Best of the best

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports

Dover, Del. – Let's talk stats for a moment.

(I know, numbers are boring, but flatter me.)

So far this season, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have won 48 percent of Nextel Cup races. Between them they have 58 top-10 finishes, which equates to a .716 batting average. Combined, they've led 2,929 of the 7,699 laps raced, or 38 percent.

So what does all this mean?

Well, while it's interesting to look at the title chances of, say, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. or Denny Hamlin, the numbers warn that doing so is a mostly fruitless endeavor. Because while any of the nine other Chase for the Nextel Cup contenders can dominate on any given race day, as Bowyer did last Sunday at New Hampshire, none have proven they can do it on a week-in, week-out basis better than Johnson, Gordon or Stewart.

Simply put, it's conceivable that one of these three, maybe two, would suffer some sort of swoon – be it through accidents, blown engines or both – and fade away over the nine remaining Chase races. But it's too much to think that all three will, which is why the 2007 Nextel Cup champion will be Johnson, Gordon or Stewart.

"I don't think anybody knows," countered Matt Kenseth, when asked if the big three are unbeatable. "Of course, you'll probably give a little advantage to the 48 (Johnson) and 24 (Gordon) because they've been there all year. But right now it's anybody's game."

Not really.

Consider the following:

• Only once this season has Gordon finished out of the top 10 two races in a row.

• Johnson has finished in the top 10 in six of the last seven races.

• Stewart's worst finish over the last nine races is 13th.

Want more? How about last weekend at New Hampshire when Johnson finished sixth and his crew chief was mad.

"We set goals to finish in the top five," Chad Knaus said. "We're a little disappointed with finishing sixth."

Can you imagine Todd Berrier, Kevin Harvick's crew chief, saying this?

Some will argue that the addition of two more drivers to the playoff mix has watered down the Chase field, making it more likely that a so-called young gun can jump in and steal the Cup. Actually, the exact opposite is true, and here's why:

In each of the past three Nextel Cup playoffs, the eventual champion suffered at least one subpar finish yet still prevailed in the end. Johnson posted a 39th and a 24th last year; Stewart had a 31st and a 20th in '05; and Kurt Busch had a 42nd en route to the '04 championship.

But with the field expanded to 12, the margin for error has shrunk. With more drivers comes more possibility that at least one of them will make it through all 10 races without a major mistake. If you had to bet, which driver (or drivers) would you put your money on to make it to the end unscathed?

Johnson, Gordon and Stewart (in this order only to reflect the current points standings) are the unquestioned drivers to beat even when they're not at their best, and right now they are. If they finish on the lead lap, they're in the top 10, and more often than not, they're on the lead lap.

All this leaves little room for error for the other nine drivers, who in another time and another place would – and have been – the favorites. Without question, this is the deepest field in Chase history, yet still it's top heavy. That's how good the big three are.

"Whoever the champion is at the end of the year, you want to look back and say, 'I beat the best at their best,' and this looks like the year for that," Johnson said.

Yes, it does.

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