Gordon looks like the man right now

September, 12, 2011

It should be pretty widely accepted that this is the best sports time of the year. We have the Chase, the start of college and pro football, baseball pennant races, and so on.

But, I'm here to talk Chase, since that's probably why you clicked on me. (Thanks for clicking on me.)

Let's talk about how juicy this Chase is. I'm talking nicely-seared, but still moist on the inside. Who wants to join me for a steak?

First, you have Jimmie Johnson. Formerly known as vanilla, Johnson suddenly has himself a heated rivalry with another champ, 2004 title winner Kurt Busch.

I'd say something about Kurt Busch here, but I haven't quite finished this article yet, and I'm worried he might tear it up before I can send it in, like he did here.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back in the Chase after a two-year absence. Junior's not showing the speed of his teammates right now, but, like Lloyd Christmas said in "Dumb and Dumber," "So you're telling me there's a chance? Yeah!"

And while five-time's going to try to become six-time, there's another driver looking to join Johnson, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty as drivers with at least five Cup titles, and that's Jeff Gordon.

Let me break it down for you -- numbers style.

Stay Away From the Top

The No. 1 seed for this year's Chase will be Kyle Busch, and his history from that slot isn't great.

Think back to 2008, when Busch came in looking like the man to beat, already having won eight races.

But his Chase started with finishes of 34th, 43rd and 28th, making him an afterthought.

This year, the talk is of the new Kyle Busch. Hopefully, he has a short memory.

Trivia break: Who is the only driver to win the Chase after starting outside the top three in points?

Feels Like the First Time

Brad Keselowski is the only first-time Chaser in this year's field, and like Busch, that hasn't been a good slot to be in.

In 2010, there were no first-time Chasers, but in the previous year, we had two, Juan Pablo Montoya and Brian Vickers. Montoya finished the Chase eighth in points, while Vickers was 12th.

Trivia break: Since the Chase expanded to 12 drivers in 2007, who has the best finish by a first-time Chaser?

What it Takes

So, having analyzed the numbers, here's what I think it'll take to win the Chase.

It might not take wins, four of the past seven Chases have been won by a driver winning one or fewer Chase races.

Over the past four years, Jimmie Johnson has averaged 6.5 top-5s and 8.5 top-10s en route to the title. His average finish was a 5.9 and he didn't record a single DNF.

It's a tall task, but one driver has to be up to it.

Trivia break: Who is the only driver to win a Chase without winning a Chase race that same season?

Chase Power Rankings

I wanted to come up with something to rank the strength of the Chase drivers on a race-by-race basis.

So I came up with my own little nerdy formula, using recent performance this season, along with recent performance at the track.

Remember, this isn't for the rest of the Chase, only heading into Chicago.

1. Jeff Gordon
2. Jimmie Johnson
3. Carl Edwards
4. Tony Stewart
5. Kevin Harvick
6. Kyle Busch
7. Matt Kenseth
8. Denny Hamlin
9. Brad Keselowski
10. Ryan Newman
11. Kurt Busch
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Trivia Break Answers

1) Kurt Busch started the 2004 Chase seventh but won the title.
2) Clint Bowyer was third in 2007.
3 Tony Stewart won the 2005 title without winning a Chase race.

Matt Willis | email

ESPN Staff Writer
Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.



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