Breaking down NASCAR contenders

Penske Racing driver Brad Keselowski walks past a new Snap-on car during the NASCAR Media Tour in...

Penske Racing driver Brad Keselowski walks past a new Snap-on car during the NASCAR Media Tour in Concord, North Carolina January 26, 2012. (Reuters/CHRIS KEANE)

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:20 AM ET

TORONTO - Taking a look at the NASCAR Sprint Cup contenders:

BRAD KESELOWSKI

Brad Keselowski came into the 10-race Chase with a bang, winning at Chicagoland Speedway, making the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge team the one to beat.

He has been able to hold on to that lead thanks to a second victory at Dover International Speedway and Top 10 finishes at New Hampshire, Talladega and Kansas.

His worst result was an 11th-place finish at Charlotte.

Of course, Keselowski came out of the Talladega debacle, where contenders like Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer took big points hits, relatively unscathed — so that has helped him stay in front.

The next four tracks, however, will present Keselowski with his biggest challenge.

Of the top five drivers in the Chase Keselowski has the worst record over the past five races at those tracks.

His best finish at Martinsville is a ninth at the spring race this season, but his average finish there is 13.4.

Most alarming is that his numbers at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead are even worse.

Then there is the pressure factor.

This is Keselowski’s first taste of being the top gun in NASCAR’s premier loop and he will be the target of gamesmanship.

What Keselowski does have in his favour is the No. 2 Dodge team is getting all of the attention from the vast array of racing talent — engineers, mechanics and fabricators — from Penske’s NASCAR and IndyCar shops.

This is team owner Roger Penske’s best chance to claim his first Sprint Cup championship and he is going all in to make sure Keselowski has the best equipment possible on the track.

Keselowski’s record at Final Four tracks over past 20 races:

Martinsville917191012

Texas3624183314

Phoenix518154216

Homestead20132523DNS

*DNS — Did Not Start

 

DENNY HAMLIN

Denny Hamlin has to be all smiles going into the final month of the Chase. The

No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota may be

20 points back of Brad Keselowski — but at the next four venues Hamlin is king of the road.

He has an astounding seven victories in the past 20 races at Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead with 11 Top 10 finishes and eight Top 5 finishes.

Those numbers are by far the best of the five contenders in this season’s Chase.

Hamlin also has a crew chief — Darian Grubb — who knows how to win when it comes down to the final laps.

This is the same Darian Grubb who guided Tony Stewart to five wins in last season’s championship, sealing the deal with a win at the final race at Homestead.

All he got in return was a pink slip. The Gibbs team snapped up Grubb — and Hamlin is the beneficiary.

Two seasons ago Hamlin fought Jimmie Johnson tooth and nail in the Chase, only to lose his composure under pressure from the five-time champion. But the feeling this year is that the team won’t be intimidated. And remember in his 2010 run he had to share the Chase resources at Gibbs with teammate Kyle Busch.

This season Hamlin gets all the good stuff coming out of the shop and you can be sure that if there is a slip-up of any kind on pit stops, replacements will be made available from either the Busch team or from the team of outgoing Joey Logano.

Hamlin’s record at Final Four tracks over past 20 races:

Martinsville111256

Texas11152012

Phoenix130121112

Homestead1131149

KASEY KAHNE

Kasey Kahne has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his NASCAR Sprint Cup career but never on a consistent basis.

When he came into the Cup loop in 2004 it was expected that within a few seasons he would be a championship contender.

But other than two Chase appearances — in 2006 and 2009 — Kahne has lagged far behind what was hoped by the various teams he has driven for.

Remember this is Kahne’s ninth season in the Cup. He came to the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team expected to take the No. 5 team and turn it into a worthy contender alongside Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the HMS shop.

After the first six races of this season, it looked like team owner Rick Hendrick had made a rare wrong decision in dumping Mark Martin in favour of Kahne.

It was there in the results — 29th, 34th, 19th, 37th, 14th and 38th — leaving Kahne way back in 31st place in the NASCAR points parade.

Then came a run of seven consecutive Top 10 finishes — including a tide-turning win at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

At 30 points back of Brad Keselowski with four races left, the odds are very long that Kahne can mount a challenge for a Chase championship, but it is too early to count him out completely.

He will need a top finish at Martinsville — where his record is not great — to stay among the hopefuls.

Kahne’s record at Final Four tracks over past 20 races:

Martinsville1714392538

Texas51321135

Phoenix29308134

Homestead2461767

JIMMIE JOHNSON

Jimmie Johnson has won the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship a record five consecutive times, a skein that was only broken last season by Tony Stewart. It was that loss that has made the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team more determined than ever to get back to its winning ways this season.

Over the first six races in this Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, you can see that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are operating on all cylinders.

There is no argument that Johnson is a skilled a driver as there is in NASCAR and that Knaus is as good at preparing a race car — sometimes ignoring the rules — as any crew chief in history.

With four races left to claim a sixth Cup title, Johnson and the No. 48 team would appear perfectly positioned just seven points back of Brad Keselowski.

Just look at his record at those next four tracks — one win, eight top fives, 14 Top 10 finishes — in the past three seasons.

So all Johnson has to do is maintain his average in the next month and wait to pounce on any mistake the No. 2 Dodge might make.

If there is a chink in the armour of the Johnson/Knaus tandem, it is if teammate Kasey Kahne makes a move to challenge the 48 and 2 teams, it could result in a split of resources at Hendrick.

The betting here, though, is that when push comes to shove everybody at Hendrick will be pushing Johnson.

He didn’t get to be a five-time champion by accident.

Johnson’s record at Final Four tracks over past 20 races:

Martinsville295112

Texas298142

Phoenix 135314

Homestead7155232

CLINT BOWYER

Clint Bowyer never expected to be in this position — fourth in the Chase with three wins on the season — with four races left on the 2012 racing calendar.

This is the driver, after all, who was found expendable at Richard Childress Racing last season and who didn’t have a 2012 job until he made a deal with upstart Michael Waltrip Racing in the No. 15 Toyota. And Bowyer only got that ride because he was able to bring his sponsor — Five Hours Energy — with him.

Here he is with three wins — which equals the total number of MWR wins before Bowyer arrived — and a solid Chase so far, sitting a not an insurmountable 25 points back of Keselowski.

Bowyer’s problem is not with Brad Keselowski, however, it is with Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, who stand between him and the leader.

The No. 48 and No. 11 teams have much better records going into Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead than the No. 15 MWR squad.

Bower has one win — at Phoenix in the Spring — but only four Top 5 finishes over the past 20 races at those tracks.

He will have to hope that Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin all suffer near catastrophic finishes in one or more of the final four events in this Chase.

In the end, though, Bowyer has shown this season he has to be included on any list of top NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers.

Bowyer’s finishing position at Final Four tracks over past 20 races:

Martinsville73091910

Texas 36 7 2 9 17

Phoenix9227130

Homestead39511126

 


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