March Madness, NASCAR style

FONTANA, Calif. -- So how's your bracket going?

No, no, no. Not your NCAA college basketball bracket. Your March NASCAR Madness bracket.

Who's been eliminated? Which drivers do you have in your Final Four? Which one do you have winning it all?

Sure, there are 22 events left in the regular season heading into Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway (3 p.m. ET, Fox), but it's not too early to start thinking about this. One could argue a few drivers already have been eliminated.

Danica Patrick. Out.

Juan Pablo Montoya. Out.

David Ragan, David Reutimann, David Stremme, David Gilliland and anybody else named David. Out.

Disagree? Fine. That's what makes bracketology so fun. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is discovering that. For the first time in his 38 years, he filled out a college basketball bracket with 315 members of Junior Nation.

"It's interesting to see who the Cinderella teams are and how far Carolina [University of North Carolina] can go," Earnhardt said.

Hate to tell him, but traditional powerhouse North Carolina would be somewhat of a Cinderella team this year.

"I'm having a good time with it," continued Earnhardt, who has Indiana over Duke in the championship game. "I hate losing, but I hate making the wrong pick. What are you going to do? There's a lot of games."

And there are a lot of Cup races left, but history tell us drivers who are in the top 12 now have a pretty good chance of making the Big Dance in September.

Nine of the 12 drivers who made the Chase a year ago were in the top 12 after four races. So eventual champion Brad Keselowski wasn't among that group. How many of you had No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast beating No. 2 seed Georgetown in your NCAA bracket?

One could argue Keselowski is the No. 1 overall seed this year. He leads the points by nine over Earnhardt and has an amazing four straight top-5 finishes.

He's downplaying the favorite's role, though. That's probably a good idea because the top seed entering the Chase has won the championship only twice -- Tony Stewart in 2005 and Jimmie Johnson in 2007 -- in nine years.

"You know, right now it is pretty early with this Gen-6 car," Keselowski said. "So I don't think anyone really knows who the favorite is to beat. I know we might have the points lead, but I think it is too early to label any one team ahead or behind."

It's never too early. Filling out a bracket now separates the haves from the have-nots. Would you have picked Jeff Gordon to make the Chase a year ago when he was 23rd in points after four races? Would you pick him this year as he stands 21st? Gordon wouldn't. And neither would I.

Are you willing to take a chance on Stewart this year at 24th or Kevin Harvick at 17th? Are you willing to go with Patrick's boyfriend, rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is 11th?

March NASCAR Madness is in full swing, and I'm not talking the postrace madness and swings we saw last week at Bristol between the crews of Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

So, if you haven't filled out your bracket, get on it. Here's some help with the top four seeds:

No. 1 seed Brad Keselowski

If you thought his championship run was impressive, check out his numbers to start this season. Fourth in the Daytona 500, fourth at Phoenix, third at Las Vegas and third at Bristol.
The last time a driver started with four consecutive top-5s was Johnson in 2005 with a win, two seconds and a fifth.

Only eight drivers in the history of the sport have started with four straight.

If Keselowski can make it five in a row Sunday, he would be the first to do so since Rusty Wallace in 1998 and would be in the running to go after Cale Yarborough's 1974 record of nine consecutive. He has a good chance, too, qualifying third -- although he'll start from the back after changing engines.

"What [Keselowski] and [Johnson] have done, really the last 15 weeks, is unbelievable," Hamlin said. "Even when they don't have cars that are capable of running top-five they finish top-five.

"It's something, really, I don't think the casual race fan understands how hard it is to do what they're able to do right now."

Throw in Penske Racing's switch from Dodge to Ford after last season and you can understand why Keselowski is the uncontested top seed at this point.

"It's nice when you're in that sweet spot and everybody is working well together as a team and you can continue to get those top-5 finishes and wins," Johnson said. "I know they don't have a win yet, but I know they are knocking on the door quite a few times.

"I would imagine that is right around the corner for them."

No. 2 seed Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He's off to the best start of his career with four consecutive top-10s and an average finish of 5.0, but if you listen to some fans, he's one of those Cinderella stories he mentioned.

People forget that Earnhardt was third in the standings with two races left in the 2004 Chase and had a personal-best six wins. Or that he was third with two races left in 2006.

Maybe he has only one win since the end of the 2008 season, but he's far from being a stranger to this territory.

"When I hear people talking about the fast start, I just feel like you have to take a lot of different factors into the equation," Earnhardt said. "We've had good fortune; we got real lucky."

Luck is part of this, like a half-court buzzer-beater in basketball. It's no fluke that Earnhardt is competing at such a high level. He easily could win on Sunday, a 2-mile track that is similar to the 2-mile track in Michigan where he reaped his last two wins.

And Earnhardt understands bracketology well enough to know a fast start to the season is important to the playoffs.

"Nobody runs the whole season perfectly, so I'm just trying to get as many points as we can as early as we can so when that bad luck comes it doesn't hit us as hard as it hits some of these guys early," Earnhardt said.

No. 3 seed Jimmie Johnson

"Five-Time" has been in the zone Keselowski is enjoying. He's not far from it now.

He opened with a win at Daytona, followed by a second at Phoenix. He was sixth at Las Vegas and had a top-5 run at Bristol before a late blown tire left him 22nd.

Had he gotten the finish he was headed for at Bristol, there'd be case for him being the top seed overall.

No. 4 seed Denny Hamlin

This could have gone to a handful of drivers, from race winners Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth to Clint Bowyer, who is fourth in the standings.

The nod goes to Hamlin, the pole sitter for Sunday's race, though. He's the antithesis of Keselowski in that he has had a car capable of finishing in the top five every week but has only one such finish -- third at Phoenix -- to his credit.

He's third in laps led with 153, trailing Kahne with 223 and Kenseth with 213. He's first in endured controversy, from the $25,000 fine and ensuing fight with NASCAR over his comments on the new car to his mini-war with former teammate Logano that began at Daytona and peaked at Bristol.

He's college basketball's version of Bobby Knight in that he always seems to be in the spotlight for something other than performance.

So, there are my top seeds as they stand now. We'll see where they are after Richmond in September when the madness really begins.