This year I unfortuanately haven't been able to keep up with writing very often, let alone every week, but now I'm sitting in front of my computer with not much better to do (besides maybe sleep, but that is overrated anyways), so here it is; the return of the Power Rankings: Chase Edition! I'm going to rank the 12 Chase drivers based on their performance this season, their performance on the Chase tracks in their career and the momentum they gained in the races preceding the Chase. So without further ado, here are my rankings!
1. Mark Martin
This was one of the hardest positions to rank, but in the end I pick the old man to finally lose the title of "greatest driver that didn't win a championship." He enters the Chase riding a 3-race top-5 streak, and after the seeding of the Chase drivers holds a 10 point lead over Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. Martin's greatest weapons for the final 10 races are his consistency and his ability to contend for the win at just about any track remaining on the schedule. Expect especially strong runs out of Martin at Kansas and Fontana, whose sister tracks (Chicagoland and Michigan) he won at earlier this season. Martinsville is another lock for a top-10, where Hendrick equipment has been the class of the field for the better part of this decade.
Martin's weakness may be the crapshoot of the Chase: Talladega. Martin's best finish on a plate track this year is 16th in the rain-shortened Daytona 500. In the Aaron's 499 he was involved in a wreck that occurred on lap 6, and in the Coke-Zero 400 he suffered a similar fate just before halfway, relegating him to 43rd and 38th place finishes. A similar performance will leave Martin with an uphill battle for the championship. A solid run, however, may be all he needs to succeed.
2. Jimmie Johnson
This man is the reason why Martin was so hard to pick to win the championship. I don't think I need to tell you what Johnson has done the last three times he made the Chase... the simple fact of that matter is when it has come down to crunch time, Johnson has topped them all... not once, not twice, but three times... in a row. Do not count Johnson out unless he is mathematically eliminated from contention, otherwise, he's still a huge threat to defend his championship. Johnson is guaranteed to run well at both Martinsville at Lowe's, where he has earned 11 wins between the two tracks. If Johnson runs like he usually does this time of year, odds are pretty good that total will increase to 13.
Johnson's weakness would have to be his momentum... his results the last few races have not been up to the standards of the three-time champion, and usually at this point in the season he has rolled off a series of strong finishes entering the Chase. Though Johnson has come back from early defecits to win the championship in years past, he may not have a team this year that can come back from a large defecit, especially with consistent drivers like teammate Martin also vying for the championship.
3. Tony Stewart
Who would have thought last year when Stewart announced he was going to start driving as a driver/owner with Stewart/Haas Racing that success would come so quickly for the veteran in his 11th season on the circuit? With wins at Pocono, Daytona and Watkins Glen this season, Stewart proved just how wise that decision was. Stewart will be sure to have good runs at New Hampshire and Kansas, two tracks where he already boasts victories and consistently runs up-front.
Working against Stewart are his recent performances. Following the race at Watkins Glen, Stewart was sitting pretty, with three wins and only four finishes outside the top-10 through 22 races. In the four races since, however, he's failed to finish better than 11th, and simply hasn't looked as good as he did in the first 22 races. If that is any indication of how he is going to do in these final ten races, the dream season will become a nightmare.
4. Jeff Gordon
Gordon has failed to earn a championship under the Chase format, with best finishes of 3rd and 2nd in 2004 and 2007. This year consistency has been the strength of the 24 team, which is tied for most top-10's on the circuit with 18 and is second in top-5's with 12. He is sure to run well at Fontana, where he finished 2nd earlier this season and finished 2nd in each of the races at sister track Michigan, along with Martinsville, where he has earned a top-10 in 13 consecutive races and has never failed to finish.
Gordon's weakness is that his team isn't a winning team. Its a top-5 team week in and week out, but it hasn't been able to take the performances one step higher into wins, with the exception of his win at Texas earlier this year. With this being the case, Gordon cannot afford to have a bad race to keep up with the other Chasers. Should a spark be ignited in this team for the final ten races though, Gordon may finally earn that elusive 5th championship.
5. Denny Hamlin
Of the 12 drivers entering the Chase, Hamlin may have the most momentum. In the six races before the Chase Hamlin finished in the top-10 in every race. It was also during that span that he earned both of his two season victories, at Pocono and Richmond. Look out for Hamlin on the flat tracks of the Chase, New Hampshire, Martinsville and Phoenix, he has excelled on those tracks since the start of his Sprint Cup Series career.
