The Chase is on: Predictions for the Championship Battle

The field for NASCAR’s 13th Chase for the Sprint Cup is finally set.  Over the next ten weeks, 16 drivers will compete for NASCAR’s top prize.  Once again, I am offering some predictions for how the Chase will go, including who wins each race, who gets eliminated each round, and who the champion will be.  In making these predictions, I attempted not to stray too far from my preseason predictions, although I have taken regular season performance into account for each driver.


What to watch for: If a driver runs well at Chicagoland, chances are that driver will be fast during the Chase.  NASCAR’s postseason consists of five intermediate track races, of which Chicagoland is the first.  This is usually a race in which most of the Chasers avoid trouble and finish near the front.

Who wins? I think Kevin Harvick will start the Chase off with his third win of the season.  The No. 4 team is routinely fast at the intermediate tracks but has let a few potential wins slip away.  Harvick is due for another victory in the Windy City, a victory that will make this first round of the Chase much easier for him than it was last year.

New Hampshire

What to watch for: Do not be surprised if this race turns into a Joe Gibbs Racing versus Team Penske showdown.  Both organizations have been strong at the Magic Mile as of late.  Matt Kenseth will be looking to win his third race in a row at New Hampshire, which will be tough to earn against a field of drivers hungry for wins.  Also, a Chase favorite is more likely to run into trouble here than any other first round race.

Who wins? Brad Keselowski will continue his strong season by winning at New Hampshire for the first time since July of 2014.


What to watch for: All eyes will be on the drivers near the bottom of the Chase standings.  Most of the drivers who get cut from the Chase will have only poor performance to blame.  However, Dover can be a little less predictable than some of the other Chase races.  It is certainly possible that someone could have a problem early in that race, like Jimmie Johnson did last year, and have their championship hopes dashed.  Expect most Chasers to take a conservative approach to this race as to avoid the wrath of Miles the Monster.

Who wins? After missing out on a victory in May, Kyle Larson comes back to Dover and gets the second win of his Sprint Cup career.  The No. 42 team’s momentum shows no signs of stopping… for now.

Drivers eliminated:

Chris Buescher (The win at Pocono was great, but this team has a long way to go before it is ready to compete for a championship.)

Austin Dillon (He emerged as the top Richard Childress Racing driver this year.  That is a step in the right direction, but being good enough to make the Chase appears to be RCR’s ceiling these days.)

Jamie McMurray (He successfully clawed his way into the Chase, but he will not get far without running near the front more often.)

Tony Stewart (All of his late summer momentum is gone, and the No. 14 is back to lacking speed.)


What to watch for: Maybe it is the nighttime (or last year, unexpected daytime) conditions, but occasionally would-be championship contenders struggle in this event.  Charlotte’s October race is a 500 mile contest, so drivers who get in trouble early will have a chance to rebound.  Yet overall, this might be a “musical chairs” race — make sure to be fast and at the front at the right time.

Who wins? Charlotte will be no struggle for Denny Hamlin, who races to a dominant victory and claims the first spot in the third round.


What to watch for: The drivers who challenge for the win here will be the usual suspects.  However, the nervousness from an impending race at Talladega will be palpable.  At Kansas, mistakes and errors will complicate things for the drivers more than changing track conditions.

Who wins? Jimmie Johnson will spend the first four races of the Chase hovering around the bubble, only to win at Kansas and guarantee his passage into the third round.  Talk of Johnson possibly winning championship number seven dominates the NASCAR conversation for the next week.


What to watch for: Expect the usual barely-controlled chaos of restrictor plate racing.  It is unlikely that we will see the level of carnage Talladega served up in the spring, but those accidents will be on everyone’s mind.  Above all else, the Chasers must avoid the big one and protect whatever points position they have.

Who wins? Kyle Busch holds the lead on the last lap when a crash breaks out behind the front runners, ending the race.  Busch makes a comment about how much he hates the Chase format and restrictor plate racing in victory lane.

Drivers eliminated:

Chase Elliott (A crash at Talladega ends his championship quest, but he ultimately wins Rookie of the Year.)

Matt Kenseth (Between horrible luck and ill-handling cars, the No. 20 team cannot string together enough good finishes to stay in the championship hunt.)

