Chase. They are listed in order by seed, name, number of wins (if any), and by how may points they'll start The Chase trailing number one seeded Denny Hamlin :
  • 1st seed - Denny Hamlin, 4 wins
  • 2nd (tied)  - Jimmie Johnson, 3 wins, -3 points
  • 2nd (tied) - Tony Stewart, 3 wins, -3 points
  • 2nd (tied) - Brad Keselowski, 3 wins, -3 points
  • 5th (tied) - Greg Biffle, 2 wins, -6 points
  • 5th (tied) - Clint Bowyer, 2 wins, -6 points
  • 7th (tied) - Dale Earnhardt, Jr., 1 win, -9 points
  • 7th (tied) - Matt Kenseth, 1 win, -9 points
  • 9th (tied) - Kevin Harvick, -12 points
  • 9th (tied) - Martin Truex, Jr., -12 points
  • 11th Wildcard - Kasey Kahne, 2 wins, -12 points
  • 12th Wildcard - Jeff Gordon, 1 win, -12 points
Before I get too far into my prognostication as to who will win the championship, let me go ahead and weed out the drivers whom I think definitely will not win the championship and tell you why. Let me warn you ahead of time that two of these will likely shock you. I think some of these will even be out of the hunt quickly. They are :
  1. Kasey Kahne - has been bitten repeatedly by bad luck this year.
  2. Martin Truex, Jr. - drives for Michael Waltrip Racing. Nuff said.
  3. Clint Bowyer - great driver but also drives for Michael Waltrip Racing. His goose is cooked.
  4. Matt Kenseth - has had poor performances and bad luck in previous Chases - it will continue.
  5. Greg Biffle - always chokes in the Chase. He's a lot like Peyton Manning was in college - he can't win the big game.
  6. Jimmie Johnson - I'm sure many are already yelling at their computer and saying, "Sheepdog, you're out of your mind !!" Am I ? Johnson has had more bad luck and mechanical failures this year than in previous seasons. I think it will continue in The Chase. No "Mr. 6-Time" this year.
  7. Denny Hamlin - The ones that didn't yell at their computer over my Jimmie Johnson prediction are yelling now. You guys (and gals) just chill out and hear me out. Even though Denny has won more races (4) this year than any other driver, he always blows it in The Chase - always. So, even if he's still in the hunt going into Homestead in the last race, he'll find a way to lose it again there. It'll be more heartbreak for Denny this year. Maybe he should stick to golf.
So, after eliminating those seven drivers, we are left with five that I think have a legitimate shot at winning the title if things go their way. They are defending champion Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Jeff Gordon. I know it's a bit of a Motley Crew and some of you are scratching your heads thinking, "Sheepdog has definitely lost it. Maybe he should have taken a longer blog break." It's an especially odd lot when you consider that one of the five, Jeff Gordon, just squeaked into The Chase by three measly points when Kyle Busch choked and another, Kevin Harvick, hasn't won a race this year. However, I believe that the 2012 Champ will come out of this group of five. So, hang on.

First, let's talk about the two drivers that could probably be considered the sentimental fan favorites.
NASCAR auto racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. speaks wi...
NASCAR auto racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. speaks with members of the press at Hendrick Motorsports headquarters outside Charlotte, N.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia
Dale Jr. is having his best season since leaving DEI for Hendrick. He's been consistent and has won a race. He's raced in his dad's shadow week in and week out for years. I felt like during the first 26 races this year, he could have won more of them if he had been more aggressive at the finish. I think if he wants to win the championship, he has to continue doing what's he's been doing but step it up a little and win 2 or 3 of the ten Chase races. If he does that, he could win his first cup. If he doesn't, he'll have to wait until 2013. As an Earnhardt fan, I'll be pulling for him. If Junior does win it, it will only be the third time in NASCAR Sprint Cup history that both father and son have won the championship.

In the last three races, Jeff Gordon has been red hot finishing 3rd, 2nd, and 2nd. Yes, he squeaked into The Chase, but he did so by overcoming an extremely ill-handling race car last week at Richmond to finish 2nd. He nearly won the week before at Atlanta. I suspect after the Richmond comeback, the fire to win a 5th Championship is burning hot in Gordon's gut. It's no secret that he's sick of hearing about "Ol' 5-Time" Jimmie Johnson. Plus, the dude knows how to win championships having four under his belt already. If Gordon can stay away from the bad luck that has plagued him all year, I think he's got a good chance to become "Ol' 5-Time" himself. As they talk about in the NFL at playoff time, Gordon is peaking at the right time. Keep an eye on him the next ten races.

