This year's field of Chase drivers is considered one of the deepest in recent history. (Getty Images)
In this week's “Poll Position” I share my fearless predictions for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup and the eventual champion.
I'm not wavering from my pre-season choice of Jimmie Johnson hoisting Sprint Cup trophy number six when the smoke settles on the season in Homestead.
But it won't be an easy task by any means. This year's field of a dozen Chase drivers may well be the deepest in the history of the championship format since its debut in 2004. It's a reflection of a competitive regular season that saw 14 different winners in 26 races.
Here's a closer look on this year's Chase contenders and my predicted order of finish:
Johnson came into the season determined to get back to the top of the heap and although there have been challenges along the way, Johnson is in title winning form. There's no denying the fact Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus know how to operate during the title stretch and there's no substitute for experience. Johnson will win championship number six in 2012.
The quote: “The tracks in the Chase are really good for this 48 team, won a lot of races at the 10 tracks, really probably eight of the tracks in the Chase. We are looking forward to it.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
A second straight Chase appearance for Junior as he and crew chief Steve Letarte continue to hit on all eight cylinders. Earnhardt appears as confident as he's ever been during his Sprint Cup career and the 88 team has found a solid rhythm of consistency.
The quote: “It feels great. We felt like we could do it all year long to make the Chase, and we are pretty happy….there's no reason we can't be a factor in this championship.
The number one seed has been on a hot streak at the tail end of the regular season. Darian Grubb has added a spark to the No. 11 team in his quest to win back-to-back championships with two different drivers and organizations. Hamlin has been through the Chase crunch before and is ready to erase the disappointment of the 2010 heartbreak.
The quote: "Until you win a championship people will associate you with being the best that never can or will win a championship.''
Under the radar is where Biffle has been all season despite winning a race and ending the regular season on top of the standings. But the Roush Fenway Racing driver just may be able to use that as an advantage as well as motivation in his quest to add a Sprint Cup title to his Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series crowns.
The quote: “Listen, you don't want to come off as being arrogant or whatever the case might be, but let's face it, brutally honest, this sport or any sport is about winning. That's all it is, it's about winning.”
The Penske Racing driver has again shown flashes of brilliance this year and racked up three regular season victories. The question remains whether he can be consistent enough to stay in the title picture over the last ten races while also avoiding any controversy or distractions.
The quote: "My team is doing a phenomenal job executing with different strategies and keeping the car in one piece. If we can keep that up in the Chase we're going to be tough to beat."
Consistency has never been a problem for Kenseth and will no doubt keep him a Chase factor again this time around. But whether he can win a title as a lame duck Roush Fenway Racing driver might be the biggest obstacle standing in Kenseth's run for a second career championship.
The quote: “If anything, everyone's as motivated as ever to go out and try to win races, run for this championship and try to finish this long relationship that we've had on top.”
Gordon comes into the Chase after a stirring drive in Richmond to secure the final spot in the playoff field. Gordon has momentum for now but has to find a way to ditch the bad luck and inconsistency that has punctuated his season.
The quote: “You want to come out of the gate strong and get the best possible result you can. If that's a win, great. If that's fifth, great. A lot can happen during the Chase. To me, 10 weeks is a lot of racing.”
Kahne may be the forgotten man of the Hendrick quartet in the Chase. Kahne started slowly this season in his transition to the Hendrick organization but came on strong mid-summer and has been a solid force in most recent weeks.
The quote: “We started out really rough and figured it out since then and have been a pretty good car. If we keep building on that I think we have a chance to gain a lot of positions once the Chase does start.''
A two-time winner and one of two drivers along with teammate Martin Truex Jr., Bower gives Michael Waltrip Racing its first taste of the Chase. Bowyer's performance this year has been more than impressive but can he and crew chief Brian Pattie deliver in the pressure of the playoffs?
The quote: “With everything new, never would have dreamed in a million years all this would have happened this quickly. Obviously, it's the goal to win races and be in the Chase. Realistically, I knew what we were up against. Just pleasantly surprised.”
Stewart proved last year what comes in the regular season is really not an indication of what can happen in the Chase. The defending series champion has won three times but he and crew chief Steve Addington have also endured their share of challenges. Will the magic of last year's electric championship effort return in 2012?
The quote: "I wouldn't have predicted last year was going to end up like it did. And, I wouldn't have predicted this year was going to be the way it is right now. I'm just trying to take it a race at a time.”
The arrival of former crew chief Gil Martin to his old role has provided life to Harvick and the No. 29 team. But the Richard Childress Racing Sprint Cup stable has underachieved all year and Harvick will need a big lift in performance for ten races to challenge for the championship.
The quote: “Things have definitely gotten better of late and we need to string together some good finishes in order to make a run at this championship.”
Martin Truex Jr.
Truex makes his second Chase appearance and first as a member of Michael Waltrip Racing. The champion is going to need at least a win or two and Truex hasn't been able to find Victory Lane since 2007. The No. 56 team has to step up the effort or be left in the dust early on during the title stretch.
The quote: “If we can get a win, it would boost our confidence even more and provide the momentum we need to be a serious threat out there.”