If there are Four Horsemen in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, they are Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski.
Although almost anything can happen – Stewart proved that last year by roaring back from an underdog position to win five races and the Chase, the numbers say the top four drivers in the standings will carry favorites roles into Sunday’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway.
Hamlin is the only driver in the Chase group with four seasonal victories, and his top-five finish record of 11 is second only to Johnson’s 12.
Sentiment and momentum might be on Hamlin’s side. He came painfully close to winning the championship two years ago and has hungered for another shot. And he carries two wins in the regular season’s final three races into the Chase.
“Now it's all about the research you've done, how good your car's running, what team you've put together,” Hamlin said. “Now it's time to put your game face on and see what you got.”
Johnson? His seasonal numbers are great – three wins, 12 top fives, a season-high 17 (along with Dale Earnhardt Jr.) top 10s. But it’s the career numbers that make Johnson a force in any Chase he happens to visit. Five straight championships from 2006 to 2010 speak loudly. And Johnson carries a bonus in his back pocket that no one else can claim – crew chief Chad Knaus, a wizard in these situations.
Johnson is the only driver to qualify for all nine Chases since the format debuted in 2004.
As for Stewart, he walks into another Chase with bright memories of last year – a dominating run through the playoffs that set the standard for team performance in Chase history. He won five times, including a classic victory in the last race of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway to seal the championship.
Keselowski has been running strong since the middle part of the season and easily could be the Chase kingpin with some big runs early.
“The consistency and strength that we’ve shown over the last 10 races with the Miller Lite Dodge has been unparalleled,” Keselowski said. “We’ve got 10 more that we need to repeat those last 10. We need to have that great average finish with some wins and laps led, and I feel like my team is capable of it. I’m really, really excited about those last 10.”
Those four drivers will start the Chase with a leg – or two – up on the rest of the Dandy Dozen. How – or if – they take advantage remains to be seen.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.