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Analyzing the Field: The Contender 12

Before we start, just wanted to announce NASCAR OPINION now has social media pages!!! Follow me on (Instagram: nascaropinion)  (Twitter: @nascar_opinion)  (Facebook:  Nascar Opinion)

After three crazy weeks in a row, 12 drivers can finally breathe a little deeper.  The first round of the Chase came to a close Sunday after 400 laps at Dover.  Coming into the race only two drivers had clinched, that being Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.  The drama lied in the fact that 14 drivers were competing for just 10 spots.  To make this even more exciting fans had plenty of story lines to feast on... Would Kevin Harvick rebound and have the chance to defend his title? Would Kyle Busch race his way in?  Would Dale Earnhardt Jr. run strong enough to make the cut?  These three were just some of the biggest questions coming in.

Now, on this surprisingly dry Monday morning here in South Carolina, all questions have been answered.  Kevin Harvick won at Dover after leading 89% of the laps, and Dale Jr. made is way in to the final twelve, as did Kyle Busch.  The biggest new story line leaving his that 6-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson did NOT make the cut off, very ironic considering he was the one that put Harvick in a deep hole early in the first round.  Sadly I will share my opinions on Johnson not making it in another post, but today I want to review the top 12, and give my opinion on what they need to do to make it to the Eliminator 8.  I will post their finishes from the first 3 races of the Chase along with their finishes from Charlotte, Kansas, and Talladega, from earlier this season.  Well, here we go!  Sit back and enjoy!!

1) Matt Kenseth:  Round 1 Finishes:  5th, 1st, 7th            Finishes from tracks this years:  Charlotte- 4th,  Kansas- 6th,  Talladega- 25th

Kenseth came into the Chase as one of the hottest drivers in the series.  The hot streak Kenseth came in with has continued through the first round.  With a win at New Hampshire Kenseth locked himself into the top-12, but his other finishes have proven he will be a real contender for the championship.  Kenseth has one job the rest of the Chase, and that is to keep going strong.  If Kenseth keeps at this rate he will have a shot at Homestead.  The only down fall I could see is that the momentum could run out.  Kenseth may have peaked to early that come Homestead time all the luck will have ran out.  I guess we will see if the driver of the #20 could become a 2-time Cup champion.

2) Joey Logano:  Round 1 Finishes:  6th, 3rd, 10th       Finishes from tracks this year:  Charlotte- 13th,  Kansas- 5th,  Talladega- 33rd

Logano has been relatively quiet in thus far.  Penske has seem to take a step back.  Logano who has managed three top-10's in a row is doing a solid job to stay in, but I expected a little more competition from the #22.  I think Logano still has what it takes to make it to Homestead, but he needs to find that spark again to put him on top of the Gibbs clan.  I think Logano will transfer, but the loss of Jimmie Johnson proved that no one is safe.  Logano needs to keep running up front and steal a win when he can, he honestly may be Penske's best chance at a championship in 2015.

3) Denny Hamlin:  Round 1 Finishes:  1st, 2nd, 18th       Finishes from tracks this year:  Charlotte- 8th,  Kansas- 41st,  Talladega-  9th

Hamlin grabbed a win early at Chicago, and has been comfortable since.  Hamlin continued to run well in race 2, but fell off a little at Dover.  The #11 FedEx team definitely has the experience when it comes to running for a championship.  Hamlin made it to the final 4 last season and has been to Homestead multiple times with a chance at the title.  For Hamlin the job is easy, keep running front and all will be fine.  Honestly, I don't see any down falls for Hamlin at the moment.  His ACL has not slowed him down and all cylinders seem to be firing for the #11 team.  Look for Hamlin to transfer into the eliminator round, but after that it's anyone's title to win or lose.

4) Carl Edwards:  Round 1 Finishes:  2nd, 5th, 15th       Finishes from tracks this year:  Charlotte- 1st,  Kansas- 20th,  Talladega- 32nd

Edwards has still been the quiet guy in the Chase.  All year Edwards ran mid-pack and managed to steal 2 wins at Charlotte and Darlington, but maybe the times have changed.  Edwards has stepped up his game a level with two top-5's in the last three races.  Edwards is still in it, and he too has experience chasing down a championship.  Edwards has stepped up his game a level with two top-5's in the last three races.  Making it to the eliminator eight is definitely doable for Cousin Carl, but he needs to be more to prove to fans he can really win the title.  Edwards has plenty of experience on the upcoming tracks and remember he did win Charlotte earlier this year.  Though that win was due to fuel mileage, confidence from a win in the home town of racing never hurts.

5) Martin Truex Jr.:  Round 1 Finishes:  13th, 8th, 11th       Finishes from tracks this year:  Charlotte- 5th,  Kansas- 9th,  Talladega- 5th

I myself am a big fan of this #78 team.  This is one of the few teams I have seen grow since I have been a fan starting back in 2002.  Truex and company have ran well all season, but need to do more to continue on.  Truex has fallen off since the summer, and has yet to find that spark the team had earlier this season.  Truex will need to show some muscle if he wants to continue and compete for his first title.  Honestly, I predict that Truex will be done after this round, but he can easily prove me wrong.  Truex will need to run top-10 to beat this field full of hungry competitors.  I think he can take advantage of Charlotte or Kansas considering their strength on mile and a half's, but Talladega is a world of its own.

