DW: A Hamlin, Johnson Title Fight?

You know, folks, people have been asking me constantly who I think will win the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

When you start making predictions like that before they’ve even run a race, you always are going to have people who adamantly agree and more that adamantly disagree.

I don’t know why, but every year – and I’ve been doing this a long time – people say: “Oh, this is the best Chase we’ve ever had! Everybody in the Chase has a chance to win it. We’ve never had a Chase like this.” I’m sorry, but that’s just not true. Just because you make the Chase doesn’t fix your race team. If you are struggling or mediocre before the Chase started, you’re probably going to be struggling and mediocre in the Chase.

Now, I know, people are going to say, “But what about Tony Stewart last year?” There’s always going to be exceptions, and that’s what makes predictions so difficult. When you start trying to say who’s going to do what – this is a sport that has a lot of moving parts: the cars, crews, drivers, competition – it’s hard to predict.

But there are things you have to have to win races and the championship.

First thing you have to have is a fast car. That’s what Stewart ended up with last year in the Chase – he had a car that could run up front and win races. No disrespect intended to Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr., but neither guy has a win entering this year’s Chase. You don’t have to win races to win the championship. Just look at what Carl Edwards did last year if you want to compare apples to apples; he had no wins in the Chase and ended up tied for the championship in the end. If he had passed just one more car in any of those 10 races last year, he would’ve been champion and beaten Stewart, who had five wins in that span.

Last year was a perfect example of, if you win a lot, you probably can win the Chase, and if you have good results consistently, you can probably win the Chase.

But that’s where the rub is. Some of these teams have the ability to run well but not run well consistently. That’ll be the difference between who wins the championship and who doesn’t.

To me, right now it’s a two-car battle. It should come down to Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, because those are the two best cars. Hamlin has the most wins, and Johnson is right there with him. They are starting the Chase 1-2. So, if I have to pick a favorite, I’m going to pick one of those guys.

And, quite honestly, I’m leaning toward Hamlin because of what happened to him last year – his experience of a disastrous season the year after almost winning the championship. I’ve said it time and time again: You have to lose one to win one. That means you have to know what it takes to win it. You have to lose it to figure out how to win it.

That’s not trying to make somebody feel bad when I say that. It’s just a fact. I’ve observed this throughout my whole career. There’s a lot of guys that can be factors early on in the Chase.

When you think of guys that can run up front and have a shot at it, you’ve got to look at Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s had a very consistent 26 races – that could pay off big time. If he can slip in there and win a race or two during the next 10 weeks and that team stays consistent like it has been this year, he could win his first championship. Would that not be huge? That could be the biggest thing to happen to this sport since his father’s last championship. I like where Junior sits at the start of the Chase – his team has to win a race or two, but it certainly has to keep doing what it’s done this year and remain consistent.

Another guy that’s the same way is Kevin Harvick. He and crew chief Gil Martin are back together at the right time, that team is consistent, and Harvick runs really well at some of the Chase tracks – Martinsville is good for him and Dale Jr. both.

Right now, I’d say Hamlin is my favorite, but Johnson will give him a battle until the very end at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and Harvick and Earnhardt will be nipping at their heels for a while.

However, from there it’s a crapshoot.

I like Jeff Gordon, if only he wouldn’t have such bad luck like he’s had this year. Remember, he’s had three top-three finishes entering the Chase. He had to give it his all to make the playoffs, but did he exhaust himself, his team and its resources in the process? That’s what worries me.

My brother’s teams with Truex and Clint Bowyer, those are fast cars. They just have to be a little more consistent. I know Bowyer won two races, but one of them is a road course, and there aren’t any of those in the Chase. The Achilles’ heel for Martin and Clint both will be the consistency factor.

The other two guys that could be factors until the very end are Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Those two cars run pretty darn good most every week. Biffle has won two races this year, while Kenseth has won one. Those two guys could be factors.

Then the wild card in that whole deal to me is Brad Keselowski. What is he going to do? Are he and crew chief Paul Wolfe sharp enough and have they been doing this long enough to keep their composure and run up front to pull off the championship? They are pretty new to this, so it would be exceptional if they pulled it off – but don’t count them out.

That leaves us with a couple of guys: Kasey Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis – inconsistency has really hurt them this year. Their cars have been pretty fast this year, they just lack the consistency.

Oh, and you think I forgot about old Smoke? I think it won’t take us but a race or two to know where he’s going to end up. He won the first race of the Chase last year, and that momentum really set that team on fire and put it on course to go on and win the championship. We got to get a race or two under our belts before making a verdict on Tony Stewart. But I know one thing: There’s nobody who drives harder, and he and crew chief Steve Addington seem to be able to hit it most every week and he’s got teammate Ryan Newman to do some R&D for him and try things for him. So I’m not going to count Smoke out just yet; he might be fighting Hamlin and Johnson down the stretch.

There’s just so many factors. When you look at the crystal ball and ask what’s going to happen in this Chase, it’s really very difficult to come up with something different from what’s above. I like all the guys in the Chase; they are the 12 best drivers. I don’t think you’ll see a huge shakeup – when we get to Phoenix and Homestead for the final two races, I think the order will look about the same as it looks right now. That’s my prediction.

It’s anybody’s to win. It just depends how they start off. Because there are so many good teams in the Chase this year, I don’t think you can mess around have a couple of bad races – you may be able to get away with one, but no way you can get away with two. You can win the championship by winning races like Stewart did or you can be consistent like Carl was and hope nobody gets hot like Stewart did.

Oh, by the way ...

There are some good teams that didn’t make the Chase – some teams that have a lot to prove.

Carl Edwards is champing at the bit to get his year turned around and build momentum for next year. Kyle Busch will be on a mission to prove he should’ve been in the Chase. I think Joey Logano still has a win in him. I like the change they made this week at Richard Petty Motorsports by putting Mike Ford with Marcos Ambrose – that might be a win-win.

There’s some good teams that are not in the Chase that I think have an outside chance of winning a race or two over the next 10 weeks.

It’s time to go to Chicago – the Windy City – to see what happens. Can’t wait, it should be fun.