by Julian Spivey
The 2015 NASCAR Chase for the Championship (NASCAR’s playoff system) begins this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway and consists of 10 races until a champion is crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway in mid-November. Every few races a group of drivers will be eliminated from the competition until a four driver group heads to Miami with a chance to win the title.
This is the second year of this current NASCAR playoff system and I haven’t been a fan of it from the minute it was announced before the 2014 season. I feel that this playoff system, especially the basically four man “winner take all” style of the title race at Miami makes the entirety of the season and all 35 races that come before it meaningless. It’s not a good format for crowning a real or true or deserving champion, but it’s NASCAR’s way of trying in some way to compete with the popularity of the NFL and gain viewers.
Because of the crapshoot style of these playoffs prognosticating the winner of the title and ranking the drivers from least likely to win the title to most likely is something of an inexact science, but here’s how things should shake out if they go the way they should.
16. Paul Menard
15. Clint Bowyer
14. Ryan Newman
13. Jamie McMurray
The second year of this NASCAR playoff is sort of proof that a 16-driver playoff field is about four too many. None of these four drivers have a valid chance at winning the title. It would be the shock of the sports world if any of them did (I’m aware Ryan Newman almost did so last year despite not winning a single race) and would further prove the idiocy of this entire system. It’s been almost two years since any of these drivers has even won a race in the Sprint Cup Series (Jamie McMurray in October of 2013 is the most recent). Two of these drivers have never made the playoffs before (McMurray and Paul Menard). And, Menard who slipped into the playoffs because he was barely more consistent throughout the season than Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne or Kyle Larson has only one career win to his name. These guys have no shot.
12. Jeff Gordon
I’m a lifelong Jeff Gordon fan so this pains me to say, but Gordon could easily have been listed with the group of four drivers ahead of him on this list. I’ll give him a slightly better chance than those four drivers to win the championship because he has more experience, winning four titles previously but none since NASCAR instituted any form of a playoff more than a decade ago and the fact that he drives for Hendrick Motorsports, one of NASCAR’s preeminent teams. The way Gordon has looked this season he really has little-to-no shot at winning the title and it’s looking very much so like he’s going to fail to win a race in his farewell season. This is all the more of a shock because you could argue Gordon was the best driver in the sport last season despite not winning the title.
11. Martin Truex Jr.
For the first quarter of the season or so Martin Truex Jr. looked like one of the three-to-five best drivers in the Sprint Cup Series. But, he’s been slumping as of late and that’s just one of the reasons why he’s unlikely to win the championship. I’m not sure a single car team could ever really compete for the championship and Truex, despite some consistency this season, doesn’t threaten for enough victories to win a title.
10. Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch could be a threat to win the championship. Meaning that there are about 10 different drivers who I believe have a good shot at this title. He’s simply ranked No. 10 on this list because out of those 10 drivers I feel he has the least opportunity to do so. He’ll be a real threat to win at least one race throughout these playoffs to move forward to a next segment though (that could be at Martinsville).
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
There are two things going against Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s title chances: 1) Hendrick Motorsports is in the midst of probably the worst run I’ve ever seen from that team in my almost two decades of watching this sport 2) Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t managed to win a race at a non-restrictor plate track this season having won both of his races at Talladega and Daytona. Earnhardt Jr. has absolutely owned restrictor plate races as of late, like he did in the early part of his career, and that will help him at Talladega in October and could propel him farther along than others.
8. Brad Keselowski
Brad Keselowski made the Chase for the Championship on his lone win of the season early on at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., which was without a doubt the weakest win of the season having won it on strategy (he would’ve surely made the playoffs on points either way). Keselowski hasn’t looked like the championship driver that he is for most of the season and has looked worse all year long than his Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano. But, Keselowski’s aggressive style behind the wheel means he’s hard to count out in a system that can reward aggressiveness if done right (it can also hurt a driver severely if done wrong).
7. Carl Edwards
Joe Gibbs Racing is on absolute fire this season and each of its drivers has won a race (three of them, including Edwards, have won multiple races). Most people seem to be picking a Joe Gibbs Racing driver to win the title this season and it would be hard at this point to pick against them as well as the entire team is operating. In fact, it wouldn’t be outlandish to put all four of the Gibbs drivers in the top five on this list. I think of Gibbs’ stable that Carl Edwards is the least likely to win just based on what I’ve seen this season.
6. Denny Hamlin
I don’t believe Gibbs’ driver Denny Hamlin is a major threat to win the championship this season after winning only one race, but he won only one race last season and ended up in the championship race at Homestead. The thing that benefits Hamlin (as well as others like Jimmie Johnson) is the tracks and format where winning automatically gets you to the next segment play in their favor. What might not play in Hamlin’s favor is that he recently tore his ACL playing basketball. He doesn’t seem to think it’ll have much of a negative impact on his title chances, but that’s to be seen.
5. Joey Logano
Joey Logano has been one of the most impressive and consistent drivers all season long and he’s gone through this format with success before having made the championship race last season. Logano has arguably been the most impressive driver this year who either doesn’t race for Joe Gibbs Racing or isn’t named Kevin Harvick. He wins enough and is aggressive enough to win his first title this year, I just think four guys have a better shot.
4. Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson is basically my selection to win the championship every single season and for much of this season I felt he was the guy to beat because for the longest time he was leading the Sprint Cup Series with four wins. He enters the playoffs tied with Gibbs drivers Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth with four wins, but while Gibbs is currently hot, Johnson’s team at Hendrick Motorsports seems to be behind. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see Johnson tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with his seventh championship come mid-November, but Hendrick is going to have to turn things around fast for him to do so.
3. Kevin Harvick
Defending champion Kevin Harvick has been the most consistent driver for the entirety of the season. He’s been so consistent with 22 top 10s in 26 races that he’s threatening to break Jeff Gordon’s modern era record for most top 10s in a season. The only problem with Harvick’s title chance is that he’s stopped winning. He has two wins this season, but both came in the opening few weeks of the year. To win a title in this format you’re going to have to win races and I’m not 100 percent sure Harvick will find his winning groove in time to repeat. That being said Harvick will most likely finish the year with the most points overall, which would pretty much make him the champion in my mind.
2. Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth seems to be the most popular pick to win the championship this season and with good reason – he’s the hottest driver in the sport right now driving for the hottest team in Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth has won a series high four times this season and remarkably three of those wins have come in the last six races. The only reason why I don’t have Kenseth as my prediction to win the title this season is, despite having the best team right now, I don’t believe he’s aggressive enough to win in this playoff format. I think it’s going to take a driver willing to rough guys up and make aggressive, quick decisions to win and that doesn’t really suit Kenseth’s style or personality. If it just comes down to best car though he may join Tony Stewart as the only drivers to win a championship pre-Chase and during the Chase.
1. Kyle Busch
I don’t believe Kyle Busch should even be eligible to compete for the championship this season. He may have won a season high four races (tied with Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson), but because he missed a quarter of the season I just don’t think he belongs. In that past a driver who missed that many races wouldn’t have had a prayer. Maybe I should stop living in the past? Busch had the hottest streak of the season winning his four races in a five week span. There are two reasons why I think Busch is the guy to beat this season: he drives for Joe Gibbs Racing and he’s aggressive enough to make the right moves in the right situation to do it. Busch has always been aggressive and in the past this has hurt him greatly in the playoffs. In the past I’ve said that Busch couldn’t be a champion for this very reason. But, there’s something about him since he came back from his injury at the beginning of the season that’s shown me he can still be aggressive and smart at the same time. We’ll see if I’m right come mid-November, but I’m predicting Kyle Busch wins his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title this year.
Who do you believe will take the title?