If you believed the 12 drivers who spoke during Wednesday’s kickoff event for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, this year’s championship battle is the widest open ever, a race impossible to handicap.
If you believe in history, the numbers make Jimmie Johnson the prohibitive favorite.
And if you believe anything can and will happen in the Chase — as it did in 2004 when Kurt Busch scored a stunning victory, and last year, when Tony Stewart came out of nowhere to win — well, there’s no telling what the next 10 weeks will bring.
Here’s a look at how this year’s 12 Chasers have performed in the 80 prior Chase races — the final 10 races of each year, dating back to 2004.
These numbers are courtesy of NASCAR stat guru and all-around braniac Mike Forde. Drivers are ranked by Chase victories. In case of ties, they are ranked by who is the higher seed in this year’s Chase.
1. JIMMIE JOHNSON — 80 starts; 20 victories; 43 top-five and 58 top-10 finishes; percentage of laps led, 15.2; average finish, 9.0. Analysis: No wonder Johnson won five championships in a row. His numbers are staggering in almost every single category, with victories in 25 percent of the Chase races run so far, and top-five finishes in more than half the races.
2. TONY STEWART — 80 starts; 11 victories; 24 top-five and 42 top-10 finishes; percentage of laps led, 8.5; average finish, 12.5. Analysis: As he proved last year, Stewart is easily capable of coming out of nowhere and going on an extended hot streak, which makes him tough to beat. “Smoke” ranks second to Johnson in several key measurements, one reason the two have combined to win the last seven NASCAR Sprint Cup titles.
3. GREG BIFFLE — 80 starts; 7 victories; 25 top-five and 34 top-10 finishes; percentage of laps led, 5.0; average finish, 14.5. Analysis: Roush Fenway Racing has always been strong at the 1.5-mile tracks, where five of this year’s 10 Chase races will be contested. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Biffle is third in Chase race victories.
4. DENNY HAMLIN — 67 starts; 4 victories; 20 top-five and 34 top-10 finishes; percentage of laps led, 4.7; average finish, 14.1. Analysis: Hamlin didn’t make his first Sprint Cup start until October 2005, yet he’s still posted some impressive statistics in the Chase. Many have picked him as this year’s favorite, with good reason.
5. CLINT BOWYER — 60 starts; 4 victories; 11 top-five and 30 top-10 finishes; percentage of laps led, 3.7; average finish, 13.0. Analysis: The 10 Chase tracks are good ones for Bowyer, as he has been solid throughout his career. Bowyer leads Michael Waltrip Racing this season with two victories already.
6. JEFF GORDON — 80 starts; 3 victories; 30 top-five and 49 top-10 finishes; percentage of laps led, 6.5; average finish, 12.7. Analysis: Why hasn’t Gordon won a championship since the Chase began in 2004? Maybe because he ranks third on NASCAR’s all-time win list with 86 victories but has only won three Chase races.
7. DALE EARNHARDT JR. — 80 starts; 2 victories; 13 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes; percentage of laps led, 3.6; average finish, 19.4. Analysis: The numbers don’t lie. If Earnhardt wants to finally capture his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title, he and his No. 88 team need to step it up in the Chase.
8. MATT KENSETH — 80 starts; 2 victories; 26 top-five and 37 top-10 finishes; percentage of laps led, 7.9; average finish, 14.8. Analysis: Kenseth trails only Johnson and Stewart in percentage of laps led during Chase races. He’s finished in the top five in points in four of the last six seasons.
9. KEVIN HARVICK — 80 starts; 2 victories; 16 top-five and 44 top-10 finishes; percentage of laps led, 3.5; average finish, 13.5. The No. 3 finisher in each of the last two seasons, Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing Chevrolets have lacked speed most of this season. Can new/old crew chief Gil Martin bring the magic back?
10. KASEY KAHNE — 80 starts; 2 victories; 16 top-five and 27 top-10 finishes; percentage of laps led, 3.0; average finish, 18.5. Kahne won at Phoenix last November, one race before Red Bull shut down, and although he wasn’t in the Chase, he had the third-highest number of points in the Chase races last year.
11. BRAD KESELOWSKI — 28 starts; 0 victories; 4 top-five and 7 top-10 finishes; percentage of laps led, 0.5; average finish, 18.8. The least experienced driver in the Chase, Keselowski comes in with one of the least impressive Chase resumes. That said, he had a terrific regular season in each of the last two campaigns, and should build on his numbers this year.
12. MARTIN TRUEX JR. — 65 starts; 0 victories; 6 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes; percentage of laps led, 1.9; average finish, 19.8. So far this year, Truex has had an excellent season with Michael Waltrip Racing. To be a title contender will require a huge leap forward, however.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.