Kyle Larson (A rough race at Charlotte leaves him in a points hole that only gets bigger as the second round progresses.)

Carl Edwards (The No. 19 team cannot get their early season speed back, and what started out as a promising year ends on a down note.)


What to watch for: The third round is the one where drivers will feel the most pressure to win.  However, only two of the six third round Chase races have been won by a driver still in the Chase.  Martinsville will be a hotly contested short track race, especially for the win, but points still matter.  Championship hopefuls will have to put their hard feelings aside and press on.

Who wins? After years of frustration at the Paperclip, Matt Kenseth will finally break through and win for the first time at Martinsville.  But with Kenseth already eliminated from the Chase, the road to the championship race will remain wide open.


What to watch for: If the last two fall Texas races have anything in common (besides a Jimmie Johnson victory), it is that they were rather dull affairs until the closing laps.  Will that trend continue?  Texas is another track that will favor the championship hopefuls, and there might be some late-race fireworks if most of the Chasers are at the front of the pack in the closing laps.

Who wins? Denny Hamlin breaks up Johnson’s streak and grabs his second win of the Chase.  Hamlin reaches the championship race for the second time in three years.


What to watch for: Hopefully, there will not be any rain to shorten the fall Phoenix race this year.  The championship hopes of more than one contender are bound to end here.  Phoenix demands a strong car setup but also a team that can keep up with adjustments during the race.  Chasers will have to be on their guard in case any ill will among drivers spills on to the track.

Who wins? Kurt Busch drives an aggressive but overall solid race, culminating in his second win of the year.  Meanwhile, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch squeak into the final round on points in a thrilling battle with the other Chasers.

Drivers eliminated: 

Martin Truex Jr. (He probably has more speed than anyone, but mistakes will ruin the No. 78 team’s championship hopes.)

Jimmie Johnson (He will have his usual uptick in level of performance during the Chase, but it will not be enough to reach the final round.)

Brad Keselowski (His championship dreams end in the third round for the third time.)

Kevin Harvick (There is no reason why he cannot make the final round if his pit crew is up to snuff.  Yet being in the championship race for a third year in a row seems unlikely for anyone.  This time, I have a hunch that Harvick will not be able to fight back and advance.)


What to watch for: Much like Charlotte and Phoenix, track conditions will change.  Anyone who hopes to win must be fast at the end of the race.  Beware the late-race caution that could shake up the running order and leave crew chiefs with some very difficult decisions to make.

Who wins? Martin Truex Jr. caps off his best season ever with a third win.

And the champion will be: Joey Logano, who wins the Sprint Cup without a single victory in the postseason.  Expect NASCAR to tweak the Chase format in some way over the offseason, especially with a new title sponsor (hopefully) coming.

Final Chase Standings:

  1. Joey Logano
  2. Denny Hamlin
  3. Kurt Busch
  4. Kyle Busch
  5. Brad Keselowski
  6. Kevin Harvick
  7. Martin Truex Jr.
  8. Carl Edwards
  9. Matt Kenseth
  10. Jimmie Johnson
  11. Kyle Larson
  12. Tony Stewart
  13. Chase Elliott
  14. Jamie McMurray
  15. Austin Dillon
  16. Chris Buescher


Erik Jones and Furniture Row to Test the Charter System

It has been well over a week since Furniture Row Racing announced the long-awaited debut of the team’s second car in 2017.  The fact that Erik Jones will race the car as a Sprint Cup rookie has only added to the excitement.  The announcement has prompted a hefty amount of speculation regarding the future of Jones, FRR, and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Team owner Barney Visser appears to have all the pieces in place for Jones to succeed.  5-Hour Energy will sponsor the majority of the races on the new 77 car.  Moreover, FRR’s alliance with JGR and stout performance in Sprint Cup should make adding a second team a manageable task.

There is only one potential problem for Furniture Row right now; where will it get another charter?  Visser has already stated that he intends to obtain a charter for the new team.  He may have more of a plan than what he has revealed to the public.  But right now, six months after the creation of the charter system, there is not a lot of clarity about how charters can get transferred among teams, whether or not NASCAR has any say in those transactions, or if the sanctioning body can create or revoke charters.

