By: Jason Schultz
Two races down, eight to go. In eight races we’ll know who the 2012 Sprint Cup Champion will be. After this past week in New Hampshire, we saw who the favorites are for the championship. Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski are starting to show up as the favorites for the Sprint Cup. The other nine drivers aren’t out of it but they are in need of some catch up.
Denny Hamlin basically called his shot and said he was going to win this weekend and he did. Hamlin was the favorite for the Cup coming into the race and now he is showing his strength. Hamlin is now in the third position in the standings and he is only seven points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. After having a little issue last week at Chicago, Hamlin came into New Hampshire with redemption on his mind and he redeemed himself in a big way.
Jimmie Johnson has now had two strong second place finishes to open the Chase. That is very consistent but as we have seen in years past, the championship will come down to wins verse consistency and consistency lost Carl Edwards the championship in 2011. Johnson is going to need to win if he wants a shot at the championship. Being the point’s leader now doesn’t mean as much as it will if he is the point’s leader after Homestead-Miami.
The driver that has been heard most throughout the garage area is Brad Keselowski and Keselowski’s talk, talk, talk is currently paying off. Keselowski finished sixth in New Hampshire and he now sits comfortably in second in the point’s standings, only one point behind Jimmie Johnson. Keselowski is doing all he needs to do now to win the championship and that could pay off come the season finale.
Last year’s champion Tony Stewart has not been performing like he did in last year’s Chase but that could be a good thing. Stewart started off the 2011 Chase by winning the first two races and he obviously hasn’t done that this year. Last Chase, Stewart played the wins game and that won him his third Sprint Cup trophy. So far this Chase, Stewart is playing the consistent game and that could be the key to winning the championship. Stewart likely needs to get to victory lane in the Chase if he wants to win the championship but being consistent could also do him good.
Kasey Kahne hasn’t made any noise so far in the Chase. Kahne is currently sitting in the fifth position in the points and he has been pretty quiet. We haven’t seen Kahne in the lead of the first two races but Kahne has been doing decent. However, decent won’t win you the championship. Kahne is going to have to start making some noise and maybe wind up in victory lane if he wants to win the championship.
Clint Bowyer is remaining in the middle of the Chase pack two races into the Chase. Bowyer hasn’t made any major noise but his first Chase driving for Michael Waltrip Racing is going well. Bowyer is going to need to start winning a few races if he wants the championship. Bowyer has some good tracks coming up and he is definitely capable of getting up in the points in the next few races.
Currently sitting in the seventh position in the points is Dale Earnhardt Jr. After the points reset coming into the Chase, Earnhardt Jr hasn’t found his way back to the top. Earnhardt Jr is showing his usual signs of his usual performance in the Chase. He is keeping up with the Chase pack but he isn’t doing anything spectacular. We all knew that Earnhardt Jr was going to need to win some races in the Chase if he was going to contend for the championship. Two races down and Earnhardt Jr hasn’t been up front. In the next eight races Earnhardt Jr will need to get up front and be there by the time the checkered flag falls.
As we get lower in the Chase standings after New Hampshire, the drivers who we discuss will need to improve some but Kevin Harvick is one exception. Harvick had one okay race last week in Chicago but I believe we saw Harvick’s true colors in New Hampshire. Harvick showed strength in New Hampshire and that is what he needs to show. If Harvick can build off his performance in New Hampshire, he will be back up front competing for the wins and soon the championship.
Regular season champion Greg Biffle is not living up to his expectations in the Chase. Biffle was the lowest finishing Chase driver this past weekend at New Hampshire and that is not what a champion does. Biffle is falling farther and farther behind and soon he will be out of championship contention. Biffle will need to pick it up this week at Dover and go after the win.
Martin Truex Jr is in his first Chase and he is performing on an okay level. Being his first Chase, we don’t expect him to be the dominant car but he is doing okay so far. Truex Jr is learning this Chase and he will eventually be competing for wins and the championship but I don’t think it’ll be this season. Truex Jr has his best shot at victory in the Chase this weekend at Dover –his home track- and he will be running up front and contending for the win.
Matt Kenseth is not competing to the best of his ability. Kenseth had a great regular season but now he isn’t showing the same strength he did then. Yes, Kenseth isn’t returning to this team in 2013 but Kenseth said himself that he wouldn’t be distracted by leaving in 2013. That is wrong. Kenseth and his team aren’t performing their best because they’re focusing on 2013 already. Kenseth has eight weeks left with this team and he needs to make the best of the eight races.
Jeff Gordon has stayed stationary since the Chase started. He started dead last in the Chase and he is still there. Gordon had a great run this past weekend at New Hampshire but the one bad week he had in Chicago has cost him. Gordon will need to finish in the top five for the next eight weeks if he wants a reasonable shot at the championship come Homestead. Gordon can do it but only time will tell.
The Chase picture didn’t change much after New Hampshire but it is getting ready to shake up after we visit Dover and Talladega. The next two races will be crucial for the Chase drivers and only the best will come out on top. The driver’s quest for the Sprint Cup continues this Sunday afternoon In Dover.