While Hamlin is a sure bet to contend at the flat tracks, he is just as likely to finish poorly at Dover. Since finishing 11th, 9th and 4th in his first three career starts at the track, Hamlin has not been able to finish higher than 36th at the Monster Mile, wrecking in each race. Don't be surprised if Hamlin finds trouble again at Dover.
6. Kurt Busch
The winner of the inaugural Chase will try to earn his second championship this year, with a team that looks stronger than any he's been on in quite some time. Busch started running well right before the Chase started, including his second place finish at Richmond. Busch is another driver that will perform well at the flat tracks, along with Texas, the sister track to Atlanta where Busch dominated to win earlier this season.
Since that time however, it appears the 1.5 mile program on the 2 team has diminished slightly, so Busch may have to settle for top-10 runs at Kansas, Lowe's, Texas and Homestead. In a Chase with drivers like Johnson, Martin and Stewart all running up front, even top-10's can get you far behind in the points battle.
7. Kasey Kahne
When it comes to the the 1.5 mile tracks in the Chase, watch out for Kahne. In the five races held on 1.5-mile tracks so far this season, Kahne has finished 11th or better in four of them, and the performances have improved as the season has progressed, up until Atlanta two weeks ago when he earned his second (thanks for the correction, Tez!) win of the season. He also should be a contender at Fontana, where he is always solid and has won in the past.
Kahne's worst track among the final 10 on the schedule is by far Martinsville, where only has one career top-5. A top-10 for the 9 crew would be like a win, and might be good enough for them to stay in contention for the championship.
8. Carl Edwards
The driver who won more races than any other driver on the circuit last year has struggled this year, going winless through 26 races and only earning 11 top-10's in that span. That doesn't matter now though as Cousin Carl has made the Chase and is only 40 points behind. With tracks such as Texas, Fontana, Kansas and Homestead where Edwards historically has run exceeding well at, its hard to believe that Edwards won't be able to contend for the championship, let alone find victory lane.
Should Edwards continue to run like he did throughout the course of the first 26 races of the season though, this team might as well start planning for 2010.
9. Brian Vickers
The cinderella story of the Chase; two years ago this was a first year team that wasn't even in the top-35 in points and had failed to qualify for several races. Two years later, Vickers has earned his second career victory and has made the Chase for the first time in his career. With three top-10's in the last four races, it appears that Vickers is peaking at the right time. Look for him to run well at Fontana and Lowe's.
Flat tracks and Vickers don't mix. In his career he has three top-10's at New Hampshire, Martinsville and Phoenix combined. If Vickers and the 83 team want to contend for a championship, this is an area where they'll have to improve drastically.
10. Juan Pablo Montoya
Though he hasn't won a race yet this year, the 2009 season has been the best for the Columbia native since he entered Nascar. The 42 team has a solid 1.5-mile program this year, and Montoya is getting better and better each time he revisits a track. He's on the verge of earning that first win on an oval, don't be shocked if it happens at Texas.
The first two races of the Chase may be the biggest challenge for Montoya, where in 10 starts between the two tracks he's only earned one top-10. His finishes at New Hampshire have steadily improved, however, and a solid run at each track would put him in good position to pull off the upset.
11. Ryan Newman
The other Stewart/Haas driver has been somewhat overlooked due to the success of his teammate and car owner. Newman has by no means been a contender to win every week, but he has been among the most consistent. After starting the year with four finishes outside the top-20, Newman has failed to finish in the top-15 in only six races since. He enters the Chase with three straight top-10's, and would love to start the Chase with a win at New Hampshire, where he already has two wins to his name.
For some reason, Newman hasn't run very well at Homestead. Since the track was reconfigured in 2003, he's earned only one finish higher than 18th. If Newman manages to stay in contention up to race 10, the finale may be where his championship hopes end.
12. Greg Biffle
Biffle has made the Chase for the second consecutive year for the first time in his career, and though he's winless so far in 2009 he'll have several opportunities to change that in the final ten races, with Fontana, Texas and Homestead being among his best tracks.
Biffle hasn't been much of a contender to win for most of the season, with only 8 top-5's this year, but three of those top-5's came in the final seven races. Still, several of the Chase tracks are Biffle's kryptonite, including Talladega and Martinsville, where he has 2 top-10's in 26 starts between the two tracks.