With the start of the Chase just days away, it's prediction time again. Pete Pistone gave his predictions as part of our Chase driver profiles and here's my take on how the season winds up come November.
1. Jimmie Johnson -- Here was my comment from the preseason Power Rankings: Is there any reason to pick against him other than the belief that the law of averages eventually has to catch up to him?
The 48 team showed a bit of inconsistency during the regular season, but they were still quite strong, picking up five victories. The tracks still set up well for Johnson and I think a fifth consecutive title is well within his grasp.
2. Kevin Harvick -- He has been the most consistent driver all season, leading the series with 17 top 10s and 22 top 15 finishes. There's no reason to believe that won't continue in the Chase, would should keep him in the hunt throught.
The thing that could hurt Harvick and the No. 29 team is qualifying, which has been poor most of the season. It forces them to constantly fight from behind which can prove costly when it comes to bonus points because he's out of position to lead laps.
Consider Johnson leads the series with a qualifying average of 7.3. He also leads the series in bonus points with 120. Harvick on the other hand ranks 21st in qualifying average at 19.0. He gained 65 bonus points in the regular season.
3. Denny Hamlin -- He came into the season as the driver many pegged as the one who could finally end Johnson's reign as champion. He's a proven winner, snagging six victories during the regular season -- which puts him at the top of the standings for the first time in his career with the Chase reset -- but does he have the consistency?
Over the past six races he has three top fives and three finishes of 34th or worse, including a blown engine. I'm not sure the 11 team can put together 10 straight races together without a couple of hiccups -- be it a parts failure or just missing the set up.
4. Kyle Busch -- He's in the same boat as his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin. He may just be the most talented driver in the series, but for whatever reason, has not been able to find the consistency in the Cup Series.
As I noted in this week's Power Rankings, Busch's average finish over the final 10 races is 18.4. The average finish of a Chase champion over the final 10 races is 7.4. That's a huge leap he has to make. He rides a streak of three consecutive top fives into the Chase.
5. Carl Edwards -- Still trying to get back to Victory Lane, but he has been the most consistent driver in the series since July, rolling to five top fives and eight top 10s in nine races heading into the Chase.
He has a chance to get off to a fast start with Dover, Kansas and California among his better tracks. Don't sleep on the 99 team, he may just pull of the upset.
6. Tony Stewart -- He followed up his win at Atlanta with a dissapointing 16th-place effort at Richmond, but he feels the team is in much better shape than it was entering the Chase last season.
In the past 15 races, Stewart has finished outside the top 10 just four times (though twice in the past three races). A third career Cup championship is not out of the realm of possibility this season.
7. Jeff Gordon -- He had that one stretch in June and July where he ran off five consecutive top fives, but he has been ordinary since, with just two top 10s in the seven races heading into the Chase.
I just don't know which 24 team is going to show up in the Chase, but I'm leaning toward the latter.
8. Greg Biffle -- He's not exactly heading into the Chase on a high note with finishes of 36th and 32nd the past couple of races, though I don't feel that's a trend that's going to continue.
He had just five top fives during the regular season and I don't expect that he's going to add many more to that total over the final 10 races. He'll have some strong runs here and there, but overall, I haven't seen anything from the 16 team to make me believe they can take the title.
9. Jeff Burton -- I like his attitude heading into the Chase. At his age, he knows his window of opportunity is closing fast. I just don't know if the 31 team has what it takes.
He and his team have been mistake prone all season and it probably cost him a chance at a couple of wins. Mistakes during the Chase won't just cost him a win, it'll cost him the title.
10. Kurt Busch -- He had the second most top 10s among Chase drivers, yet he finished 10th in the regular-season standings. That speaks to the No. 2 team's inconsistency.
Crew chief Steve Addington has the same issue when he was crew chief for Kyle Busch. From week to week you just never know what your were going to get from him and his driver. I expect that trend will continue here.
11. Clint Bowyer -- Some of you might recall that I was pretty high on Bowyer entering the season, but I'll admit that despite making the Chase he has been somewhat of a disappointment.
He does enter the Chase with some momentum, finishing top 10 in three consecutive races for the first time since the first three races of the season. But can the 33 team keep it up or will it revert to regular season form that saw him nearly miss the Chase?
His four top fives are the fewest of any Chase driver.
12. Matt Kenseth -- Of all the drivers in the Chase, he's the only one where I'd be truly shocked if he wound up taking the title.
There is nothing he or the No. 17 have done this season to make me believe he has any chance of taking the title. The season started well enough, with five consecutive top fives, but in the 21 races that have followed he has added just five more.
The team's strength has been avoiding bad finishes. While Kenseth has just 10 top 10s (three less than any other Chase driver), he has 19 top 15s (third most among Chase drivers). He finished outside the top 20 just twice.