The method by which FRR gets a charter for Jones and the 77 team is going to be the first real test of NASCAR’s new franchising system.  Put simply, we will soon find out how well teams are able to grow under the charter system.  Will NASCAR’s new rules allow for the sport to expand? Or are charters really about protecting the status quo?

There is no question that every current team owner who has a charter for every car is better off now than one year ago.  Having an assured spot on the starting grid is a big help in attracting sponsors.  Also, team owners who want to exit the sport have something of value to sell to a new owner, other than cars and equipment.

Yet what if a new owner comes knocking at NASCAR’s door, hoping to get in the race?  Suppose that owner cannot get a charter.  Would the new organization compete as an open team?  Would that new owner be content to sit and wait for a charter to become available, knowing that several years could pass before such an opportunity arises?  NASCAR’s charter system is undoubtedly a boon to the current fraternity of owners.  But if the system cannot accommodate any growth conducted by new players (or in FRR’s case, a current team expanding,) that is a serious flaw.

Remember that NASCAR only issued 36 charters at the beginning of the season.  The sanctioning body also cut the Sprint Cup field down from 43 to 40 drivers.  Those measures give off the impression that NASCAR does not expect much growth among Cup Series participants.  The most telling sign that smaller fields are the new normal could be what happened at Dover International Speedway this year.  The track reconfigured its pit road to include only 40 pit boxes.  Dover’s pit road has always been notoriously cramped, but it seems unlikely that the track would have taken that step if car counts were going to go up any time soon.

Moreover, NASCAR has not divulged many details about what teams must do to keep charters.  There is allegedly a performance standard that all teams must meet to retain a charter, but the specifics of those standards are unclear.  When NASCAR announced the charter system back in February, Chief Operating Officer Brent Dewar made the following comments:

To acquire a charter, you’re going to have to acquire it through the existing 36 charters… There is a performance requirement for all of the existing charter members, to maintain that in good standing.  It’s understood in the agreement.  Our goal is not to be taking charters away.  They’re going to continue to drive better and better performance.  There will be a notification process to maintain that good standing.

To a current open team, there’s not a way to race your way into a charter.  There is an ability to be an open team and to race for purse and to compete as an open team… We think having that avenue to be an open team is obviously a precursor opportunity for those that choose to go in that direction to become a charter team owner in the future.”

Dewar’s comments suggest that NASCAR intends to use the open team spots as a way of cultivating new owners.  His remarks also explain that NASCAR is unlikely to take a charter from an under-performing team and give it directly to a stronger team.  In essence, it is mostly up to the owners to determine where the charters go.

Taking this approach is still a gamble on NASCAR’s part, though.  For open team positions to act as a means of luring new owners in, those potential owners must see value in the opportunity to compete as an open team.  If they do not, the sport will not grow.

As for Visser, NASCAR is unlikely to hand over a 37th charter just because he wants to field a second car, given Dewar’s comments.  Furniture Row’s best bet is probably to lease a charter from another team for one year, like HScott Motorsports is doing this season.  That would be an appropriate stepping stone towards buying a charter outright in the future.  As for what current team might be willing to lease a charter, that is anyone’s guess.

NASCAR’s charter system is clearly a work in progress.  We have only begun to see the effect it will have on the sport.  In the meantime, fans should appreciate that NASCAR has developed a better business model for the current team owners. A franchising system could have saved teams like Robert Yates Racing, Morgan McClure Motorsports, Andy Petree Racing, and many others, from going under.  Yet NASCAR must make sure that the charter system fortress has a front door for welcoming in new allies.

Will Indy Mean More to Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon?

Tony Stewart has not sought the spotlight during his final Sprint Cup Season.  The veteran racer has his eye on future plans, some of which involve a return to dirt track racing.  This weekend, however, may be more appropriate than any other for Stewart to reflect on his stellar Sprint Cup career.

NASCAR heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the race still popularly called the Brickyard 400.  Indy is hallowed ground in the world of motorsports, and Stewart has high regard for the historic track.  Smoke came to NASCAR from open-wheel racing and competed in the Indianapolis 500 for several years.  Stewart is also an Indiana native, and he usually has a large contingent of family and friends on hand whenever NASCAR comes to town.  This weekend would have been the perfect opportunity for Stewart to look back on his success in racing.

