Dean of Speed's Chase breakdown

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:57 PM ET

TORONTO - With the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship starts Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway The Dean of Speed looks at the Dazzling Dozen contending for stock car racing’s big prize:

No. 1 Seed: Kyle Busch

Strengths: The younger of the two Busch boys knows how to win. He’s been to Victory Lane four times already this season. He has also grown up and left his “Rowdy” reputation behind him as he guided the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team into contention for a championship.

Weaknesses: The chink in the Kyle Busch armour might just be that JGR has had engine problems this season. So serious that next season it will team up with Toyota‚s motor builders to jointly produce power plants. One engine failure in the Chase could be enough to sink Busch.

No. 2 Seed: Kevin Harvick

Strengths: Harvick has a single mindedness about him this season that was missing in the past. Just two weeks ago he divested himself of his Nationwide and Truck teams to concentrate on winning a Cup championship in the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.

Weaknesses: Three of his four wins this season came early so there is the suspicion that the No. 29 crew needs a shake-up. A botched pit stop in the Chase can be he difference between winning and coming in 10th. And Harvick will have to tame his famous temper.

No. 3 Seed: Jeff Gordon

Strengths: As a four-time Sprint Cup champion Gordon has the road map to the title down pat. The most impressive thing about the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team this season has been its consistency.

Weaknesses: Gordon has been the king of the long runs in the 26-race to the Chase but if he’s going to capture his fifth ring the No. 24 team had better figure out how to make their race cars faster on re-starts and short runs. Gordon must also figure out how to keep secrets from teammate Jimmie Johnson.

No. 4 Seed: Matt Kenseth

Strengths: The quiet man from Wisconsin is as good as a driver as there is in NASCAR at making the most out of a car that may not be the best on the track. Kenseth as won races when the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford wasn’t a Top 5 car. He is one of the few who can win on pure talent alone.

Weaknesses: Kenseth hasn’t had the kind of top pit crew chief it takes to win a Sprint Cup since Robbie Reiser held the position from 1998 through 2007. Jimmy Fennig is the third man on top of the pit box since Reiser left the position.

No. 5 Seed: Carl Edwards

Strengths: Edwards led the points parade for most of the 2011 season in the No. 99 RFR Ford and he is great at manhandling a race car to a win. It looks like he will get the lion’s share of the considerable RFR resources after signing a multi-year contract extension late in the season.

Weaknesses: Edwards has a tendency to get distracted in races, especially if he thinks a competitor is not racing him cleanly. Witness is dust-ups with both Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski the past few seasons.

No. 6 Seed: Jimmie Johnson

Strengths: Johnson and the No. 48 HMS Chevrolet team have won the past five Sprint Cup championships by being the best prepared team on the circuit. His relationship with crew chief Chad Knaus is the envy of every team in the garage and come to the track with the best set-ups week after week.

Weaknesses: Hard to find a weakness in a guy that has five rings but this season the Johnson has only one victory and his pre-occupation with Kurt Busch the past few races could hurt his chances for a six-pack.

No. 7 Seed: Kurt Busch

Strengths: If championships could be won on talent alone, Kurt Busch would have more than one Cup ring in career. He can drive the wheels off of the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge on any given Sunday when he puts his mind to it.

Weaknesses: The elder Busch often loses focus when the No. 22 Dodge gets out of whack on the track. And he has thrown his pit crew under the bus more than once this season. In the Chase he will need their help if he is to win a second Cup.

No. 8 Seed: Ryan Newman

Strengths: Newman got to NASCAR’s top loop partly because he is smart. He has an engineering degree from Purdue and has great communication skills with the pit crew of the No. 39 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet. He is also among the best qualifiers in the Sprint Cup garage.

Weaknesses: He has yet to prove that he is nearly as good a finisher as he is a starter. For a top driver Newman also seems to get involved in an abnormally high number of wrecks.

No. 9 Seed: Tony Stewart

Strengths: Stewart has won in just about any race car he has ever driven. He can make the No. 14 SHR Chevrolet look like a rocket ship by the just willing it to the front. A top talent behind the wheel Stewart has a pair of Sprint Cups in his trophy case so he knows how it’s done.

Weaknesses: As the only owner/driver in the Chase Stewart has a lot on his mind that might distract him from the task at hand which is to win his third Sprint Cup championship.

No. 10 Seed: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Strengths: Earnhardt will share the best equipment on the grid with his Hendrick teammates. The No. 88 HMS Chevrolet team also has one of the best crew chiefs in Alan Gustafson on top of the pit box. And its looks like Junior has the fire in his belly for the first time in a long time.

Weaknesses: Earnhardt has not had a race win in almost three full Sprint Cup seasons. He can’t win a championship until he breaks through to Victory Lane. He must also start qualifying better to avoid crashes like that happened last week at Richmond.

No. 11 Seed: Brad Keselowski

Strengths: Keselowski is part of the future in Sprint Cup. He is both talented and determined enough to take the No. 2 Penske Dodge to the championship. He has been on fire with two wins and four podium finishes in the last six Cup events.

Weaknesses: It is Keselowski’s first time at big boy table so it remains to be seen how he will react when the pressure is ratchetted up several notches over the next 10 weeks. His inexperience could hurt him and he team.

No. 12 Seed: Denny Hamlin

Strengths: There is no question that Hamlin has the talent to drive the No. 11 JGR Toyota to the front in this year’s Chase. His remarkable recovery from a big wreck on Lap 8 at Richmond to a Top 10 finish shows he can be a contender this season.

Weaknesses: Hamlin should have won last year but a series of mistakes on pit road and behind the wheel gave the title to Johnson for the fifth time. With Mike Ford still on top of the pit box there is no reason to thinks anything is different this time around.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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