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McNulty's NASCAR Chase contenders 0

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - 

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship starts Sunday with the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

The Dean of Speed looks at all 12 contenders and what Las Vegas odds makers think of their chances at bringing home the big trophy in November at Homestead Miami Speedway:

1: Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

This is not Hamlin’s first trip to the finals as the favourite.

In 2010 it looked like he and the No. 11 team had the title sewn up until the final two races when he came unglued under pressure from Jimmie Johnson at Phoenix and Homestead.

Hamlin, under new crew chief Darian Grubb, pledges that he won’t fold again.

He said that he has learned to take it one race at a time and to enjoy the ride.

And with Grubb he has a pit boss who knows how to get it done, as he did with Tony Stewart last season.

Vegas odds: 6-1

2: Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

After winning five championships in a row, Johnson had a down year in 2011, but has bounced back and has to be considered a top threat to get the “six pack” he craves.

His three wins this season has shown the team has its form back but there are some troublesome signs that the well-oiled No. 48 still has some issues.

Johnson has only one top 5 finish (second at Bristol) in his past four races.

He and crew chief Chad Knaus, however, have shown time and again that when the end is in sight, that is when they are most dangerous.

Vegas odds: 5/2

3: Tony Stewart, No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet

Stewart is defending champion and comes into the Chase this season with three wins, unlike last year when he was winless going into Chicagoland.

He could catch fire again but his recent record suggest otherwise.

In his past four starts, Stewart has struggled with only a fourth place at Richmond to go with a 32nd (Michigan), 27th (Bristol), 22nd (Atlanta).

He is without a doubt one of the most talented drivers in the series but needs to give the No. 14 team his full attention if he wants to repeat.

Vegas odds: 8-1

4: Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge

Keselowski is part of a new breed of NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers.

He is social media savvy and knows how to get the attention of both fans and his competitors.

Keselowski also happens to be one heck of a race car driver and his three wins this season are a testament to the level of talent in the 28-year-old from Rochester Hills, Mich.

He is a bit of a throw back at the same time as he does not take kindly to being pushed around and will retaliate with kind when it becomes necessary.

If there is a drawback for Keselowski this season, it is that he does not have, and will not get, the kind of engineering and technical support from Dodge that the Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota teams will have.

Penske is the only Dodge outfit left in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage and it is moving to Ford next season.

Vegas odds: 8-1

5: Greg Biffle, No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford

The veteran Biffle has been at or near the top of the Sprint Cup standings all season, but doesn’t get the same attention and respect his teammates Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth both garner.

Maybe it is because his history shows that he often fades down the stretch.

Biffle has made his Chase for the Championship in four of the past five seasons, but the best he has come away with his a third in 2008.

Vegas odds: 12-1

6: Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota

If there is a surprise driver in the 2012 Chase it is Bowyer.

He came to what was a struggling MWR after leaving a pretty good Richard Childress Racing team.

But his presence and Mark Martin’s veteran presence has made race fans look up and take notice of the MWR group.

Bowyer’s win at Richmond gives the team momentum heading to Chicagoland.

Vegas odds: 20-1

7: Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

It has been a log time since Earnhardt has put together a season where it can be realistically said that he has a chance to claim a championship.

Since hooking up with crew chief Steve Letarte last season, Earnhardt has gone from also-ran to contender in just about very race he starts.

His consistency this season reminds us of Carl Edwards last year coming within a whisker of winning it all with just a single victory.

If Earnhardt is within spitting distance of the leader in the last few races watch television ratings for the Chase go through the roof.

Vegas odds: 8-1

8: Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford

Kenseth is having his best season since he won it all back in 2003.

The difference this time is that he is essentially a lame duck driver in the No. 17 RFR Ford.

The team announced mid-way through the season that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. would be in that car next season and a few weeks ago Kenseth announced he was headed to the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in 2013.

So you know that all of the RFR resources will be going to Biffle and the No. 16 team.

Vegas odds: 12-1

9: Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet

One would think that Harvick should be seeded higher than ninth but he has not had, by is standards, very good season.

Harvick has no wins and only four top fives finishes in the first 26 races.

He has a new/old crew chief in Gill Martin, who was brought back after Shane Wilson didn’t get the desired results.

Harvick has a 15th (Bristol), 5th (Atlanta) and a 10th (Richmond) since the change.

Vegas odds: 15-1

10: Martin Truex Jr., No. 56 Michael Waltrip Jr. Toyota

Truex is the second MWR team in the Chase and is there on the strength of his 14 Top 10 finishes so far.

His chances for a title are slim as the team might be just happy to be there in the first place.

Vegas odds: 20-1

11: Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Kahne, in his first season with the powerhouse Hendrick operation, has a pair of wins — at Las Vegas and Charlotte — but also has eight finishes of 14th or worse.

If he gets hot and finishes all 10 Chase races he has a chance.

Vegas odds: 10-1

12: Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Gordon made it into the Chase on the final night of the regular season with a second place finish at Richmond ending up three points ahead of Kyle Busch.

But Gordon is better than his record shows as the team has fight though a series of bad breaks, cars wrecking round him, flat tires and blown motors — all season long.

And as a four-time champion Gordon knows how to get the job done. Watch this team as a dark horse to win it all.

Vegas odds: 8-1


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