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Cool Down Lap: Chase field tough to predict

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DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Want to know who's a lock to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this year?
 
I'll give you six names: Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch.
 
Typically, by the time the Cup series leaves Darlington, it's relatively easy to predict most of the Chase field. Last year, 10 of the drivers in the top 12 in the standings after the Mother's Day eve visit to the Lady in Black went on to qualify for the Chase.
 
That won't happen this year. Trust me.

The six drivers listed above are locks for two basic reasons. Number one is the point spread between Bowyer in fifth and Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski, who are tied for sixth. Bowyer has scored 349 points through 11 races, 23 more than the two drivers immediately behind him.
 
Second, five of the top six drivers (the first five listed above) have shown the sort of consistency necessary to make the Chase. Johnson and Edwards have no DNFs this year. Kenseth has two but has run well in every race save Fontana, and his two DNFs are offset by three victories.
 
Earnhardt has been remarkably consistent, with seven top 10s and no DNFs in 11 races, but he and crew chief Steve Letarte have yet to find the speed they'll certainly need to contend for a championship. Bowyer likewise has been solid, if not spectacular.
 
Kyle Busch, eighth in the standings, has two DNFs but he also has five top-fives (tied for second most in the series), two of which are victories. If Busch should fall out of the top 10 in points, he'll make the Chase as a Wild Card. You can take that to the bank.
 
Beyond those six, however, assumptions are impossible and predictions nothing short of precarious. For one thing, five of the 12 drivers who made the Chase last year -- Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin -- are currently outside the top 10.
 
Common sense tells you that most, if not all of the drivers in that elite group will make a move in the 15 races before the Chase field is set.
 
To add to the intrigue, no driver in positions 11-20 in the standings has a victory so far this year. Should that remain the case, Paul Menard and Gordon (currently 11th and 12th) would win the two Wild Card spots by default.
 
Also likely, however, is the prospect of such drivers as Hamlin (currently tied for 26th) or Stewart (21st) winning a race or two, cracking the top 20 and grabbing a Wild Card spot. And if you want a good long-shot bet, try road course ace Marcos Ambrose (23rd), who could use victories at Sonoma and Watkins Glen as a springboard into his first Chase.
 
Aric Almirola and Menard, neither of whom has ever made a Chase, are currently ninth and tied for 10th in points, respectively. The next 15 races will tell us whether they have the staying power to go with their early-season success.
 
Of those currently outside the Chase-eligible positions, Hamlin has the most compelling story. After missing four races with a compression fracture of his first lumbar vertebra and giving way to a relief driver in a fifth, Hamlin celebrated his return to full-time Cup racing with a second-place finish in Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington.
 
Hamlin moved from 31st in the standings into a tie with David Ragan for 26th. Hamlin is 61 points behind Jeff Burton in 20th, the position he must reach to be eligible for a Wild Card, but he has 15 races to make the move.
 
Moreover, Hamlin must win at least one race, probably two. As dominant as Joe Gibbs Racing has been this season -- winning five of the 11 races so far -- that's a reasonable prospect, too.
 
That Hamlin is even a consideration for the Chase after sitting out four events, however, tells you just how wide open and unpredictable this year's competition will be.
 
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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