The Sweet Sixteen: Predicting The Chase field

NASCAR’s new system for The Chase makes me wonder who will make up the 16-man shootout. As always, the ten final races will help determine the champion, but the process of getting in that position? Win. The emphasis on taking the checkered flag will heighten competitiveness, and it will be a brawl 70% of the time. The other 30% will be taken up by strategy and “points racing,” if there is such a thing this time around. To say it will be interesting is a large understatement.

I have decided to predict the points reset that we’ll see at the beginning of The Chase, where drivers are arranged by number of wins. In my mock field, I have 14 different winners, the final two spots being selected by ranking after the final regular season race at Richmond International Raceway. There won’t be one clear dominator, and some surprising faces will steal wins.

Without further ado, here’s my list, with the number of races won in the regular season in parentheses:

The 2014 Chase Standings going into Chicagoland Speedway

1. Jimmie Johnson (4)
2. Denny Hamlin (4)
3. Kyle Busch (3)
4. Kevin Harvick (3)
5. Matt Kenseth (2)
6. Kasey Kahne (2)
7. Brad Keselowski (1)
8. Carl Edwards (1)
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1)
10. Ryan Newman (1)
11. Kurt Busch (1)
12. Martin Truex Jr. (1)
13. Tony Stewart (1)
14. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (1)
15. Jeff Gordon (0)
16. Austin Dillon (0)

Now, before you start thinking I’m a total nut job, allow me to explain myself.

The top four are sure-fire threats. Johnson’s position at the top needs no elaboration. He’s a monster and the best, enough said. Hamlin is hell-bent on bringing himself back into the spotlight, a comeback needed after the rollercoaster he was on last year. He’s a dog who won’t release a toy from its jaws, no matter how hard its owner tugs and yanks on the opposite end. Busch is the same way; nothing can deter him from winning, not even a physical car on-track. He’ll move you out of the way and not feel sorry for it. Another driver who can do that is Harvick. He’s always aggressive, but he’s smart about who and when to push. There’s no doubt these four will be fighting each other, but their personalities will, too.

It’s hard to predict a slump, but there’s no way Kenseth can top what he accomplished last year. He’ll be competitive, sure. Dominating the regular season? Easier said than done. Kahne battled numerous times against the No. 20 and ended up on the losing side. His success with Hendrick Motorsports has been difficult to come by, and a seed in The Chase standings is crucial for survival. Speaking of surviving, previous champion Keselowski has barely done that, not making the finals last year and struggling to the extreme. It’s time for him to buckle down and get back at it. The finals standings last year left a bitter taste in Edwards’ mouth, yet that won’t stop him from charging on. This group is in a collective lull, but they’ll get a kick in the rear once the season gets going.

Yup, Earnhardt Jr. will win a race this year, locking him into the playoffs. The desire will be boosted by the impending departure of crew chief Steve Letarte; he’ll want to send this career-changing element off with a smile on his face. As that partnership ends at the end of 2014, a new one begins with Newman and Richard Childress Racing. The tenacity the No. 31 now has is undeniable, admirable, and irrevocable. One bullheaded driver that’s bound to make the cut is the eldest Busch, who has finally found stability at Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s crazy to believe he has been with four different teams in the past four years, but this will be a time to prove himself. Shocking everyone will be Truex, in the team that helped Busch overcome so much last time around. It will be redemption when he gets into Victory Lane. All these racers are searching for a win to validate the changes in their professional careers.

Being out of a racecar for a long period of time is what Stewart is fighting against, and he’s not going to give up easily. However, it’s going to be difficult relearning and falling back into the motions. Stenhouse showed a lot of muscles last year, winning a pole and contending for a few wins. He’s the one most likely to sneak a win. It’s hard to believe that Gordon won’t win a race, but that’s the sad truth; he’ll make The Chase with a big goose egg in the ‘win’ column. This old dog needs to learn some new tricks to be considered competitive. Finally, the man everyone’s been talking about, Austin Dillon. Inexperience will effect his chances at winning, but his courage can get him in the title talk. What would be better than seeing the No. 3 contend for a championship?

With this new format, it’s a free-for-all; any of the drivers I’ve listed could win the title. The Chase is off in a distance, but making yourself eligible starts just around the corner.

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