However, possibility became reality earlier this week.  Jeff Gordon is back.

When Gordon stepped away from driving his number 24 car at the end of last season, he never fully closed the book on his driving career.  Yet until last week, Gordon’s ability to race in Sprint Cup once more posed some logistical problems.  Could anybody really expect Gordon to drive anything other than Hendrick’s 24 car?  It turns out that being in a Hendrick car was all that mattered.  Gordon will fill in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. for at least the next two races.

Aside from the unfortunate return of Junior’s concussion-like symptoms, the opportunity could not be any better for Gordon.  He also grew up in Indiana and has an open wheel racing background.  Gordon has been highly successful at Indianapolis.  His five wins there lead all drivers, as do his top fives, top tens, poles, and laps led.  Additionally, during last year’s race at the Brickyard, Gordon got swept up in a crash on lap 50.  It felt like a shame that Gordon’s last start at Indy would end with a wrecked race car and a 42nd place finish.  However, fate has given Gordon one more last start at Indy.

So, thanks to Gordon’s return, Stewart will probably go back to being under the radar this weekend.  My guess is that Stewart will not really mind, because he can go race with less distractions if all the focus is on Gordon.  That said, Stewart’s last Brickyard 400 should still be a big deal. This race is not just about Stewart’s history and appreciation for the track.  Indy is important to Stewart because he has something that Gordon does not — championship aspirations.

By winning at Sonoma last month, Stewart took a big step toward making the Chase.  All he must do now is remain in the top 30 in points, a goal that the 14 team should easy reach.  The question of whether or not Stewart can make the Chase has shifted to whether or not he can win the title.

The championship talk reveals how big a turnaround Stewart has made in the last year.  He struggled through a miserable 2015, posting only three top tens in the entire season.  The weight of injuries and tragedy appeared to have accelerated Stewart’s decline as a racer.  When he returned to the driver’s seat a quarter of the way into the 2016 season, things did not go much better at first.  Yet Stewart has begun to look more like his old self during the summer months, making several appearances in the top ten in addition to his win.

That said, the performance has not always been great, even if the finishes have.  Stewart ran in the middle of the pack during much of the races at Kentucky and New Hampshire.  Fuel mileage and great strategy aided his top five effort in the Bluegrass State, while the chaos of New Hampshire’s closing laps allowed Stewart to make a late charge through the field.  The 14 team actually performed better at Pocono and Daytona, but Stewart got caught up in crashes during both those events.  So how do we know if Smoke is really ready to race for one more championship?

Indianapolis could tell the tale.  The rectangular track is a notoriously difficult one to master.  Usually, the strongest drivers and teams in a given season are the ones who compete for the victory.  In 22 Sprint Cup events, the winner at Indy has gone on to win the championship nine times.  Stewart himself pulled off the feat in 2005, the first of two wins for him at the Brickyard.

This weekend has the potential to be the final Brickyard 400 for two of NASCAR’s stars.  If Gordon performs well at Indy, it will be a great story and a testament to his skills as a driver.  A strong run by Stewart would mean just as much, but it could also set the stage for Smoke to rise even higher in the Chase.

Addressing the Big Silly Season Questions

Last week, my colleague Amy Henderson posed a question regarding this year’s Silly Season.  Specifically, Amy wanted to know our opinions on which teams should prepare to make big changes in the offseason, and who should stick with what they have.  I attempted to cover as many teams as possible in my response, but afterwards I thought to myself, I could write an entire blog post about this.  So here are my expanded thoughts about the questions that some NASCAR teams will face in 2017 and beyond.

JGR’s Good Problem to Have

Joe Gibbs Racing has been the dominant force in NASCAR through the first half of this season.  The flagship Toyota team could be setting itself up for several more great years, thanks to a driver lineup that is brimming with young talent.  Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are two of only three XFINITY regulars who have won in that series this year.  Meanwhile, Kyle Busch Motorsports driver William Byron is on fire in the Truck Series, while Christopher Bell has visited victory lane as well.

