While college basketball closes in on crowning a champion this weekend in nearby Arlington, Texas, NASCAR will be putting on its own high-speed show across town at Texas Motor Speedway.
While the NCAA Tournament has boiled down to its last four teams just as the NASCAR season is only a sixth of the way into the books, it's never too early to offer fearless predictions on who the four title contenders will be in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16.
Based on new rules in place for 2014, an expanded field of 16 competitors in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff format will methodically pare the pool of title-eligible drivers down in a series of eliminations until only four remain.
Our panel of NASCAR.com experts, which also participates weekly in the NASCAR.com Power Rankings, offers opinions on how the new Chase will shake out with predictions on the title-eligible drivers for the winner-take-all season finale.
It's difficult to find a weak spot among the drivers in this fearsome foursome, each of whom can claim a level of expertise on the tracks that make up the 10-race Chase. Jimmie Johnson's history of turning up the wick once the Chase begins certainly guarantees him a spot among the title contenders, and the momentum that Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. has shown dating back to the end of 2013 will likely push him into the title mix at Homestead. Add in Kenseth's recent excellence on 1.5-mile tracks and the sheer speed shown by Keselowski and the Team Penske camp at nearly every venue so far, and these four are the likeliest to not only survive, but thrive and advance in the new format on the road to Homestead.
The majority of the nine tracks leading up to the season-ending championship at Homestead have been kind to these four drivers. Johnson and Kenseth have won on eight of the nine, while Harvick and Busch have earned wins on seven. With winning races guaranteeing advancement into the next round, it's hard to discount what these drivers and their respective teams have accomplished at these particular facilities in the past.
Johnson, Busch and Keselowski seem like gimme picks based on their history, their current performance and their potential down the stretch. The fourth choice was between Jeff Gordon -- who is having a better than average year, can never be counted out and I think is racing with a sense of career urgency; and Kenseth, who is fresh off a career year in wins during a new era that rewards that. But in considering the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format, Harvick looks like the best choice, having proven himself in the clutch and boasting an enviable track record at most of the 10 tracks that comprise the Chase. In the end, Johnson will be hoisting trophy number seven, having proven himself once again in yet another championship format.
Johnson may not yet have a victory, but the Chase tracks are still very good to him, and given his history, no one seems better suited to recording wins in each round. Earnhardt has been on a tear since last fall. He's only growing more confident, and his high finishes should keep him in contention even if he doesn't win more often. No one combines winning and consistency better than Kenseth, who's currently lurking second in points despite what's seemed a sluggish start to the year. And after an off season Keselowski has returned to form, and is showing more raw speed than just about any other driver on the circuit.
A final four without a Joe Gibbs Racing car? I can't believe it either. But it comes down to scheduling and the three races before Homestead. Jimmie Johnson will win Martinsville, Brad Keselowski will win Texas, and Kevin Harvick will continue his streak at Phoenix. The final spot in the championship race goes to the most consistent driver of the year: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Jimmie Johnson
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.