Kevin Harvick has just narrowly missed winning a couple of Sprint Cup Championships. He's driven to be the best, and he's hungry to win not only races but also titles. Another thing going for him is that his car owner, Richard Childress, has won championship after championship in NASCAR, including six with Dale Earnhardt behind the wheel of his cars. He knows what it takes, and Harvick knows what it takes just to get in the position to have the opportunity to win one. If these guys win a race or two during The Chase, Harvick could pick up his first title as a driver and Childress could pick up his 7th as a car owner. However, they have to win races to pull it off. For us who have followed NASCAR for years, it would be nice to see Childress win another one, and I suspect The Intimidator would be grinning when it's over.

Brad Keselowski is one of the hardest charging drivers in the Sprint Cup Series today. If the checkered flag is in sight and within reach, you better get out of this dude's way. Kyle Busch found that out this year and in incidents with Keselowski in years past. Keselowski is also backed by an owner, Roger Penske, that knows how to win titles. If you're a gambler who likes a Cinderella story, Keselowski might be your guy for this Chase.

There's one driver left of the twelve Chasers who I haven't talked about yet - Tony Stewart. Tony will be
English: Tony Stewart, NASCAR, Stewart-Haas Ra...
English: Tony Stewart, NASCAR, Stewart-Haas Racing, Sprint Cup Series, Chevy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
the first to tell you that even though he's already won three races this year, his performance has not lived up to his standards. In fact, at Richmond last week, he struggled badly for a while before fighting back to finish fourth and even led the race briefly scoring a bonus point. There was a concern that he might not stay in the top-ten in points and have to settle for a wild-card entry to get into The Chase. If he had slipped out of the top-ten and taken a wild-card, he would have lost the nine bonus points he received as a result of his three wins. Then, instead of entering The Chase tied for the 2nd seed, he would have been the 11th seed.

I'm picking Tony Stewart to win the 2012 Sprint Cup Championship for one main reason - the dude just finds a way to win. In winning the championship last year, he didn't win a single race before The Chase started. Then, he won 5 of the 10 Chase races. When the season ends at the checkered flag in Homestead, Stewart will have back to back championships and his fourth overall tying Jeff Gordon for fourth on the all-time list.

Now, come Sunday it will be time to sit back, and see if I get it right. Hopefully, I'll be more successful with this prognostication than I was last year with the NFL Playoffs and Super Bowl. Man, that was a debacle.

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The Second Chance Sheepdog said...

Part 1 - Leading into the Kansas race tomorrow, we are halfway through The Chase. Let's take a look at how I've done with my prognostication. We'll start with whom of the 12 drivers in The Chase I predicted would not win it. My criteria for being eliminated from contention at this point is any driver who is more than 44 points off the lead is definitely out. 44 points is the most points a driver could gain on another Chase contender in one race.

The Second Chance Sheepdog said...

Part 2 - I said that 7 drivers including, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex, Jr., Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin would definitely not win The Chase. I counted each of them out for various reasons (please refer to original post for those reasons). Of those 7, only 2, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex, Jr. Meet that criteria.

The Second Chance Sheepdog said...

Part 3 - I also said that I felt like 5 drivers had a legitimate shot at winning The Chase. These included Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Jeff Gordon. Unfortunately for me, 4 of those 5 drivers, including my pick as champion, Tony Stewart, now fit the more than 44 points out and you're out criteria. The other 3 are Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Dale Jr. has Michael Waltrip to thank for being eliminated due to the Talladega wreck Waltrip caused.

The Second Chance Sheepdog said...

Part 4 - That leaves us with 6 drivers who are within my criteria of being within 44 points of the lead to still have a shot at the championship. They are Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, and Greg Biffle.

The Second Chance Sheepdog said...

Part 5 - The thing is, though, that as consistent as Keselowski, Johnson, and Hamlin are running, a guy like Biffle who is 43 points out right now would have to average gaining nearly 9 points a race on the leader the rest of the way to win it. I don't see it happening. In fact, if you are more than 30 points out right now, I don't see you winning this thing. That eliminates Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle.

The Second Chance Sheepdog said...

Part 6 - So, now we are down to 4 - Keselowski, Johnson, Hamlin, and Bowyer. I still believe bad luck will bite Johnson, Hamlin will find a way to choke it away, and driving for Michael Waltrip Racing will cost Bowyer. That leaves only Brad Keselowski. Keselowski will win the 2012 Sprint Cup.

The Second Chance Sheepdog said...

Well, first I need to congratulate Brad Keselowski on winning his first Sprint Cup title. He earned it. Second, I am happy to say that I did a much better job of picking the Chase for the Sprint Cup than I did the NFL Playoffs last year. I picked nearly every thing correctly from the get go in the Chase except for originally picking Tony Stewart to repeat as Champ. I did, however, correctly pick Keselowski to win it at the halfway point.