The trouble is, can JGR find rides for all these drivers?  The team is already at the four car maximum in Sprint Cup, and all of its current drivers are performing well.  There seems to be a good deal of intent within JGR to get Jones in particular to Sprint Cup sooner rather than later.

The best place for Jones in the short term could be a second Furniture Row Racing car, but that would require additional sponsorship and a charter.  Furthermore, FRR is still trying to piece together Martin Truex Jr’s sponsorship deal beyond this season.  Unless something changes in the next few weeks, a second Furniture Row car probably will not be a reality in 2017.

At this point, JGR’s best option is to wait and see.  The organization certainly does not want to let another driver slip away like Darrell Wallace Jr did.  Yet Jones is really their only prospect who would be ready to go Sprint Cup racing in the next year or two.  Losing a perennial championship contender like Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, or Carl Edwards would be too high a price to pay for getting Jones to the big show a year or two early.

What to do with No. 5?

Kasey Kahne is stuck in the middle of another disappointing season.  Hendrick Motorsports as a whole has not performed up to its usual standard, but Kahne is struggling worst of all.  He is currently 17th in points and outside the Chase cutoff.  Most troubling is that Kahne has not won since Labor Day weekend in 2014.  Considering that he has not led a single lap this year, it does not look like Kahne’s winless drought will end anytime soon, either.

Kahne had a respectable first season with Hendrick in 2012, winning twice and finishing fourth in points.  That initial success has given way to a slow decline.  The team has swapped crew chiefs and other personnel over the years in an effort to improve, but Kahne continues to fall short of the high expectations that accompanied his move to Hendrick.

Is it time for Kahne and Hendrick to part ways?  Kahne’s current contract runs through 2018, and there is still a chance that he could make the Chase.  Yet if neither Kahne nor Hendrick is getting the most out of their current relationship, staying together does not make much sense.

In the unlikely event that Kahne leaves after this year, who would take over the 5 car?  This is pure speculation on my part, but I think that Kyle Larson would be a good fit at Hendrick.  Larson, like Kahne, has struggled with consistency at times, but he has also shown the capability to be a regular race winner if given the right situation.  Plus, Hendrick could use another young driver.  Chase Elliott’s Sprint Cup career is off to a good start, but Hendrick will have to prepare for life without Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. sooner or later.

Larson’s contract with Chip Ganassi Racing runs through 2017, so he will be back in the 42 car in all likelihood next year.  Yet whatever happens to Larson, Kahne’s seat will only get hotter if the No. 5 team continues to struggle.

Battle for the Blue Oval

In seven and a half seasons, Stewart-Haas Racing has had a successful run with Chevy, winning two championships and 33 races.  Next season, the organization will venture into uncharted territory by fielding Fords for the first time.  For a team that has operated as a satellite of Hendrick Motorsports for its entire existence, the change will be a big one.

It is understandable if some SHR fans are nervous about the manufacturer switch.  The team will have all-new cars and utilize Roush-Yates engines, so there will probably be a learning curve for the team members who set up the cars at the shop.  That said, SHR is still likely to be successful in 2017, and their arrival in the Ford camp will shake up the balance of power.

Consider this: the top four drivers for Ford in 2017 will probably be Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch from SHR, along with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano from Team Penske.  That is a foursome of drivers who have been at odds with each other more than a few times.  SHR has managed to function with Harvick, Busch, and Tony Stewart under one roof, but what will happen when they compete for wins and resources against The Captain and his drivers?

All in the Family

Kahne is not the only one in a long winless drought.  Richard Childress Racing has not won a race since November of 2013.  Additionally, the dry spells for the team’s veteran racers, Ryan Newman and Paul Menard, stretch back three years and five years respectively.  Austin Dillon has shown improvement this season and may be on track for a Chase berth.  However, RCR likely needs more drastic changes to get back to its winning ways.

Austin’s brother, Ty, has been waiting his turn for a shot at Sprint Cup full-time.  If Childress had it his way, he would be fielding a four car Cup team whose driver lineup included both of his grandsons.  However, sponsorship for Ty continues to be an issue.

