My Brain on NASCAR: Picking a champ by process of elimination

col-cathyelliottFor those who love to argue, e.g. lawyers, and teenagers, the sports world is literally a dream come true.
If I added up the minutes I have spent arguing with my cousin Rob about the relative merits of the Redskins versus the Cowboys (for some unknown reason we have a lone Dallas fan in the family), I seriously think it could add up to a year or more. And don’t even get me started on college basketball.  When it comes to sports, everyone’s an expert.

A lot of people have asked me about my predictions for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and in turn, I have asked a lot of people about theirs. The consensus opinion seems to be that the 2016 title is far from a lock, or too close to call.

But many writers who cover the sport, or talk about it on a personal level, have had the courage to make their predictions, so I guess I’ll go ahead and join the fray.

The 16 drivers still eligible to win the championship this year are, in order of the driver standings as of September 23: Martin Truex, Jr; Brad Keselowski; Kyle Busch; Denny Hamlin; Joey Logano; Chase Elliott; Matt Kenseth; Jimmie Johnson; Carl Edwards; Kurt Busch; Jamie McMurray; Tony Stewart; Austin Dillon; Kevin Harvick; Kyle Larson; and Chris Buescher.

Neither Austin Dillon nor Chase Elliott has won a race so far this year, but they both did pretty well. Dillon earned four top-five finishes, while Elliott racked up eight top-fives.

I’m going to include Kyle Larson in this group, with one win and seven top fives, along with Chris Buescher, who did pick up a win in a fog-shortened race at Pocono Speedway.

These are our up-and-comers, but none of them has enough experience to maintain the level of competition it takes to win a title. Their time will come, but not this year.

The weeding-out process gets tougher at this point, where I have to say goodbye to Jamie McMurray, who with one top five and no wins during the regular season got into the Chase based on consistency. Joey Logano scored a win and 11 top fives, but something keeps telling me he may be a little too “impulsive” to go all the way just yet. Give him another a year or two.
2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Kurt Busch has a win and six top fives on his 2016 resume so far, but with the exception of 2014 Champion Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing seems to have slipped a notch this season, so I’m going to rule Kurt out … along with his boss. I say this with the utmost reluctance, because I have been a diehard Tony Stewart shipper since the day he climbed behind the wheel of a stock car. He did win a race this year, but I don’t believe that winning a fourth championship is in the cards for Smoke, although a future spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame definitely is.
Eight down; eight to go.

Jimmie Johnson hasn’t looked a lot like the driver we have come to know and love – well, some people love him – this season. Granted he has scored two wins and seven top fives, but the days when the mere mention of his name could set detractors to hissing seem to be coming to an end. He’s still great, but title number seven is probably not in the cards this year.

The entire Joe Gibbs Racing roster is still on the table. It’s unlikely they will comprise NASCAR’s Final Four, so someone has to go. 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth earned his title based on consistency, but we all know that wins are everything. He has been to Victory Lane twice this season, but I don’t think he will make it to the head table in Las Vegas.

Unfortunately, the same applies to Carl Edwards, who also posted two wins in 2016, but will likely have to wait a little while longer for the big trophy and the bigger check. And while it’s always kind of a sucker move to bet against Kevin Harvick (two wins), issues with his pit crew and a tendency toward emotional outbursts may work against him as he attempts to win his second championship.

That leaves us with Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin, the top four after Chase race number one. Truex and Hamlin have three wins each so far this season, while 2012 Champion Keselowski and Kyle Busch, the reigning title holder, have four each.

Hamlin has been a lot of fun to watch over the years, treating us to exciting winning streaks, biting sarcasm, and incredible comebacks from injuries, among other things. In the end, temper and emotion may get the best of him, so I’m crossing him off the list.

Although I really, REALLY don’t want to say this, I’m doing the same with Truex. He started the Chase with a victory, and win or lose, he is the hands-down best story of the year, but these are the playoffs, and I don’t feel that his team can sustain that stellar performance level for nine more weeks. Bummer.

Welcome to the spot between a rock and a hard place, the choice between Keselowski and Kyle Busch. I love to watch these guys race. They are risk-takers, but they are skilled ones; we’ve all seen Busch accomplish things from behind the wheel that seemed almost superhuman. They are also temperamental and retaliatory types, which has created some harrowing and dangerous on-track incidents over the years.

It’s a coin toss, but I’m tossing Keselowski out. Overall I feel that Busch has a few more tricks in his toolbox, and he has proven over and over again that no matter where you put him, or what you put him in, he will end up a winner, and we just may see that happen again come November.

Only time will tell.

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