Hello to all of my #NASCARfamily! I know it has been a while since I have posted, but the wait is no more! In addition to no longer waiting for a new blog, NASCAR fans no longer have to wait to find out who will make the 2016 Chase for the Championship. In this post, I will analyze all 16 drivers/teams (from 16th-1st) and give my take on whether or not they have the ability to make a run for the championship! Before I get going, I just want to thank all of my followers on Twitter and anyone who reads this post! You all are the reason I continue to do blog posts!! Lastly, I want to congratulate the teams of Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Chris Buescher, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray, on making the NASCAR playoffs. Now let's get to it!
16. Jamie McMurray: 0 Win's, 1 Top-5, 9 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 15.0
First, I want to congratulate Jamie Mac on making 500 Cup starts! Feels like it was only yesterday that he filled in for Sterling Marlin and won at Charlotte in 2002! From the past to the present, McMurray and his #1 team are very intriguing. This team reminds me of Newman's team in 2014, but not quite as competitive. McMurray has kept his team in contention, but has yet to battle for a win in 2016. The #1 team has scored 6 top-10's in the last 9 races, but this won't be good enough to make a deep run into the playoffs. Mac's team will have to battle from the start. Ganassi has picked up the pace, but not enough to assure McMurray can skate through to the 2nd round. Being as realistic as possible, I believe the #MacAttack could expand into the 2nd round, but making the final 8 is out of the question. McMurray's only hope will be to win, which is not out of the question at Talladega where he has won twice.
15. Austin Dillon: 0 Win's, 4 Top-5's, 10 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 14.7
Austin Dillon will be one of 4 drivers making his Chase debut in 2016! As the only RCR car to make the playoffs, Dillon will have all team resources, but this won't last very long. Dillon has shown flashes of brilliance during the season, but has yet to prove if he can be a legitimate championship contender. Much like the McMurray at Ganassi, I believe this team could point their way into the 2nd round, but if I was a betting man, I would put money that the 3 team will be eliminated after Dover. Either way this team has nothing to be ashamed of. Dillon has shown progress in 2016, but RCR has to make changes to keep up with top-tier Cup teams moving forward.
14. Chase Elliott: 0 Win's, 7 Top-5's, 13 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 16.9
Clyde Elliott will finally earn his name by qualifying for his first Chase for the Cup! Don't be confused by seeding, this team can definitely make noise in the playoffs. The #24 team has been the most competitive Hendrick team in the later part of the season, but has been plagued with bad luck or rookie mistakes. A rough summer cost this team valuable points, but fans knew this team was going to be a Chase contender. With a new slate, it will be interesting to watch the young rookie handle the pressures of running for a Cup title. I believe this team has many possible outcomes. If Chase can finally put his 24 car in victory lane, the sky is the limit! Just imagine Chase becoming a real life Lightning McQueen and running for the title as a rookie. On the other hand, if this team continues to have bad luck, the 24 team could find themselves on the outside looking in early. If I were to make a pick right now, I say this team definitely makes it into the round of 12, but Hendrick's lack of power may keep this team from making it further.
13. Chris Buescher: 1 Win, 2 Top-5's, 2 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 26.7
The 2015 Xfinity Champion is the biggest underdog in this year's playoff! With a rain shortened win at Pocono, Buescher and Front Row Motorsports (FRM) found themselves in a prime position to make the organizations first Chase appearance. After solidifying their top-30 points position, the 34 team can finally focus on competing for a title. Realistic NASCAR fans know this team is truly the 16 seed in this year's Chase, but let's not forget that anything is possible in round 1. Buescher has shown speed at times, which could put other teams on watch in the first round. I say this team will not make it out of the first round, but crazier things have happened! Honestly, this season has already been a win for FRM, so an early elimination shouldn't taint what this small team has been able to accomplish in 2016.
12. Kurt Busch: 1 Win, 6 Top-5's, 17 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 12.1
Kurt Busch is the perfect guy to make or break everyone's Chase bracket. While Busch has completed over 97% of all laps run, this team seems to lack the speed to win week in and week out. Kurt did snag a victory at Pocono in the Spring, but Busch has finished outside the top-10 in 7 of the last 10 races, which could be trouble for the 41 team. With the current elimination style Chase format, Kurt will need to compete for wins to be a true contender. This team has what it takes to make a deep run, but my guess is that Kurt's chance for a championship will end before Homestead. The 41 team should easily make it to the final 12, but making the elite 8 could be a challenge for a team that has no momentum heading into the playoffs.