Could 2017 be the year in which Childress sets aside his plans for a fourth car and replaces Newman or Menard with Ty?  Losing Menard means losing sponsorship for the 27 car.  As for Newman, RCR would be giving up the driver who nearly delivered the team a championship in 2014.  There are also questions surrounding Ty, who has put up decent numbers in the XFINITY Series but not challenged for a lot of wins.

Newman and Menard have been far from outstanding with RCR, but losing either one of them would come with serious drawbacks.  When push comes to shove, how much will family loyalty factor into Childress’ decisions?

Reviving Roush

Roush Fenway Racing’s winless spell is not as long as RCR’s, but a years-long downturn in performance is taking its toll on the team.  Greg Biffle is, by my guess, a year or two away from retirement.  Meanwhile, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne have yet to prove that they can take the team back to prominence.

RFR could have a lot riding on the next few weeks.  If either Bayne or Stenhouse makes the Chase, it would probably come with a little more job security.  But if Roush gets shut out of the postseason again, would the team let Stenhouse or Bayne walk in favor of Darrell Wallace or Chris Buescher?  Doing so would not be a guarantee to future success.  Wallace continues to search for consistency in the XFINITY Series, while Buescher’s rookie campaign with Front Row Motorsports has been a huge struggle.

Only Biffle’s contract is up at the end of this year.  It seems unlikely that Jack Roush would let his last veteran driver go, especially if Biffle is close to hanging up his helmet.  Stenhouse is probably the Roush driver most in danger of losing his seat.  If the rest of this year passes with no Chasers and no wins for RFR, do not be surprised if Roush turns to Wallace or Buescher in 2017.

A Checkup on Preseason Chase Predictions

Before the 2016 NASCAR season began, I made a series of predictions about how the year would unfold.  Most of those predictions centered around which drivers would ultimately qualify for the Chase.  There are currently 11 races to go before the Chase begins, so now is a good time to check up on those predictions.  In this post, I will list the 16 drivers whom I identified as the future Chasers of this season.  I will give a brief recap of how each of their seasons have gone and what the outlook is for each of them in terms of making the Chase, or even winning the championship.

Joey Logano

Predicted points position: 1st

Current points position: 5th

Wins: 1

How he got here: Logano had a solid start to the season by getting strong finishes at most races and bouncing back from early race troubles.  He had a short run of bad luck last month that came to a screeching halt after he won his first All-Star Race.  Logano also became the tenth different driver to win a points-paying race this year when he took the checkered flag at Michigan.

Outlook: Logano is not on pace to match his superb 2015 numbers, but he is in great shape to make the Chase.  In past years, the 22 team has proven it can step up its game near the end of the season.  There is no reason to think that Logano will not be a championship contender once again.

Kurt Busch

Predicted points position: 2nd

Current points position: 2nd

Wins: 1

How he got here: For someone who has been such a lightning rod for controversy in the past, Busch has had a quiet, but still very good, season.  He leads all drivers with 13 top tens and is the only competitor to complete every lap thus far.  Busch is also another recent winner, capturing a victory at Pocono a few weeks ago.

Outlook: Busch has (hopefully) left all the controversy behind him and found a home with Stewart-Haas racing.  He is looking like a bigger championship threat than he has in years.  Can Busch keep up the positive momentum?

Jimmie Johnson

Predicted points position: 3rd

Current points position: 7th

Wins: 2

How he got here: Johnson flexed his muscles early in 2016, becoming the first driver to win multiple races.  He steadily built his case as a title favorite in the opening weeks, but then the 48 team began to stumble.  Crashes at Talladega, Dover, and Pocono have turned good runs into lousy finishes.  Johnson’s 3rd place effort in the Coca-Cola 600 is his only top ten finish in the last six races.

Outlook: Johnson never stays down for long, and the next 11 races do not matter much for him with two wins already in the bank.  Yet the 48 team will have to make sure all the bugs are worked out by September to avoid another disappointing result in the elimination-style Chase.

Denny Hamlin

Predicted points position: 4th

Current points position: 13th

Wins: 1

How he got here: Hamlin kicked off the year by winning the closest Daytona 500 in history.  He has also started 13 consecutive races in the top ten.  The trouble is, Hamlin has not been able to finish in the top ten that much lately.  In a year where Joe Gibbs Racing has dominated the win column, Hamlin has not been back to victory lane since Daytona.  He has also led only 33 laps since his big win.

