By KEVIN HARRIS
NEW ALBANY —
Because of Easter on Sunday, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will continue its longtime tradition by having no race on this holiday.
Therefore, it is a good time for me to evaluate my Chase for the Sprint Cup preseason predictions that I made on Daytona 500 weekend.
Here are my projected top 12 drivers with their current position in the standings:
1. CARL EDWARDS (currently 11th): Edwards is not exactly setting the world on fire six races into the season. But it’s a long season and Edwards has several tracks remaining in 2012 where he has a great shot at collecting some wins. I still consider him the man to beat for the 2012 championship.
2. JIMMIE JOHNSON (currently 10th): Despite getting caught in an early accident in the Daytona 500 and dealing with crew chief Chad Knaus’ problems with NASCAR, Johnson has had solid runs as of late and should be making an appearance in Victory Lane in the near future.
3. TONY STEWART (currently third): He is off to a great start to the season with a pair of wins. So far, the crew chief change the defending Cup champion made in the offseason has paid off. Expect Stewart to be contending for a third Cup title in the Chase.
4. KEVIN HARVICK (currently fifth): Harvick has had some efficient runs so far. If he can get some wins, he should easily make the Chase and be in the thick of the Cup championship race.
5. MATT KENSETH (currently fourth): He had an impressive victory in the Daytona 500 and has been his usual consistent self at the start of the season. Kenseth has plenty of great tracks coming up.
6. JEFF GORDON (currently 21st): It has been a disappointing start to the season. Gordon has been running well the last three races, but he cannot get the solid finishes. I still think he will make the Chase, but barely.
7. KYLE BUSCH (currently 16th): I have patiently been waiting for Mount Busch or his older brother to explode, as each driver has started off slowly this season.
8. KASEY KAHNE (currently 31st): No driver has had a more disappointing start to the season than Kahne. But this is not a time for Kahne and his No. 5 team to panic. Kahne is one of the most talented drivers in the Cup garage area. He has a great crew chief in Kenny Francis and one of the best owners in the business in Rick Hendrick. I still expect him to make the Chase.
9. BRAD KESELOWSKI (currently 12th): This season, Keselowski has shown he can be a factor on short tracks with his win at Bristol and on flat tracks like Phoenix, where he finished fifth.
10. DENNY HAMLIN (currently seventh): The 2012 campaign has been like last year when Hamlin worked with his old crew chief, Mike Ford — up and down. But I like the combination of Hamlin and his new crew chief and Stewart’s old crew chief Darian Grubb. Hamlin should at least make the Chase.
11. DALE EARNHARDT JR. (currently second): Junior has been a pleasant surprise for all of NASCAR. He has been competitive, especially the past two weeks with third-place finishes at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville. Still, the X-factor on whether Earnhardt makes the Chase or not will be his crew chief, Steve Letarte. If Letarte limits his mistakes, Junior should make the Chase.
12. GREG BIFFLE (currently first): His consistency has enabled him to take the lead in the Cup standings, as his average finish this season is 6.8. A big reason for that is Biffle is qualifying well. He has qualified in the top 10 in five of the first six races. The question for Biffle is can he maintain that consistency throughout the season? Also, he needs to get in Victory Lane sometime in the regular season.
• In addition to my analysis on my preseason Cup picks, I think there are three drivers who have established themselves as Chase contenders at this point in the season.
Two of them are from Michael Waltrip Racing in Martin Truex Jr., who is currently sixth in the standings, and Clint Bowyer, who is ninth. Believe me, I had to swallow my pride on praising MWR since I have delivered several shots at the organization over the past few years.
The third contender is Ryan Newman, who possibly secured a Chase spot with his fortuitous victory at Martinsville last week. The win boosted Newman up two spots in the standings to eighth.
• I have never liked NASCAR’s top-35 rule, which is the top 35 cars in the owner’s points standings are guaranteed a spot in the race, no matter where they qualify.
My argument against the rule strengthened last week when Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 10 car, driven by David Reutimann, stopped on the track with two laps to go in the Martinsville Cup race.
Reutimann was ordered not to go into the pits late in the race even though the No. 10 car was experiencing a plethora of mechanical issues and limping around the track.
The reason for that — the No. 10 car needed to stay out so it can try to remain in the top 35 in the owner’s standings and run at Texas next weekend and in upcoming races. One of those upcoming races includes May 12 at Darlington, with Danica Patrick piloting the No. 10 car.
As a result, there was a huge, controversial wreck at the end of the race, which ended a great late-race battle for the checkered flag between Johnson and Gordon.
If the top-35 rule did not exist, Reutimann and the No. 10 team would have probably decided to call it a day several of laps before the race ended.
Instead, a big mess ensued and NASCAR got what it always wants — an exciting finish and lots of controversy.
Contact Kevin Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org.