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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Amazing Richmond race chock full of drama; Look for Denny Hamlin to continue his momentum and win the Sprint Cup title this year

Jeff Gordon celebrates making the chase with crew chief, Alan Gustafson, left, on pit row after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at the Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Va., Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

If you missed Saturday night's Cup race, you missed out -- big time.

Drama over everything from weather to the Chase Wild Card battles kept viewers on the edge of their seats into the wee Sunday morning hours. Jeff Gordon was junk early, then rallied to finish 2nd and take the 2nd Wild Card spot away from Kyle Busch, who lost it mainly because of a bad decision not to pit by crew chief Dave Rogers, and a dropped lugnut on his right rear tire on the last stop he made. Gordon was elated, Kyle was pissed -- rightfully so. I would be too if I drove my tail off like he did and still missed the Chase.

Clint Bowyer won the race on fuel mileage, but that wasn't the headline. The Chase battle trumped all.

But there are only 12 positions, so someone had to be the loser -- and it was Kyle. The battle between Busch and Gordon that had been hyped lived up to the hype, and now the Chase is upon us. Here's my breakdown of how I think things will go over the next weeks.

Breaking down the Chase field:

The Hendrick Juggernaut:
Jimmie Johnson can contend, and will, as he always does. Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne have momentum. Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to continue the consistency he had all season. Botttom line: Any of these four drivers can win this title if the cards fall in their favor.

The Waltrip teams
Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer made the Chase and have had great years. But I’m sorry, I don’t see them competing for the title. They’ll have good weeks, but are not as consistent as they need to be to win a title. Truex hasn’t won in years, which won’t fly in the Chase where wins are critical, and Bowyer is not a weekly contender.

Tony Stewart
He’s the defending champ. He might be the most talented driver in modern-day NASCAR. Of course he can win the title. He won it last year by taking have the Chase races after a terrible regular season. This regular season wasn’t terrible, so the competition better watch out. His teammate Ryan Newman missed, but it’s for the best. He would have been filler and not done much anyway.

Denny Hamlin
He’ll start the Chase up top of the standings. Hamlin is the most consistently up front as of late, and should continue that streak into the Chase. He’s on a mission to make up for the title he blew two years ago to Jimmie Johnson. After last year’s stumbles, he has to be one of the top two or three favorites to win this thing, barring any unforeseen circumstances like wrecks getting in his way.

Brad Keselowski
Penske Racing is smaller than the other teams, and it’s their last year with Dodge, so you might say they have a higher hill to climb. But the driver of the Blue Deuce is the ultimate equalizer. He is the reason that car does so well, and he will do what is necessary to win a title. I’ve seen Brad come up from the bottom and show his talent on every level. He is a winner, and if he wins enough the next 10 weeks, he has a great shot at being the first NASCAR champ from the state of Michigan since the late Benny Parsons.

Kevin Harvick
Lately he’s on a decent run. But this year hasn’t been great for Kevin or the RCR team. It would take an uptick in performance like Stewart had last year for him to win the title, and I just don’t see it happening.

Roush drivers Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth
Both of these guys are on a mission. Biffle wants respect, and he’s made it clear he likes being the one who isn’t talked about, so he can go out and win races and show the media he should be talked about. He has a bit of a chip on his shoulder, which is good if you’re running for a title. Kenseth was the 2003 champ, and he wants to win another title before moving to his new ride with Joe Gibbs. He has been up front all year, is probably the most consistently good driver over his entire career with the possible exception of Jimmie Johnson, and anyone who says Kenseth can’t be champ again is fooling themselves.

Here’s my prediction of the final standings in the Chase.

1. 1. Denny Hamlin

2. 2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

3. 3. Brad Keselowski

4. 4. Jimmie Johnson

5. 5. Greg Biffle

6. 6. Matt Kenseth

7. 7. Jeff Gordon

8. 8. Tony Stewart

9. 9. Kasey Kahne

10. 10. Kevin Harvick

11. 11. Martin Truex Jr.

12. 12. Clint Bowyer

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