6) Kurt Busch:  Round 1 Finishes:  3rd, 19th, 17th       Finishes from tracks this year:  Charlotte- 10th,  Kansas- 8th,  Talladega- 12th

The 2004 champion has stayed right in the thick of things.  Though this team seemed relatively sub-par through the first 3 races, Busch and his #41 Haas-Automation team still have a shot.  Ranking Busch among the other 11 drivers, I would say Busch would be 7th of the drivers remaining.  I think the #41 team needs to show me more before I believe they are a serious contender.  The key for Busch is plain out consistency.  He needs to use his experience and rattle off 3 solid runs in a row.  This team is clearly better than a few others, but nothing is promised.  If Kurt just takes care of business and stays out of harms way, he will be in the eliminator eight.

7) Jeff Gordon:  Round 1 Finishes:  14th, 7th, 12th       Finishes from tracks this year:  Charlotte- 15th,  Kansas- 4th,  Talladega- 31st

The 4-time champion is sticking around.  Gordon showed speed early at Chicago, but managed to throw all that away with a bad pit call putting him back to 14th.  At New Hampshire and Dover, Gordon earned back-to-back top-12 finishes, which catapulted him into the next round.  Though Gordon is still around, he hasn't impressed me much.  Don't get me wrong I am a Gordon fan, I would give anything to see him win the title, but he just hasn't shown me much.  Finally the #24 team is finally showing some sort of consistency, but I need more performance if Gordon hopes to transfer into the eliminator round.  Now, Gordon does have some solid tracks ahead of him.  Charlotte has been tough on him lately, he won at Kansas last year, and he is the king of restrictor plate racing.  Gordon needs to take advantage at Kansas and Talladega, and if he can do that, he can be in the eliminator round.

8) Brad Keselowski:  Round 1 Finishes:  8th, 12th, 16th       Finishes from tracks this year:  Charlotte- 7th,  Kansas- 7th,  Talladega- 22nd

'Bad Brad' needs to step his game up.  I expected more from Penske, and the 2012 champion.  Brad has been very quiet thus far in the Chase, something that cannot continue this round.  Now, Brad knows how to transfer with his back to the wall, remember Talladega last year?  Brad has what it takes, and I have picked him in my final 4 since the beginning, but he has let me down.  Brad has continued to decline during the first round, which will work if he hopes to continue.  The blue deuce will need to make those solid sub-par runs turn into great runs if he wants his second championship.  Brad is solid on mile and a half's, and he has a solid track record at Talladega.  Brad has room to emerge as a front runner, but as of now he is mid-pack.

9) Kyle Busch:  Round 1 Finishes:  9th, 37th, 2nd       Finishes from tracks this year:  Charlotte- 11th, Kansas- Before Return,  Talladega- Before Return

Kyle Busch is very interesting when looking at his finishes.  Kyle had rough luck at New Hampshire which made him race his way into the contender round.  Kyle finished 2nd at Dover which lets me know there is speed in the car, so honestly I don't know what to say about this team.  The #18 team is still strong, but this next round will be tough for them.  Kyle has never ran exceptionally well at Charlotte, Kansas is one of his worst tracks in terms of statistical performance, and Talladega has been back and forth for him.  Kyle has what it takes to transfer, and the number 1 thing he needs to do is survive Kansas.  A bad run in the second race could kill any title hopes, or potentially leave him needing a solid run at 'Dega.

10) Ryan Newman:  Round 1 Finishes:  4th, 10th, 19th       Finishes from tracks this year:  Charlotte- 6th,  Kansas- 10th,  Talladega- 7th

Mr. Newman is back at his consistency game, isn't he?  Newman might as well not even be in the Chase, considering he gets no coverage on race day.  Newman is playing the same game he did last season, but I don't think he will make it to Homestead this year.  I think this is the end of the road for the Caterpillar team, unless they show some extra spark.  Newman still has not competed for a win this season, and is the weakest of the remaining teams in my opinion.  Newman will need to find victory lane in this round if he wants to transfer, the competition is too fierce to just run top-15.  Talladega could be the equalizer, but Newman isn't known for exceptional speed at restrictor plate tracks.

11) Dale Earnhardt Jr.:  Round 1 Finishes:  12th, 25th, 3rd       Finishes from tracks this year:  Charlotte- 3rd,  Kansas- 3rd,  Talladega- 1st

Ole June Bug barely made it through the first round.  This comes to show how important wins in the regular season are, without his two wins, Jr. would be watching McMurray compete for the title.  This has the chance to be a very good round for Dale if the team finds speed.  Charlotte and Kansas are both solid tracks for the #88 squad, and we all know how good Earnhardt is at Talladega.  Remember Jr. won there earlier this year, and has to be the favorite again.  I honestly think Jr. will have to take advantage of a win or top-5 finish at Talladega to prevail and have a chance at the hardware in November.

12) Kevin Harvick:  Round 1 Finishes:  42nd, 21st, 1st       Finishes from tracks this year:  Charlotte- 9th,  Kansas- 2nd,  Talladega- 8th

Kevin 'Clutch' Harvick, shut up the whole garage this past Sunday.  Harvick was pretty much in a must-win situation in Dover, and what did he do?  WIN.  Harvick not only won, but dominated.  The 2014 champion swapped roles after Sunday, going from being the star that could fall out, to a clear favorite.  Harvick has ran well everywhere this year so his priority needs to be staying out of trouble at Talladega.  Harvick has had good and bad runs at 'Dega, but if he can't win one of the first two races he could be sitting on the outside looking in if he is involved in the 'big-one'.  Harvick is still my favorite to win the title, he led all three of the first races but was screwed by outside factors.  Harvick's finishes don't represent how he has ran thus far... trust me Harvick is like Aaron Rodgers, he is a BAD BAD man.

Well thanks for reading!!  I hope you enjoyed!  Let me know what you think about all the drivers still in the Chase, and who you think has the best chance to win a title!

(PICS NOT MINE, USED FROM VARIOUS SITES) 

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