Commentary

The 2011 Chase field is set ... sort of

Updated: November 29, 2010, 11:46 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Being picked to win the Sprint Cup championship the year after a strong finish may rank up there with being on the cover of "Sports Illustrated" or the John Madden NFL video game if recent trends hold true.

It's a curse.

Or at least a prerequisite to not winning the title.

In 2005, Carl Edwards finished 35 points behind champion Tony Stewart and was proclaimed the favorite to win the title the following season. He went winless and finished 12th in the '06 standings.

In 2007, Jeff Gordon finished second in points to Jimmie Johnson with six wins and was a popular choice to be the next champion. He went winless and finished seventh in the '08 standings.

In 2008, Edwards won three of the last four races and finished second in points to become the No. 1 title contender for '09. He went winless and finished 11th in the standings the following season.

In 2009, Denny Hamlin won two of the final five races and became an overwhelming pick to win the championship. He didn't have the miserable season some of the others did -- he won eight times -- but he became the first driver since the Chase began in 2004 not to win the title when leading going into the final race.

So as Edwards sat in the media center following Sunday's victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his second win in a row after going 70 races without one, he was reminded of what might be coming.

"Don't do that again," Edwards said. "That didn't work worth a damn [before]."

Perhaps it really isn't a curse. Perhaps it's just that Johnson and the No. 48 team are that much better than everybody else.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireIf you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. Jimmie Johnson has been the best for five straight seasons.

It's hard to argue with five straight championships.

To pick anybody but Johnson to win next season would be like predicting it won't rain in Seattle for a year or the stock market is going to go up 200 points every day for the next month. It may be wishful thinking, but it's going to get you a lot of crazy looks.

"That's the question everybody is gonna ask themselves when they go home," Edwards said. "How do we beat those guys? I believe that our slope, our gain is a little steeper than theirs right now.

"The question is can we keep it going, because on average they've just been better than everybody else. They've proven that."

Over and over and over and over and over again.

It's gotten so out of hand that Johnson already has a nickname -- Six Pack -- for next year's championship.

So the real question is who will challenge him? Well, I'm here to tell you, with predictions for next year's Chase. I'm going ahead and making it a 15-driver field on the assumption NASCAR expands from 12.

Some call this the Dale Earnhardt Jr. rule, but considering NASCAR's most popular driver finished 21st in points in 2010 a year after finishing 25th, that too is wishful thinking.

Here's the field and predicted order of finish:

1. Jimmie Johnson: Edwards says there is a chink in the 48 team's armor because it didn't dominate the Chase. That's one way to look at it. But coming from behind, changing pit crews with two races remaining, to me only strengthens what already is the best team in NASCAR history.

2. Kevin Harvick: If anybody has the mental toughness to knock Johnson off the throne this is the man. He dominated the first 26 races with a consistency that was unmatched and had the best average finish (5.8) in the Chase. He's not going away.

3. Kyle Busch: He literally went down in flames to end this season (see crash after Harvick took him out at Homestead), but he did it trying to help teammate Denny Hamlin win the title. It's the new kinder and gentler Busch. Maybe more mature as well. All that talent has to rise to the top sometime, and 2011 may be the year.

4. Carl Edwards: I really believe he'll do better than this, but since he didn't want to be made the favorite I'll grant him that wish. Beware, though. He's starting to show signs of the driver that won nine races in 2008 and finished second to Johnson.

5. Mark Martin: With me having lost 22 pounds on his diet of Goji Berries and other stuff found only on "Survivor," I'm a believer that he'll make what could be his final full season special. His 8.5 finish over the final seven races is a good sign he's figured out whatever sent his team into a tailspin.

[+] EnlargeDenny Hamlin
Chris Trotman/NASCAR/Getty ImagesWill the end of the 2010 season haunt Denny Hamlin for a while? Time will tell.

6. Denny Hamlin: There's a belief you have to lose a championship to win one. There's also a belief that blowing one the way he did takes a while to get over. Can you say hangover?

7. Jeff Gordon: He may have AARP on the hood of his car next year, but that doesn't mean he's over the hill. Adding crew chief Alan Gustafson could be the difference. I'll go as far as to say he'll win two races. I also believe he could beat Johnson and all the other new NASCAR dads in a diaper changing contest.

8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Too bad this isn't like the NFL, where a poor finish gets you an easier schedule. This is purely a gut pick, or maybe that funny feeling in my stomach comes from an overdose of turkey and dressing. He'll win a race, too. No, I didn't have Kool-aid for Thanksgiving. But I do like that NASCAR's most popular driver will be drinking from the same shop as Johnson and Knaus.

9. Greg Biffle: He's gotta hate being picked behind Earnhardt.

10. Clint Bowyer: He'll finish the thickness of a quarter behind The Biff. Seriously, two Chase wins and 18 top-10s -- same as Hamlin -- are something to build on.

11. Tony Stewart: Almost forgot about "Smoke," just as he was a forgotten driver in the Chase once we got past California. Rumor has it he's going on the Mark Martin diet to get in shape.

12. Jamie McMurray: If they want to name expanding the Chase field after anybody it should be this driver. He's been on the outside looking in so many times he could be cited as a Peeping Tom.

13. Joey Logano: In case you weren't paying attention, "Sliced Bread" had five straight top-10s before being crashed out at Homestead. Time for the kid to prove he belongs.

14. Kurt Busch: His car number will go from 2 to 22 and his place in the standings will rise as well. Wonder if anybody will say he looks like the McDonald's clown in that yellow Shell Pennzoil firesuit as Harvick was.

15. Juan Pablo Montoya: Yep, two Earnhardt Ganassi Racing cars in the top-15. Chip Ganassi's Sprint Cup organization isn't in disarray anymore.

One of these drivers could end Johnson' s reign. He can't stay on top forever, can he?

You have to like Edwards' bravado. When asked if Johnson can be considered the greatest driver ever, Edwards said, "No, I feel like I'm better than him."

The problem is nobody has proven to be for five straight years.

And it has nothing to do with a jinx.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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