The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship starts this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Here’s my take on each driver and why he is “hot” and “not hot” entering the 10-race Chase:
Denny Hamlin (5060 points)
Hot: Since the end of 2009, Hamlin has been talked about as the favorite to beat Jimmie Johnson. He’s also shown on the track that he can back it up. Two of his six wins this season were on Chase tracks (Texas, Martinsville).
Not hot: Over the last ten races, Hamlin has been outperformed by every single driver in the Chase. Last year, Hamlin had three DNF’s in the Chase that were caused by either engine failure or a crash. In the last five races this season, he’s had two DNF’s caused by an engine failure or crash.
Jimmie Johnson (5050)
Hot: Four-time Champion. He knows how to win the Chase. Johnson has finished a whopping 75 percent of all Chase races inside the top ten. What’s even more impressive is that in over half of the races -- 33 of the 60, Johnson has finished inside the top five. Johnson has also claimed 18 total Chase victories. That’s an average of three Chase wins per year. Most drivers would be happy with three total wins per year.
Not hot: With an average finish of 17th over the last 10 races, is Johnson as invincible as he’s been the past four seasons?
Kevin Harvick (5030)
Hot: Regular-season points leader. Earnhardt/Childress Racing engines have been the strongest all season. That could pay off in a big way at tracks like Texas, Charlotte, California, Kansas, Homestead and Talladega.
Not hot: Has a career average finish of 17th or worse at California, Martinsville, Charlotte, and Dover. Only once in the history of the Chase has the regular-season points leader won the championship (Tony Stewart in 2005).
Kyle Busch (5030)
Hot: Has won Cup races on five of the ten Chase tracks. Busch has also learned how to be a more consistent driver. He’s been running at the finish in 25 of 26 races so far this year. His only DNF was a crash at Daytona.
Not hot: Busch has never won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race on any one of the five, 1.5-mile tracks in the Chase. Busch has also never won in the final 10 races of any season.
Kurt Busch (5020)
Not: First Chase champion (2004). As the only Penske driver in the Chase, it’s “all hands on deck” for Busch. Sam Hornish Jr. unloaded at Richmond with Busch’s setup, ready to assist the No. 2 in any way possible. Brad Keselowski’s team is also doing everything it can to help bring a title to Penske.
Not hot: As the only Dodge team in the Cup Series, there is no one else available to share notes or develop engines with. Also, both of the teammates that are helping Busch have not had a single top ten all year.
Tony Stewart (5010)
Hot: Momentum has picked up at just the right time for Stewart. He also has the best record in the last 10 races that have been held at tracks that are one mile or longer. Nine of the ten Chase tracks fit this category.
Not hot: While Stewart’s results at any track are impressive, seven of the ten tracks in the Chase are statistically some of his worst.
Greg Biffle (5010)
Hot: Biffle goes into the Chase knowing the he and his team are capable of winning races. The No. 16 team earned its first 2010 victory at Pocono in August.
Not hot: Biffle has finished on the lead lap in only six of the last ten races.
Jeff Gordon (5000)
Hot: Gordon spent most of the summer second in the Sprint Cup point standings. Gordon’s average finish of 8.4 in the last 10 mile-and-a-half races is the best in the Sprint Cup Series. Gordon is also the only Cup driver that has finished on the lead lap of each of the last ten races.
Not hot: Gordon has still not been to Victory Lane since winning at Texas in April of 2009 -- the longest stretch he’s ever had without a race win.
Carl Edwards (5000)
Hot: Edwards has scored more points than any other driver in the last ten races, finishing in the top 10 in eight of those races. He’s also started on the pole in two of the last five races. A win (or several wins) is right around the corner for the No. 99 team
Not hot: Even though a win might be right around the corner, the fact is that Edwards has still not been to Victory Lane since the last race of 2008.
Jeff Burton (5000)
Hot: It’s been said that to finish first, first you have to finish. Burton is one of only three drivers that have not had a DNF all season long. Burton has also led a respectable 390 laps this year.
Not hot: Burton has not won a race since October of 2008.
Matt Kenseth (5000)
Hot: Mr. Consistency has one very impressive stat this year. Kenseth has completed all but seven laps this entire season for a total of 23 lead lap finishes.
Not hot: Kenseth has only led 35 of the 7,699 laps that he’s completed. He has also not won a race since February of 2009.
Clint Bowyer (5000)
Hot: In Bowyer’s last two Chase appearances, he ended up fifth and third in the final point standings.
Not hot: In 120 career Cup races, Bowyer has only two wins. His last trip to Victory Lane was in May of 2008.
My pick to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship for 2011: Kyle Busch. Joe Gibbs Racing is peaking at the right time -- all three JGR drivers finished in the top five at Richmond Saturday night -- and Busch has been strong all year. He’s matured into a championship driver. It will be the first of several NASCAR Sprint Cup championships the young Busch will win in his career.
Sunday’s race at New Hampshire gets the green flag at noon CT.