Our panel of experts weighs in on four of the biggest questions in racing this week.
Turn 1: No driver has to be more disappointed about missing the Chase than Kyle Busch. And he's never been a real contender in the Chase when he's made it. What does he need to do to reach the next level?
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: His car had engine failures in three consecutive races over the summer. That's unheard of in this era of engine reliability. And his pit crew let him down last weekend at Richmond or he might have finished close enough to Jeff Gordon to earn that final Chase spot. Even with those problems, something is missing. Rowdy looks Doubty. He's tentative now. I don't see the same aggressive driver that Kyle has been in the past. I think he started the season on eggshells, after almost losing his ride over the truck race incident last November in Texas, and hasn't found himself yet. He needs to get his mojo back.
Ed Hinton, ESPN.com: More grit. Less devastation at those moments he realizes he's going to lose a race. Never thought I'd say this about any competitor in any sport, but it just might be that Rowdy hates to lose TOO much. He's had his share of bad luck, but he's let bad luck get to him too much. More grinding it out and less griping on the radio in times of adversity.
Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine: Tighten one lug nut? Honestly, I don't know. He reminds me so much of Rusty Wallace in Rusty's heyday. He was so great and would win races in bunches, but there always seemed to be something that kept him from closing the deal. Even the championship that he won in 1989, he had to overcome everything from being wrecked by Stan Barrett at Phoenix to going two laps down at Atlanta with a cut tire and, yes, a loose lug nut. Perhaps the bigger question is, if Kyle continues to come up short at Joe Gibbs Racing, does he start looking elsewhere? He signed a "multiyear" contract extension in 2010.
David Newton, ESPN.com: I'll confess, I really thought this would be the year. I thought that team had the chemistry and talent to win it all. I know Busch had some bad luck. He would have won at Watkins Glen and been a lock for the Chase were it not for oil on the track on the last lap. But great teams overcome bad luck, and this isn't a great team. While Busch does spectacular things with a car at times, he lacks the consistency and mental toughness to be a champion. When things are going bad, he still gives up. I can't tell you what it will take for Busch to be a champion, but I can promise I won't compare him to Dale Earnhardt again. Earnhardt had two titles in his first eight seasons. Busch never has finished better than fifth. He'll be the third-best driver on his team next year. Enough said.
Turn 2: Matt Kenseth is in another Chase and he's been as consistent as anyone this season, but he's switching teams in 2013. Can he win this championship as a lame duck? Why or why not?
Blount: As I wrote Sunday in my predictions, I don't think so. No matter what a team says about being committed and sticking together, it's just not the same when you know the driver is leaving and you aren't sure how things will shake out for next season. You just don't have the same focus. Kenseth may have a better shot at overcoming that than most guys because he's so calm and collected as a racer, but it's tough for everyone on the No. 17 team to keep that emotional edge they need when they know changes are coming.
Hinton: Of course he can. Drivers and crewmen don't throw away championships just because they're breaking up. Darian Grubb as a lame-duck crew chief sent Tony Stewart to five wins in 10 Chase races last year. Teams are too professional nowadays not to play for the moment at hand. I don't think Kenseth will win the championship, but it won't be because he's a lame duck.
McGee: He can. Normally I am the first to say, "Well, this will never work" about lame-duck situations, and typically they don't. But Matt isn't a typical driver and that rubs off on his crew. Are the folks at Roush Fenway happy about him leaving? Not a chance. But he's been there so long, as have most of the people working with him, that no one is going to do anything to hurt the chances of winning a Cup. There's too much respect there. Matt himself drew a comparison between his situation and last year's with Stewart and Grubb. But that doesn't really work because there was some serious tension between those two. There really isn't in Kenseth's case.
Newton: He'll definitely be in position to win it. As much as Stewart made us believe last season that winning the Chase is all about winning races, it's really about being the most consistent. Had Stewart been dreadful in the five Chase races he didn't win last season, he wouldn't be champion. He wasn't. His average finish was 6.3. Carl Edwards was deadlocked with Stewart because he had an average finish of 4.9. Kenseth won't beat himself. He may have been the champion last year had Brian Vickers not gone wild at Martinsville. Plus, Kenseth has the support of his teammates. Edwards said he will do whatever he can to help Kenseth and Greg Biffle win it all. There is no animosity that Kenseth is leaving. Integrity and class earn respect that can't be trumped by being a lame duck.