Outlook: Even though he won the biggest race of the year and locked himself into the Chase almost immediately, Hamlin looks like the weakest of the four JGR drivers right now.  If he really is going to get all the way to the final round of the Chase, the 11 team must find a little more speed.

Brad Keselowski

Predicted points position: 5th

Current points position: 3rd

Wins: 2

How he got here: You can always count on Keselowski to make things exciting.  A late charge to the front of the pack at Las Vegas netted him his first victory of the year, and he picked up another win after a chaotic day in Talladega.  When Keselowski has not won, he has usually finished well.  A 29th at Phoenix is his only finish outside the top 20 this year.

Outlook: Keselowski will easily make the Chase and has the strength to make a championship run as well.  However, the third round of the Chase has been a thorn in his side for the last two seasons.  Only four drivers get to race for the Sprint Cup at Homestead, so Keselowski will have to keep up his good results to be one of them.

Kyle Busch

Predicted points position: 6th

Current points position: 9th

Wins: 3

How he got here: The 2015 Sprint Cup champ picked up right where he left off.  Busch was a top five machine early in the year, cranking out nine of them in 11 starts.  Then the wheels came off in a big way.  Busch’s last four races have included three crashes and a blown engine, resulting in four straight finishes of 30th or worse.  However, he still leads the Sprint Cup Series in wins and top fives.

Outlook: If Busch can get his early season form back, he will be tough to beat.  His current string of bad finishes is not a big problem for the regular season, but sub-30th results are not going to fly in the Chase.

Kevin Harvick

Predicted points position: 7th

Current points position: 1st

Wins: 1

How he got here: In his third season with SHR, Harvick is still fast everywhere.  A picture of consistency, Harvick is a frequent sight at the front of the pack and has no finish worse than 17th this year.  It is no surprise to see him at the top of the standings.  The fact that his only win is a narrow victory at Phoenix is a good problem to have.

Outlook: It is a problem, though.  Harvick can rack up great finishes, but he has let a few potential wins slip away from his grasp.  He remains the only driver to reach the final round in both years of the elimination-style Chase, and doing it again will be a tough task.  But betting against Harvick to do that may prove foolish, especially if he can get back to victory lane.

Matt Kenseth

Predicted points position: 8th

Current points position: 10th

Wins: 1

How he got here: Kenseth and the 20 team experienced an entire season’s worth of bad luck in ten races.  After a tough loss in Daytona, Kenseth fell victim to bizarre crashes, pit road mistakes, and faulty parts.  He finally secured a victory at Dover last month by holding off Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott in the closing laps.  Since then, Kenseth has once again become a regular top ten finisher, but the 20 team seems to have lost a little speed from early in the season.

Outlook: Kenseth’s victory essentially cancels out all the bad finishes he had early in the season.  He could compete for the championship if the 20 team can keep putting complete races together, but right now it is hard to tell what Kenseth’s level of performance will be like come September.

Carl Edwards

Predicted points position: 9th

Current points position: 4th

Wins: 2

How he got here: Edwards started off the season by taking a banged-up car to a top five in the Daytona 500.  That was the beginning of an excellent nine race stretch for Edwards, which culminated in back to back short track wins at Bristol and Richmond.  He had a few lackluster races following the pair of wins, but the 19 team appears to be back on track after top tens at Pocono and Michigan.

Outlook: Edwards has been the consistently strongest JGR driver.  His improvement over the second half of 2015 has carried on into this year.  Like Kurt Busch, Edwards looks like a bigger championship threat than he has in several years. He could go much farther into the Chase than what I predicted.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Predicted points position: 10th

Current points position: 11th

Wins: 0

How he got here: Earnhardt Jr. bounced back from a crash at Daytona with a run of solid finishes.  He steadily climbed his way up the points standings until running into trouble again at Talladega.  Since then it has been an up and down season for Junior, who has four second place finishes but only six total top tens and just 53 laps led.

