Unless you've been living under a rock for the last month and half you know that NASCAR has made significant changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup. No longer is it just a 12-driver field (or 13, depending on Brian France's mood). Now it's 16 drivers. And there's eliminations. And a four-driver showdown in the season finale to decide the champion.
Now, I'm not going to give you my in-depth opinion on the new Chase format. I've done that enough on the Lugnuts and Horsepower radio show, as well as on my Twitter. Basically, I'm not a fan, but I'm willing to keep an open mind.
But this column isn't about that. This column is me giving you my 16 picks to make the 2014 Chase. There's a lot of drivers that could potentially make the Chase, and a lot of quality drivers that could still miss the Chase even with the expanded field. So deciding upon 16 drivers took a lot of effort. So much effort that I screwed up a couple times and left out some guys that I wanted in. But eventually I settled on my 16-driver field.
So let's meet the contenders.
16) Marcos Ambrose- This format basically says "Win and you're in." It may seem strange that I have Ambrose penciled in, but Ambrose is going to win one of the two road course races. Unless something drastic happens. So that's why I have Ambrose in.
15) Jamie McMurray- This guy is always a contender on the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega. Some may say "That's a race that just requires luck," and while that may be partially true, it takes more than just luck to win multiple times at those tracks. And that's something McMurray has done. I believe McMurray will win at Daytona in July and make the Chase.
14) Carl Edwards- Honestly, I don't know why I have Edwards listed so low, but I do so just go with it. Carl's going to win the second race of the season at Phoenix to lock himself in. He's also really strong at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, so he's got two great chances to get victory lane very early in the season.
13) Jeff Gordon- In the past couple of seasons Gordon has struggled to find wins in the early part of the season. He's going to have to change that this year and I really believe that he will.
12) Clint Bowyer- Bowyer is another driver that I don't know why I have listed so low. But, once again, just roll with it. He's a virtual lock to make the Chase so I don't think I need to do much explaining on this one.
11) Brad Keselowsk- The 2012 champion will make his return to the Chase after taking a year off. The Blue Deuce was strong early last season until they got hit with the penalties at Texas that seemed to derail their season. But they'll be back this year, and they'll be strong.
10) Tony Stewart- As we all know, Smoke missed the second half of last season due to a broken leg he suffered in a sprint car crash in August. Prior to that he scored one victory at Dover in June, but the team wasn't really running all that well. I think that changes this year. Stewart-Haas racing seems to be really strong already and I think Stewart definitely gets in the Chase this year. #SmokeWillRise
9) Kyle Busch- Anybody out there really think that Rowdy won't have a couple of wins by July?
8) Dale Earnhardt Jr.- He came so close on so many occasions to getting a win last season. He'll break through this year and get back to victory lane. The question, though, is where will the win come? I guess we'll see what happens at Michigan in June.
7) Joey Logano- Sliced Bread finally made the Chase last season, and he got a win (though he could have had a few more). He'll get a few more this year and make the Chase again. After one season it appears that Team Penske is a great fit for Logano and they'll only grow stronger together in 2014.
6) Kurt Busch- The older Busch is going to be the guy to watch this season. After a tumultuous couple of years that saw Busch relegated to weaker equipment than he was used to, he's back in a car that can win a championship. Busch goes to Stewart-Haas racing and that should be the perfect fit for him. Not only will Busch make the Chase, but he'll definitely be a championship contender.
5) Jimmie Johnson- Okay, from here to the end I just put guys in a random order, but these are all guys that are guaranteed to be there. Do I really need to explain why Johnson will make the Chase? No, I really don't. He's Jimmie Johnson. He has Chad Knaus as his crew chief. They're six-time champions. They're the defending champions. 'Nuff said.
4) Kevin Harvick- Harvick moves from the only team he's ever known to Stewart-Haas racing. He seems to be as excited as he's ever been for the season to start. He'll be tough to beat this year.
3) Kasey Kahne- He's always strong throughout the first 26 races. He'll make the Chase. And hopefully, for his sake, he performs better once the Chase actually gets started.
2) Denny Hamlin- 2013 was absolutely horrible for Denny Hamlin on the race track (he became a father, so it wasn't all bad). He fractured his back in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway in California. Then after that the team just struggled everywhere they went. They finally got a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the season finale. They also just won the Sprint Unlimited last week. Not a bad way to start the year off.
1) Matt Kenseth- Who expected a seven-win performance in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing? I sure didn't. I'm also not expecting that team to replicate that performance in 2014, but I do expect him to be incredibly strong once again.
Now, this isn't my guess at the final points standings after Homestead. Matt Kenseth is not my championship pick. This is my guess at how the top-16 will look after race-26 at Richmond in September. Will I be right? Probably not. But it's fun to play the guessing-game.