NASCAR & Auto Racing

Chase contenders all have legitimate shot at the title

CHICAGO — This could finally be the year Kyle Busch, he of all that raw talent and ability, will win NASCAR's highest honor.

Of course, everybody said the same thing in 2008, when he won eight races and opened the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship as the top seed in the 10-race series. Busch instead opened that Chase with back-to-back clunkers and never contended.

Here he is again, though, headed into Round 1 of the Chase as the top seed of 12 and the early favorite to claim the Sprint Cup title.

It's not that simple, though.

This year's Chase field is arguably the deepest to date, and this year's championship is actually up for grabs.

"It's not somebody's race," said Busch this week, "it's anybody's race."

If that wasn't already evident, it was made crystal clear last week at Richmond in the final Chase qualifying race. Busch had the strongest car until a tire problem took him out of contention. Then it became Jeff Gordon's race to lose, which he did on a late restart when Kevin Harvick seized the victory with Carl Edwards right behind him.

Harvick's win tied him with Busch for a series-best four victories, and proved that every time Busch tries to pull away from the competition, his rivals find a way to even it up.

And the most overlooked guy in this Chase? Well, that's Jimmie Johnson. The five-time defending champion, who, by the way, doesn't plan on handing his title over without a fight. Nobody has figured out how to beat Johnson since Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart took the first two Chase titles. Since then, Johnson has collected five championships, including last year when he rallied late to withstand Denny Hamlin's challenge.

Johnson has 19 Chase victories in eight appearances, and an average finish of 8.1 — much better, by a lot, than any driver. He knows how to turn it up when everything is on the line, and he shouldn't be dismissed because he's got just one victory this season.

"We're certainly hopeful for a sixth," he said. "We are obviously in a good spot right now. We've proven to ourselves time and time again what we are capable of and looking forward to this year's challenge."

Right there with him is Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon, who waged the most incredible title race to date against Johnson in 2007. Gordon was almost perfect that season, but still couldn't keep pace when Johnson switched it to a higher gear.

Gordon has been trying to add a fifth championship to his résumé since collecting No. 4 in 2001, and he thinks his chances are better than they were in 2007. A three-time winner this season, he probably could have five or six wins had things gone differently at Indianapolis, Bristol and Richmond.

"I feel like we've got more momentum going into the Chase," Gordon said.

There's also Edwards and Harvick, who at different times this season seemed to be the favorites. Harvick won three early races, then struggled through the summer and took charge late last month in a lengthy (and mandatory) Sunday meeting after an abysmal run at Bristol. He lit a fire at Richard Childress Racing, and stormed back into championship contention with the Richmond win.