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Look for Jimmie Johnson to become Mr. Six Time when Chase is settled

  • Jimmie Johnson celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, July 6, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)

    Jimmie Johnson celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, July 6, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)

  • Kyle Busch, right, and crew members look over a tablet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star auto race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Friday, May 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

    Kyle Busch, right, and crew members look over a tablet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star auto race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Friday, May 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

  • Jimmie Johnson celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, July 6, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)

    Jimmie Johnson celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, July 6, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)

  • Kyle Busch, right, and crew members look over a tablet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star auto race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Friday, May 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

    Kyle Busch, right, and crew members look over a tablet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star auto race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Friday, May 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

  • Jimmie Johnson celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, July 6, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)
  • Kyle Busch, right, and crew members look over a tablet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star auto race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Friday, May 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
  • Jimmie Johnson celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, July 6, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)
  • Kyle Busch, right, and crew members look over a tablet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star auto race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Friday, May 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

The field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup is set. Finally.

It took a while, and featured a highly publicized journey through right, wrong, morals and ethics, but Sprint Cup at last has its 12 drivers that will compete for the series championship. Leading the way in the re-seeded standings is Matt Kenseth, with a series-high five wins, while Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch (four wins apiece) are aiming for titles No. 6 and 1, respectively.

Despite the favorites at the top, the focus has been on the bottom of the list, specifically the last entry spot that was initially won by Martin Truex Jr. Suspicion that teammate Clint Bowyer spun out on purpose in Richmond to prevent Ryan Newman from winning proved to, in NASCAR’s eyes, have some ground to it, however. The sanctioning body handed out penalties, bumping Truex Jr. from the competition and handing Newman a wild-card spot he would have in all likelihood secured had Bowyer not spun.

As if that wasn’t enough, controversy arose again when it was revealed through radio communications that Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports, both Ford teams, may have had a deal for David Gilliand to allow Joey Logano to pass him, a move that helped Logano make the Chase.

It’s a mess, one that created a less-than-desirable backdrop for the Chase, but the Sprint Cup’s playoffs will get under way this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, and 10 races from now, a champion will be crowned. Here’s a look at how the drivers stack up.

The favorites

∎ Matt Kenseth (No. 1 in the standings) has been terrific in his first year at Joe Gibbs Racing, winning five times and racking up 13 top-10s. Kenseth is a terrific finisher, as five of his six top-fives resulted in wins as well, but consistency could be an issue, as he hasn’t had three straight top-10s since May.

∎ Take out the last four weeks of the season and Jimmie Johnson (No. 2) is the overwhelming favorite. He’s averaged better than a top-10 at seven of the 10 Chase tracks and won at eight of them, and he’s been especially dangerous at Dover (seven wins) and Martinsville (eight).

But those four weeks, which saw Johnson finish 28th or worse each time, did happen, and if the slump lasts even another week, he could find himself buried early.

∎ You’ve got to win in the Chase to separate yourself, a notion that favors Kyle Busch (No. 3). With four wins and a Cup-best 11 top-fives, no one has been great as often as he has, and he can win anywhere.

The catch are the blowups. With six finishes of 30th or worse, Busch is prone to the kind of major mishap that could end his title pursuit before it really gets started.

∎ Carl Edwards (No. 5) is back to showing the form that got him a point away from a Cup title two years ago. If the Chase is tight late, that could play into his hands. He’s got seven combined career wins at Forth Worth, Phoenix (where he won in March) and Homestead, the last three tracks on the slate, and his career average finishing position at Homestead is a sparkling sixth.

In the mix

∎ Kevin Harvick (No. 4) enters the Chase with far more momentum than a season ago, when he was winless and had four only top-10s. He managed to win a Chase race last year, however, and he’s more than capable of turning the trick again this year. With a good track record at Chicago (average finish 10.5, two wins) and Loudon (13.4, 1), the first two stops, Harvick could get an early jump on the competition.

∎ In Loudon in July, Joey Logano (No. 6) finished 40th for the second straight week, marking the low point of his season. Since then, the Penske driver has been rock-solid, posting six top-10s in seven races, winning one and consistently impressing as the pressure’s built. He’ll need to start his first Chase well, however. He’s winless over the final five tracks, with average finishes of worse than 20th at three of them (Talladega, Texas and Homestead).

∎ Clint Bowyer (No. 8) could be the 2013 version of 2011’s Tony Stewart, who went winless during the regular season, then won five of 10 Chase races. Bowyer is also winless, but has led 48 or more laps in each of the last three races. He’s close – perhaps even due. But it’s worth watching how he gets treated on the track after the suspicious spinout in Richmond.

∎ Like Busch, Kasey Kahne (No. 11) has been great often this year, posting eight top-fives, winning twice and coming just short of a third in Bristol. Also like Busch, however, Kahne, with seven 30th-or-worse finishes, is also prone to disaster on race day. He hasn’t led any laps since winning at Pocono in August, but with a Chase spot all but wrapped up, he didn’t need to. He’ll be tough at Charlotte, the fifth stop, where he’s won four times.

∎ Ryan Newman (No. 12) needed NASCAR’s help to officially get in, but he earned a Chase spot on his own. He wins two of the final seven races if not for Bowyer, and he added two other top-fives for good measure.

With all of this happening since Tony Stewart announced his eventual release in Loudon, it’s fair to wonder if Newman’s been driving with a newfound edge and hunger. That attitude matches up well with the start of the Chase; he has eight wins at the first four tracks.

The long shots

∎ It’s hard to feel great about Greg Biffle’s (No. 7) title chances, given that the Washington native has led laps in only three races all year (granted, he won one of them) and his three top-fives and 10 top-10s are lowest among Chase competitors. He’s been decent, and decent gets you into the Chase. It doesn’t win it.

∎ Since the Chase’s debut in 2004, only once has a champion gone the 10 races without winning one of them. That doesn’t bode well for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 9), who’s won once in five years and last won at a Chase venue at Chicago in 2005.

∎ Kurt Busch’s (No. 10) pursuit of a Chase spot despite driving for a one-car team was one of the best stories of the NASCAR season. Given how surprising it is that he made the Chase, however, it shows how much of a shock it would be if he became the champion as well. It’s a lot to ask of what’s been a storybook season, though with three top-fives and four top-10s in his last five races, Busch is certainly gearing up to give it a shot.

Prediction

If once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence and three times is a trend, there’s no telling what the word is for Johnson’s slump. But you don’t become a five-time champion by collapsing when the races matter most. Look for Johnson to come alive and find the form that through August had the rest of the drivers playing for second, then taking advantage of his superior track record at the closing venues to hold off Kyle Busch.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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