With the conclusion of the regular season, the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup is now set. And while it turned out that the Chase comprised the top 12 drivers after all, the furious battle for the wild card and the unpredictability of the entire season mean that picking a winner at this point is tougher than driving Bristol blindfolded. But let's run down your competitors anyway, in order of their seeding:
1. Kyle Busch (2012 points, four wins): The last time Busch entered the Chase on this kind of roll, back in 2008, he knocked himself out of contention almost immediately with ugly finishes in his initial races. This time around, he's older (obviously), wiser (in theory), and one of the season-long favorites for the Chase. His prospects for winning are excellent.
2. Kevin Harvick (2012 points, four wins): Harvick's win at Richmond reversed an ugly string of substandard (for him) finishes; he hadn't had a top 10 since June prior to his domination on Saturday night. And suddenly, his prospects for the Chase have improved considerably.
3. Jeff Gordon (2009 points, three wins): His inconsistencies in the start of the season are a distant memory now. He was one curiously-timed caution courtesy of Paul Menard from winning at Richmond, and while the restart issue continues to plague him, Gordon now has to be considered one of the favorites in the Chase.
4. Matt Kenseth (2006 points, two wins): Kenseth has been fairly quiet of late, but he's shown the ability to jump up and grab a win at any time. If he can do that once or twice in the first half of the Chase, he'll suddenly vault into the "favorites" category.
5. Carl Edwards (2003 points, one win): Edwards has done everything this year but win. If he can continue the run of consistency he's had all season, he'll be a threat right from Chicagoland. But he can't afford to let other drivers pile up wins and get distance on him. Still, his ability to run in the top 5 even with a rotten car keeps him among the favorites.
6. Jimmie Johnson (2003 points, one win): For all the talk of Johnson having troubles this season, he's nonetheless able to run well and up front on every track in the Chase. You count him out at your peril, and until he loses this thing, the Chase still has to go through the 48.
7. Kurt Busch (2003 points, one win): When he's on, there's nobody better than Kurt Busch. But when he's off, he's way off. He's staking out turf in a battle against Jimmie Johnson; could that be a recurring subplot once the Chase begins? Busch is a few consistent races away from being a favorite.
8. Ryan Newman (2003 points, one win): Newman has run consistently in the mid-single digits all year long. That's good enough to get you into the Chase, but not good enough to throw a scare into anyone once you're there. He'll need more strong finishes to become a legit contender for the Cup.
9. Tony Stewart (2000 points, no wins): This has been a rough year for Stewart, a zero-win season for a guy who usually has no trouble finding victory lane a few times a year. While his two straight top 10s heading into the Chase are a very good sign, he hasn't shown the long-term consistency to give confidence in his Chase chances.
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2000 points, no wins): Earnhardt hasn't run at a Chase level in weeks. His strong early season proved to be just enough to hold up and get him into the Chase, but his "happy to be here" act won't sustain him. One more weak finish, just one, and he'll be a Chase afterthought.
11. Brad Keselowski (2000 points, wild card winner): Keselowski's three wins ended up going for naught as he couldn't quite close the gap on 10th place. Still, while Richmond ended his streak of top 10s, he ran well in the race. If he can post two or three top-five finishes out of the gate, he'll have to move into the "favorite" category.
12. Denny Hamlin (2000 points, wild card winner): Like Earnhardt, Hamlin's early-season success held up for just enough time to keep him in the Chase. Still, he's a shadow of the driver who was within a single race of taking the Cup last year. He'll need far more confidence and consistency to even move toward the "could be a favorite" category.
Favorites: Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards.
A good break from being a favorite: Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman.
Lots to prove: Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin
With the field set, it's your turn: who's your favorite? Go.