Making one's picks for the final Chase for the Sprint Cup standings is a little like throwing lawn darts at a water bed.
Some hit, some miss, and in the end everyone ends up soaking wet.
Our esteemed panel of so-called NASCAR experts -- the sometimes honorable Ed Hinton, Texas Terry Blount, Sir David Newton, Marvelous Marty Smith and yours truly -- have spent the week locked in a secret bunker beneath Lowe's Motor Speedway screaming, fighting and throwing chairs until we agreed on a Top 12.
Alas, we never did agree. Rather, we agreed to disagree roughly half the time.
So, who did we pick? Where did we pick them? And what was the thought process behind the madness? Read on. If you need me, I'll be at the infield care center in New Hampshire. Hinton broke a folding chair over my back like he was Rey Mysterio.
12. Matt Kenseth
Blount: Burton, Hinton: Kenseth, McGee: Kenseth, Newton: Harvick, Smith: Burton
Only one pick in and we're already all over the place.
Hinton and McGee come out in lockstep with Kenseth; both of us soured on the recent "my car won't run right" attitude coming from the 17 team's radio. He needs Robbie Reiser back on the pit box, stat. Jeff Burton received two last-place votes, including Blount's blunt assessment: "The old man of the Chase will look it in the playoffs."
11. Jeff Burton
Blount: Kenseth, Hinton: Bowyer, McGee: Stewart, Newton: Biffle, Smith: Bowyer
And apparently everyone else agrees with that diagnosis, as Burton barely edged his old Roush teammate to slip into the No. 11 slot. Another Roush employee, Greg Biffle, also fell far in the eyes of Newton, while I went with Stewart. Why? Dude has run well of late, but he looks totally distracted by his future role as owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.
10. Clint Bowyer
Blount: Biffle, Hinton: Harvick, McGee: Earnhardt Jr., Newton: Burton, Smith: Hamlin
Ah, this is more like it. All over the place.
It's clear that no one really knows what to make of the schizophrenic likes of Biffle, Harvick and Hamlin. One week they look like contenders. The next? Not so much. Hinton's call on Harvick seems to sum up the combined feeling about this bunch: "Could be a sleeper, but more likely to fade." (By the way, get off my back already, Junior Nation. He's been generic at best for the past 10 races.)
9. Kevin Harvick
Blount: Hamlin, Hinton: Gordon, McGee: Bowyer, Newton: Kenseth, Smith: Harvick
Happy Harvick has gotten hot at the right time, with six consecutive top-10 finishes and seven over the past eight weeks. "They continue to improve tremendously," Marty says. "And he may run the same car in every race the rest of the season."
That's enough to make any racer smile. But it's really enough to make NASCAR smile as one of the promises of the new car -- week-in-week-out versatility -- might actually become reality. Then again, the total freaking mystery of trying to make the new car go fast is why Jeff Gordon landed ninth on Hinton's list.
8. Greg Biffle
Blount: Bowyer, Hinton: Hamlin, McGee: Biffle, Newton: Hamlin, Smith: Kenseth
Biff scored as high as sixth on one ballot (Marty) and as low as 11th on another (paging Mr. Newton), but the guy who actually landed in the eighth spot the most was Denny Hamlin. And it's not even his fault. "Poor guy," writes Hinton. "His pit crew continues to be his albatross, no matter what he does behind the wheel."
Maybe they'll let him have Tony's crew once short-timer Smoke starts mailing it in this October.
7. Denny Hamlin
Blount: Harvick, Hinton: Biffle, McGee: Gordon, Newton: Junior, Smith: Stewart
Another mandatory Harvick and Biffle sighting, but what's this? The sport's three most popular drivers -- Gordon, Earnhardt and Stewart -- receiving votes for seventh?
"I know Stewart is still winless," Marty explained as NHRA Top Fuel ace Doug Herbert blasted him down the drag strip at zMax Dragway on Tuesday night. "But they are gaining on it. He'll have a shot to win a couple before season's end if the team stays behind him."
That's a big "if," brother.
6. Jeff Gordon
Blount: Gordon, Hinton: Burton, McGee: Burton, Newton: Stewart, Smith: Biffle
The only member of our panel who is close personal friends with Nolan Ryan knows an aging warrior when he sees one. "Are his championship years behind him?" asks former Houston Astros beat writer Terry Blount. "This team isn't close to what it was a year ago."
Meanwhile, Hinton and McGee are on the same page once again, picking another non-youngster named Jeff to finish much higher than our colleagues have predicted. Why? He's stone-cold money at New Hampshire, and getting off to a great Chase start is nearly as important as how you finish.
5. Tony Stewart
Blount: Stewart, Hinton: Junior, McGee: Hamlin, Newton: Bowyer, Smith: Gordon
No matter where we picked Stewart (and none of us had him in the same spot), we all agree on one point. He hasn't had his typical once-a-year very hot streak yet and it's probably coming. We just don't expect it to last as long as it usually does. Well, none of us but Hinton. But he's also inhaled more carbon monoxide than the rest of us.
Newton goes against the grain by voting with the grain alcohol-powered ride of Clint Bowyer, his highest ballot showing by a full three positions. "Don't forget," Newton says while celebrating his recent engagement. "He did win at New Hampshire last year. And he did finish third in points."
Good point. I actually had forgotten.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Blount: Junior, Hinton: Busch, McGee: Harvick, Newton: Gordon, Smith: Junior
My esteemed peers have much more confidence in the 88 team than I do. Then again, Earnhardt has a lot more confidence in crew chief/cousin Tony Eury Jr. than I do.
3. Kyle Busch
Blount: Busch, Hinton: Edwards, McGee: Busch, Newton: Busch, Smith: Edwards
After Shrub's win at The Glen on Aug. 10, if you'd told me that he wouldn't receive a single first-place vote from our Chase panel, I would have accused you of spending too much time in the wind tunnel. But here he is, looking up at his biggest rival of the year (no, not Earnhardt) and his former teammate.
"He peaked too soon," says Newton, one of three guys who picked him to finish third. "If he doesn't win the championship, he may have a solid argument that the Chase took away what was his."
2. Carl Edwards
Blount: Johnson, Hinton: Stewart, McGee: Edwards, Newton: Edwards, Smith: Busch
Edwards received no vote lower than third from any of our five panelists, but only one vote for first (we'll deal with that in a minute). Hinton, who voted for Stewart with one eye on the previously predicted inevitable hot streak, recalled what Jack Roush said about his longtime employee earlier this summer. "Roush is right," Hinton says. "Edwards is ready to win the championship. But not if the veterans [Stewart and Johnson] start to stampede."
And perhaps the distinguished gentleman from Virginia spoke for us all. "Any of the top three can win it," Marty Smith says.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Blount: Edwards, Hinton: Johnson, McGee: Johnson, Newton: Johnson, Smith: Johnson
What a difference a few weeks can make.
Before the Boreyard ahem, Brickyard 400, we (and by "we" I mean us the writers and you the readers) had thrown the two-time defending Cup champion over on the scrap heap with everyone else not named Kyle or Carl. But three wins and 30 bonus points later, here the champ sits, No. 48 in your program and No. 1 in our minds.
Well, all but one mind.
"I was the lone wolf when I picked Edwards in our preseason rankings," Terry Blount shouted from his yacht on Puget Sound. "I'm not changing horses now."
Neither is Jimmie. And no one's beaten his horse since 2005.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at email@example.com.