And now for the Chase

By: By Andy Cagle - Contributing columnist

So the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup regular season is over and 16 guys are going to be racing over the next 10 weeks to win a championship. NASCAR even had a big party for them after the race last Saturday night at Richmond. Or so I heard, I was asleep.

The Chase fields includes the 11 drivers who combined to win the first 26 races of the year plus the five guys who landed in the top 15 in points. That first group includes Kyle Busch who was 27th in points, but is now tied for the points lead after the reset with Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.

The three of those drivers each won four times in the first 26 races. Joey Logano is three points behind that group by virtue of his three wins.

Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, and Carl Edwards with two wins each are six points behind the lead group. Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin are nine points behind the leaders with one win each.

Then comes the winless five: Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer, who are 12 points in arrears of the Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kenseth.

That’s nine Chevrolets, five Toyotas and two Fords if those type of things matter to you. For the first time since the advent of the Chase in 2004, Roush Fenway Racing is shut out of at least one spot.

Kasey Kahne is the only Hendrick Motorsports driver not racing for a championship this week at Chicago. Aric Almirola, who made the Chase field last year as a race winner, was the first man out of this year’s Chase. He incidentally would have made the Chase had Kyle Busch been outside of the top 30 in points (and y’all know how I feel about that). For the third straight year, Tony Stewart, the only man to win a Winston Cup, a Nextel Cup and a Sprint Cup, is out of the running for another Cup.

This will be the second year that the Chase has elimination rounds. Essentially, four drivers are eliminated after the first three races, then four more after race six, the four more after race nine, so you are left with four drivers contending for the 2015 Sprint Cup at Homestead.

Drivers who win a race in a round are automatically through to the next round. Otherwise, the bottom four in points are bounced from contention.

Got it? Good.

When I wrote this column about 15 years ago in one of these papers, I made weekly race predictions. All year, I got two race winners right. I told you all that to temper expectations because I am about to lay some predictions on you.

The first group of drivers to go after the “challenger” round will be Menard, McMurray, Truex and Hamlin. Hamlin I think will be the biggest surprise here, as the Gibbs teams have been exceedingly strong as of late. But Hamlin is battling a torn ACL in his right knee and that’s a good a reason for someone to have to go.

The drivers getting bounced after the “contender” round will be Newman, Bowyer, Edwards and Keselowski. I almost put Earnhardt in this group but Talladega is the third race in this round and I would never count him out at a plate track. The year my column featured race predictions, Earnhardt winning at Talladega was one of the two that I got right (the other was Ricky Rudd winning at a road course).

That leaves eight for the “eliminator” round (and I’m not making the names up; this is what NASCAR calls them). The Busch brothers, Earnhardt and Kenseth come to the end of the road here.

I realize that takes all of the Gibbs cars out of the picture for the championship, but I can’t see a championship race at Homestead without Johnson, Harvick, Gordon and Logano duking it out to win. Of those four, only Logano has won a race recently, but Harvick and Johnson have just been cruising of late, because they could and Gordon is going to go out in style.

And your 2015 Sprint Cup Champion: Joey Logano. Because let’s do something different.

And remember, I’m terrible at predictions.

Andy Cagle writes a weekly column about NASCAR. Follow him on Twitter @Andy_Cagle.

By Andy Cagle

Contributing columnist

Andy Cagle writes a weekly column about NASCAR. Follow him on Twitter @Andy_Cagle.