COMMENTARY | After some hand-slapping, some points-shuffling and some driver-shifting, the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set: 12 drivers representing eight teams, with a combined total of 269 wins among them. Three drivers qualified with more than two wins, three of the 12 qualified with no wins and one driver qualified for the first time. Heading into the first Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday, September 15, these 12 drivers will be facing various degrees of pressure - from teams, from sponsors, from fans and from the media. Which drivers are the hottest - in both pressure and statistics - in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, and which drivers are already losing their grip on the title? Watch these five drivers carefully over the next 10 weeks.
Jimmie Johnson - NOT - "Five-Time" has had a rough time in the last four races - 40th at Michigan, 36th at Bristol, 28th at Atlanta and 40th at Richmond - and it ate into his significant points lead - not that those points mattered anymore. Johnson's last win this season came at Daytona in July, so the only momentum he has going into Chase is a downward spiral. Chicagoland is one of the few tracks Johnson has yet to win at, but he does have three runner-up finishes and nine top 10 finishes in 11 races at the 1.5-mile track.
Joey Logano - HOT - Easily the best and most competitive season of his career, Logano improved greatly over the last half of the "regular season." Once as low as 18th in points, Logano put together a stretch of six top 10 finishes from Indy to Atlanta - including a win at Michigan - and moved up 10 spots in points. Logano is a first-time Chaser, so the pressure is on, but the pressure has been on all season: he made the move from Joe Gibbs Racing to Penske Racing as something of an unproven commodity, earning only two wins in his first four full-time seasons after being heralded as "sliced bread" - as in the next best thing since.
Clint Bowyer - HOT - Bowyer is hot, but not because of his wins for the season (there weren't any) - Bowyer's hot because of controversy. After heavy penalties were levied on Michael Waltrip Racing following a NASCAR investigation into events at the Richmond race, Bowyer and the entire MWR organization will be watched and scrutinized by officials, fans, the media and their fellow competitors. As for Chicagoland, Bowyer will be watched even more closely because he'll likely be running in the top 10 - he's earned six top 10 finishes in seven starts.
Kurt Busch - LUKEWARM - Busch is the feel-good story of the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season: the once-bad-boy driver becomes the poster boy for single-car teams like Furniture Row Racing, a team that does a number of things,like being headquartered in Denver, Colorado, differently. The first single-car team to qualify for the Chase in its 10-year history, Furniture Row has yet to get to victory lane this season, but it's not because Busch hasn't tried: he qualified on the front row eight times (including a pole), led laps in 13 races and finished in the top 10 13 times, including a runner-up finish at Richmond to secure his spot in the Chase. In 12 races at Chicagoland, Busch has six top 10 finishes.
Ryan Newman - LUKEWARM - The final driver awarded a Chase Wild Card spot after the MWR controversy remedied itself, Newman had an up-and-down season highlighted by a start from the pole and his first trip to victory lane at his home track, Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Along the way he lost his ride for 2014 at Stewart-Haas Racing, picked up a ride for 2014 at Richard Childress Racing, and left Richmond thinking he had lost his chance at the Chase, only to be added to the Chase roster less than 48 hours later - they don't call it "silly season" for nothing. His on-track stats for the 2013 regular season included 12 top 10 finishes in 26 races, and his Chicagoland stats include a win and seven top 10 finishes in 11 starts.
Source: "Statistical Advance: Analyzing the GEICO 400," NASCAR Media, September 10, 2013
Paula is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in motorsports. She also covers NASCAR at Skirts & Scuffs and Examiner.com.
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