Turn 3: The Chase is set, and we know the teams that are in and out. Give us the most disappointing team of 2012, and explain your answer.
Blount: It's Edwards. An absolute no-brainer. The No. 99 Ford team isn't anywhere close to what it was a year ago. Considering the other two Roush Fenway cars made the Chase and won races, it looks even worse. The 99 group just dropped off a cliff after falling one point short of the 2011 title. However, the most disappointing organization is Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Frankly, it's still pathetic, as Chip Ganassi described the 2011 season. Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya don't have a top-5 finish between them. They have combined to finish 25th or worse 14 times.
Hinton: It's not even close: Winless Carl Edwards and the No. 99 team, which never really got clicking this year and didn't even have many hopeful moments. Edwards swears it's not hangover from last year's near miss of the championship, and I believe him. Crew chief Bob Osborne's illness is probably at the root of the team's inability to find any sort of rhythm all season. The 99's troubles are especially blatant in light of teammates Kenseth and Biffle breezing into the Chase.
McGee: Richard Childress Racing was a mess all year. The good news is that RCR seemed to have started its annual late-season rally. Paul Menard had a career-best top-10s streak. Jeff Burton finally got a non-restrictor plate top-10. And Kevin Harvick had cars that could have won Atlanta and Richmond both. But even Harvick admits that he's not sure how they stayed in the top 10 in points all summer.
Newton: Edwards and the No. 99 team. Edwards was one position from winning it all a year ago. His average finish of 4.9 in the Chase was a record. His 9.3 average finish for the season was spectacular. It seemed he was a threat to win almost every week. Take away the 206 laps Edwards led in the first Richmond race this year and he's led 48 total laps, and 45 of those were at the second Bristol race. He has only two top-5s a year after having 19. His team has been dismal, almost an embarrassment when you consider teammates Kenseth and Biffle have been strong all season.
Turn 4: There are 10 races to go and only one driver will be holding the Sprint Cup trophy at Homestead. Who will it be, and why?
Blount: I said Denny Hamlin two days ago and I'm sticking to it. I know it's the easy pick, but it's not because he starts the Chase on top with four wins. It's the confidence he exudes. He's completely over the disappointment of losing the 2010 title and he knows he has the man on the pit box (defending crew chief champ Grubb) who can get him where he wants to go. Denny's one flaw is inconsistency, but Grubb can help him avoid that in the Chase. They won earlier this year at two Chase tracks (Phoenix and Kansas) and finished second at Charlotte. And Grubb guided Stewart to playoff victories at five other Chase tracks last season. I think this is Denny's year.
Hinton: I haven't flinched since January on this one: Brad Keselowski. He's got the greatest attitude in NASCAR, goes all-out, takes risks, never whines when he falls short. He may get knocked down a time or two during this Chase, but he'll get back up, and stay up, all the way through Homestead-Miami. And with all due respect to Jimmie Johnson and Stewart, Brad K. will be the most crowd-pleasing champion NASCAR has known in years and years.
McGee: I think it's Johnson vs. Hamlin. I have an eye on guys like Kahne and Stewart, the kind of guys who can get on a hot streak and win a pile of races in a row, but no one comes in hotter than Hamlin and the 48 car is, well, it's still the 48 car.
Newton: Jeff Gordon. Maybe I'm still loopy from pulling an all-nighter on Saturday at Richmond, but look at the facts. Over the past three races Gordon has finished third, second and second. Over the past 12 races he has nine finishes of sixth or better. He has momentum and a nothing-to-lose attitude almost like Stewart did last season. And look at what Gordon has done at the Chase tracks this season. He would have won Martinsville were it not for David Reutimann's stall and Clint Bowyer's dive-bomb. He was eighth at Phoenix, fourth at Texas, seventh at Charlotte, sixth at Loudon and 13th at Dover when his team wasn't at its best. He also sat on the pole at Talladega. Four-Time will become Five-Time before he is out of his prime time.