It’s playoff time.
For better or worse, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ended its 26-race regular season at Richmond last Saturday and we are now into the 10-race Chase. When the teams unload at Chicago this week, we have 16 teams that technically have a chance to win a championship at Homestead in November.
But, now that the playoff picture is set and we have all heard Ryan Newman’s diagnosis of Tony Stewart’s mental condition, let’s be real honest about who of the 16 is coming to play and who is coming to win. They are not the same and I have created three classifications in my redneck taxonomy to help us sort them out.
The we’re-just-glad-to-be-here-but-we-have-no-real-chance crowd
This is not an indictment of any of these teams, but, to be clear, they are playing with house money at this point. While some had some expectation of having a good 2016 season, making a deep playoff run would be a complete surprise. It could be worse. They could be Kasey Kahne, or Ryan Newman or Trevor Bayne and be done running really meaningful laps in 2016.
Mr. House Money himself, Chris Buescher, captains this team. At the beginning of the year, most everyone around NASCAR, me included, would have laughed directly in your face if you said Buescher would have a win and would make the Chase. But here it is, mid-September, and Buescher still have at least four more meaningful races left.
Filling out the rest of this squad are Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott and, finally, Tony Stewart. Larson, Dillon and Elliott will have more chances to win championships in their careers. All are good (especially Elliott and Larson), just not quite ready for primetime. Stewart is in the final-10 races of his Sprint Cup career and, despite being a three-time champion, the last few years gave no indication he would be a winner in 2016 and find himself in the Chase. He has made more headlines lately for wrecking people and pissing everyone off. McMurray, while he has had some good years and some big wins, is more known for the promise of his career after winning his second career race than his actual performance.
The we-think-we-have-a-chance-but-we-really-don’t pretenders
Good drivers, teams and some have championship pedigrees and they think they can win a championship in ’16, but they are just pretending. Unless Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have been sandbagging since March and experimenting by testing parts and pieces, this team is done. They finished the regular season 11th and have more double-digit finishes this year than I ever remember them having. Those are smart guys, but not smart enough for that kind of ruse and are part of a general malaise going on at Hendrick.
Despite how well they have been running, I am going to have to add two of the four Gibbs team to this list: Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, for no other reason than they got all five of their cars in the Chase (counting Martin Truex Jr.) and cannot support five teams making a run all the way through. And odds are, two of the five will hit some bad luck in round two or three.
The remaining Stewart-Haas teams of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch fall squarely into this group too. Harvick has run well of late, but would you trust his pit crew? He sure doesn’t and it isn’t reassuring to replace one of the crew guys with one from Danica Patrick’s team. Kurt Busch, despite his one win, hasn’t really seemed to be relevant to deciding the outcome of many races in 2016. I think the whole Stewart-Haas team has a bit too much on their plate with the switch to Ford in 2017, to be able to make a run for a championship.
The honest-to-god contenders
That leaves five drivers with a shot to win the 2016 championship: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano.
I don’t think the three Gibbs cars have to have any explanation. The team has 13 wins (and I am counting Truex as a Gibbs car) in 26 races and I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if they have all four cars racing for the championship at Homestead. But, unlike Johnson’s team, I think the Penske guys have been playing it safe after getting both cars securely in the Chase and don’t forget: Keselowski and Kyle Busch tied for most wins in the regular season with four victories.
I’m just going to leave this right here:
Andy Cagle writes a weekly NASCAR column. Follow him on Twitter @Andy_Cagle.