11. Tony Stewart: 1 Win, 5 Top-5's, 7 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 17.2
Smoke is one of the most confusing drivers to pick in this year's playoff. On one hand, his performance leads fans to think he won't make it out of the first round. On the other hand, his run in 2011 shows that anyone can put wins together and win a championship. Fans would love for Stewart to go out in style with a championship, but Smoke only rises so far before it disappears. Stewart has the potential to make it far, but it is probable that Stewart will be done after Dover. The 14 team has continued to lack speed on aerodynamic tracks, making the task of winning a championship even harder. Momentum is also not on Stew's side considering he has finished 30th or worse in 3 of the final 4 races before the Chase.
10. Kyle Larson: 1 Win, 7 Top-5's, 10 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 15.5
Finally! Kyle Larson finally entered victory lane in 2016 and locked himself into his first Chase! The 24-year-old has found something late in the season which could lead to a deep run into the playoffs. Finishing in the top-3 in the last three races showcases the true potential of Chip Ganassi Racing. While Ganassi needs to find more speed for 2017, having both cars in the playoffs is great, especially when the 42 team could become a contender. Now, before we go crazy over the three year veteran, the likely hood of Larson winning the championship is slim, but he is one driver everyone seems to have a feeling about. Sports fans know how it is, when you just have a random feeling about something happening, and NASCAR fans have that about Larson right now. I could see it now, Larson running up high at Homestead fighting for a championship. Though a title run could happen, look for this team to make it no further than the elite 8.
9. Joey Logano: 1 Win, 10 Top-5's, 18 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 11.7
Joey Logano enters the Chase in a peculiar situation. Logano who has been a championship favorite in both 2014 & 2015 has been less than flashy in 2016. Sliced Bread did find victory lane at Michigan earlier this season, but has been relatively quiet in the month ahead of the Chase. Regardless of his regular season results, there is no doubt Logano will again be a threat to win week in and week out, but I don't believe this will be the year Logano reigns supreme in November. The 22 team has every ingredient it needs to make a run for the championship this year, but this team is not ready to win a title this season. Look for Logano to make the elite 8, but fall short ahead of Homestead. This team could very well find a spark, but if the title is coming home to Penske this years... The Captain (Roger Penske) will be filling his tank with Miller Lite instead of Pennzoil.
8. Jimmie Johnson: 2 Win's, 7 Top-5's, 10 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 15.3
Good Ole 6-time looks to tie the all-time championship record of most championships won with 7 (would tie Richard Petty & Dale Earnhardt Sr.). Johnson has not shown is true Superman capabilities this season. Scoring only ten top-10's through 26 races, Johnson is in the middle of his worst statistical season of his career. It is worth noting that Hendrick Motorsports has under-performed as a whole, but Johnson has yet to compete for a championship in the current Chase format. The 6x Cup champion is very hard to judge coming in to this year's playoff, and the outcome could range from hoisting a 7th championship trophy to being eliminated after the first round. I will not make my prediction on this team yet, but don't be surprised if Johnson is sent packing after the second round.
7. Matt Kenseth: 2 Win's, 4 Top-5's, 11 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 15.4
If as there weren't enough wishy washy teams heading into this year's Chase, add Matt Kenseth to the list. Kenseth has been through it all in 2016. From being attacked by karma early in the season to winning two races (Dover & Loudon), Kenseth has done it all this year. Unfortunately, it seems as though this team is still not ready for a magical run for the title. There is no momentum or special feeling about this team at all. Kenseth undoubtedly played a role in last year's championship battle when he took out fellow competitor Joey Logano, but the 20 team will be rather quiet in the next 10 weeks. Kenseth may be able to rattle off a win, but I don't see this team making the final 4 at Homestead. Kenseth just lacks the flash and momentum I would like to see out of driver looking to win his 2nd championship.
6. Martin Truex Jr: 2 Win's, 5 Top-5's, 12 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 13.1
Martin Truex Jr., is having a career defining season. For the first time in his 11-year Cup career, Truex has scored multiple wins within the same season. Winning the Coca Cola 600 and Southern 500 showcased the speed of the 78 team, but before jumping on the Furniture Row bandwagon, let's look back to last season. The 78 team has undoubtedly performed better this season, but the results are much of the same. Though Truex has seemingly competed for wins each week, he has only managed to score five top-5 finishes. This reminds me a lot of last year's Furniture Row team. Just like 2015, Truex started the year competing for wins but falling short. In addition to starting strong, he also started to struggle mid-season. Of course that same team did make the final 4 last year, but Truex has still shown problems with consistency. It will be interesting to see what this team has in store this year. I would look for this team to make the elite 8 and potentially the final 4... but let's be cautious when thinking this team is the favorite.