Outlook: Junior is currently 30 points above the Chase cutoff.  His level of performance has been good enough to make the postseason whether or not he gets a win in the next 11 races.  The bigger question is if Junior can advance any further than the second round of the Chase.

Ryan Newman

Predicted points position: 11th

Current points position: 15th

Wins: 0

How he got here: The bad news is that Newman has not found any more speed than he had in his first two years with Richard Childress Racing.  The good news is that he is making progress in securing a Chase spot.  Newman was 25th in points after four races and without a top ten finish.  Since then he has posted four top tens and climbed ten positions in points, but Newman’s long winless streak shows no signs of ending.

Outlook: Once again, Newman will probably be one of the last drivers to squeeze into the Chase, and he will get there on points.  Yet being only 16 points to the good of the Chase cutoff, Newman cannot afford to have many bad days.

Kyle Larson

Predicted points position: 12th

Current points position: 21st

Wins: 0

How he got here: The third-year driver has been agonizingly close to his first Sprint Cup win this season.  Despite three top three finishes and an uptick in performance over the last month, getting a win could be the deciding factor for Larson’s presence in the Chase.  Too many poor runs at the beginning of the year put Larson in a big hole points-wise, and a 15 point penalty following the Michigan race does not help matters.

Outlook: To make the Chase, Larson must either win or make up a 38 point deficit in the next 11 races.  If the 42 team keeps bringing fast cars to the track, that will not be a problem.  Otherwise those 15 points that Larson lost could have huge consequences.

Martin Truex Jr.

Predicted points position: 13th

Current points position: 8th

Wins: 1

How he got here: Furniture Row Racing did not lose any speed after switching to Toyota, but the team still has a habit of not closing races well.  Truex lost the Daytona 500 by inches and had other great runs at Texas and Kansas spoiled by bad strategy and bad luck.  Truex and the 78 team finally had a mistake-free race at Charlotte, winning the Coca-Cola 600 with an historic level of domination.  He leads all drivers in laps led this year.

Outlook: Truex would have been in the Chase with or without a win, but having that postseason spot locked up allows FRR to focus on the last ten races.  The Denver, Colorado team has not missed a beat since forming a technical alliance with JGR.  Truex has the potential to go a lot farther in the Chase than what I originally thought.

Kasey Kahne

Predicted points position: 14th

Current points position: 17th

Wins: 0

How he got here: For the second season in a row, Kahne has struggled to keep pace with his Hendrick Motorsports teammates.  In most races this year, he has either run mid-pack or had a problem that put him too far behind to recover.  Two of Kahne’s last four races have resulted in top tens, and he will need a few more if he wants to make the Chase.

Outlook: I have more uncertainty about Kahne making the Chase than I do for Larson.  Kahne is only 11 points behind the Chase cutoff, and he has the skills to be a part of NASCAR’s postseason.  But Kahne had a run of bad finishes late last summer that ended his Chase hopes.  Will history repeat itself for the 5 team?

Chase Elliott

Predicted points position: 15th

Current points position: 6th

Wins: 0

How he got here: You read that correctly; Elliott is the highest Hendrick driver in points.  After a bumpy start to his rookie campaign, Elliott has posted no finishes worse than 12th in the past nine races.  It is a remarkable run of consistency that has been the talk of the NASCAR world.  With three top fives in the last four races, Elliott’s first Sprint Cup win could be right around the corner.

Outlook: It is not a matter of if Elliott wins, it is a matter of when.  He is on track to make the Chase regardless, and would be the first rookie to do so since Hamlin did it ten years ago.  The postseason is a whole different ballgame, but conventional wisdom about what rookies can do has not applied to Elliott thus far.

Austin Dillon

Predicted points position: 16th

Current points position: 12th

Wins: 0

How he got here: After two average years, Dillon is finally looking like a Chase contender and a driver who can lead RCR.  Six races into the season, he was 7th in points on the strength of four top tens.  Things have not gone as well for Dillon since then, but he has earned three more top tens and sits 28 points to the good of the Chase cutoff.

Outlook: If Dillon winds up making the Chase, it will be because of his great start to the season.  Talk of him winning a race soon has died down, and if he does not get that victory, he will have to watch his advantage over 17th place.