Bill Fleischman's fearless forecast
FLEISCHMAN'S FEARLESS FORECAST
The Chase field has been expanded to the top 16 in points; race winners in the season's first 26 races are virtually assured a berth in the Chase; if a driver with a win is outside the top 16, he or she bumps the 16th-place driver if he or she has no wins; three elimination stages will reduce the contenders to four by the final Chase race in Homestead, Fla., on Nov.16.
Predicted Chasers (in alphabetical order): Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr.
Five drivers on the hot seat:
1. Kurt Busch: First year with Stewart-Haas Racing. How the combustible Busch will be as a teammate will be worth watching.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He has only one win in the last 5 years, despite driving for the powerful Hendrick Motorsports stable.
3. Carl Edwards: Had a terrible Chase, finishing last (only one top-five finish). Missed the Chase 2 years ago
after losing a close Chase to Tony Stewart the year before.
4. Jeff Gordon: A four-time Cup champion with 88
career wins, but he hasn't won a title since 2001.
5. Danica Patrick: Needs to improve on her rookie year, in which her average finish was 26th. Richard Petty's comment that she can only win a race if everybody else stays home will follow her much of the season. She was the fastest qualifier for last year's Daytona 500; she led five laps and finished eighth.