5. Carl Edwards: 2 Win's, 7 Top-5's, 15 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 12.7
Cousin Carl has been quietly efficient in 2016. With back-to-back wins in the spring, Edwards became a title favorite early, but has cooled off since. Even without a third victory on his 2016 resume, Edwards has managed to find consistency all season long. Already matching his statistical totals from last season, it will be interesting to see how Edwards performs in the final 10 weeks of the season. My guess is that Carl will once again be on the outside looking in at Homestead. This team has what it takes to make a run, but I think other teams will beat out the 19 in the second to last round. This is a team that could be out as early as round 2, or could go all the way! This could be the most underrated Gibbs team heading into the Chase, I guess we will find out come November.
4. Kevin Harvick: 2 Win's, 13 Top-5's, 21 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 8.5
Kevin Harvick enters this year's Chase leading all Chasers in top-5's, top-10's, and average finish, meaning the 4 team will once again be a force to be reckoned with. Harvick picked up right where he left off last season... running second. The 4 team has managed to run well nearly every week during the regular season, but has one major issue that could hold them back from winning their second championship in three years. Anyone who has watched the majority of races this year knows that Harvick's team has struggled on pit road. Stewart-Haas Racing made changes to Harvick's crew before Richmond which seemed to pay off, but it will take a few weeks to determine if this change could be a championship winning decision. I believe this team can very easily make the final 4 for the third year in a row, but on the other side of the coin... pit road mistakes could cost this team their season. If Harvick can manage to gain spots on pit road, his talent can get him all the way, but unfortunately his fate could be out of his hands.
3. Denny Hamlin: 3 Win's, 10 Top-5's, 15 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 12.2
Denny Hamlin has emerged as a title favorite after scoring 8 consecutive top-10 finishes, including a win at Watkins Glen and the regular season finale at Richmond. After winning his first Daytona 500, Hamlin struggled during the first half of the season. With a rocky summer stretch, Hamlin turned around his fortunes after finding victory lane at the Glen. The 11 crew is sitting pretty entering the Chase, with the potential to go all the way this year. My biggest concern with this team is that their momentum may have started too early. I am a firm believer that momentum is king in racing, but not when it comes too early. For years Jeff Gordon would pick up momentum in the months leading up to the Chase, only to fall flat in the playoffs. For Hamlin to contend for the title, he will need to string together another solid 7-10 weeks, meaning the 11 team will have to run top-10 for nearly 15 weeks in a row... which is a bit too much to ask for. No matter what your thoughts on Hamlin's recent consistency, I have no shame in picking this team to run for a title Homestead. After all, they say you have to lose a title to win one... and we all remember 2010.
2. Brad Keselowski: 4 Win's, 12 Top-5's, 17 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 9.7
I have had a special feeling about Keso since early in the season. Keselowski has been competitive all season long, and has had a traditional championship season. A positive sign of a true champion is a balanced season, which Keselowski has put together so far. What I mean by this is that he has had much success sprinkled in with a few bad races. Basically, instead of being good or bad for a few weeks in a row, he has been up and down. Even with the bad, 'Bad Brad' has been in contention every week, showcasing the true relevancy of this team heading into the playoffs. I look for this team to go all the way this year, but nothing is guaranteed. A finish outside the top-8 will be a disappointment for this team, so don't be afraid to pick the 2 for number two.
1. Kyle Busch: 4 Win's, 11 Top-5's, 16 Top-10's, AVG Finish: 13.1
Shrub is hard to read heading into the Chase this season. After starting off his 2016 campaign in championship fashion, Busch ran into hard times during the month of May. With a solid summer and his second consecutive Brickyard 400 victory, Busch looked to give a legitimate defense to his 2015 title win. What makes Busch hard to predict heading in, is that in the 6 races since his last win in Indy, he has finished outside the top-10 three times. Prior to the season I said there was no way this team could make it back, but I have changed my mind since. Look for the 18 team to go far in this year's playoffs, with a chance to win back-to-back titles. It will be interesting to see if Busch goes back to his misfortunes in the Chase or proves he has truly mastered this difficult Chase format.
Well there you have it! Let me know what you think about drivers heading into the playoffs! This year will be an amazing 10 week battle, especially when you realize 1/4 of the contenders are in their FIRST Chase! Remember to follow me on Twitter at @nascar_opinion and never be afraid to tweet, retweet, or message me with any thoughts or opinions! Also, if you are wanting to know my Chase grid predictions, I will releasing another post this weekend on who I think will win it all! Thanks for reading, I hope you have a great rest of your day! Don't be afraid to share and comment on this post!
(Statistics via Jayski.com) (Images: knowhow.napaonline.com, sbnation.com, diecasthunters.com, sportingnews.com, cupscene.com)