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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Joey Logano
- Denny Hamlin
- Kurt Busch
- Kyle Busch
- Brad Keselowski
- Kevin Harvick
- Martin Truex Jr.
- Carl Edwards
- Matt Kenseth
- Jimmie Johnson
- Kyle Larson
- Tony Stewart
- Chase Elliott
- Jamie McMurray
- Austin Dillon
- Chris Buescher