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April 6, 2012

IN THE FAST LANE: Analysis of preseason NASCAR predictions

NEW ALBANY — Because of Easter on Sunday, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will continue its longtime tradition by having no race on this holiday.

Therefore, it is a good time for me to evaluate my Chase for the Sprint Cup preseason predictions that I made on Daytona 500 weekend.

Here are my projected top 12 drivers with their current position in the standings:

1. CARL EDWARDS (currently 11th): Edwards is not exactly setting the world on fire six races into the season. But it’s a long season and Edwards has several tracks remaining in 2012 where he has a great shot at collecting some wins. I still consider him the man to beat for the 2012 championship.

2. JIMMIE JOHNSON (currently 10th): Despite getting caught in an early accident in the Daytona 500 and dealing with crew chief Chad Knaus’ problems with NASCAR, Johnson has had solid runs as of late and should be making an appearance in Victory Lane in the near future.

3. TONY STEWART (currently third): He is off to a great start to the season with a pair of wins. So far, the crew chief change the defending Cup champion made in the offseason has paid off. Expect Stewart to be contending for a third Cup title in the Chase.

4. KEVIN HARVICK (currently fifth): Harvick has had some efficient runs so far. If he can get some wins, he should easily make the Chase and be in the thick of the Cup championship race.

5. MATT KENSETH (currently fourth): He had an impressive victory in the Daytona 500 and has been his usual consistent self at the start of the season. Kenseth has plenty of great tracks coming up.

6. JEFF GORDON (currently 21st): It has been a disappointing start to the season. Gordon has been running well the last three races, but he cannot get the solid finishes. I still think he will make the Chase, but barely.

7. KYLE BUSCH (currently 16th): I have patiently been waiting for Mount Busch or his older brother to explode, as each driver has started off slowly this season.

8. KASEY KAHNE (currently 31st): No driver has had a more disappointing start to the season than Kahne. But this is not a time for Kahne and his No. 5 team to panic. Kahne is one of the most talented drivers in the Cup garage area. He has a great crew chief in Kenny Francis and one of the best owners in the business in Rick Hendrick. I still expect him to make the Chase.

9. BRAD KESELOWSKI (currently 12th): This season, Keselowski has shown he can be a factor on short tracks with his win at Bristol and on flat tracks like Phoenix, where he finished fifth.

10. DENNY HAMLIN (currently seventh): The 2012 campaign has been like last year when Hamlin worked with his old crew chief, Mike Ford — up and down. But I like the combination of Hamlin and his new crew chief and Stewart’s old crew chief Darian Grubb. Hamlin should at least make the Chase.

11. DALE EARNHARDT JR. (currently second): Junior has been a pleasant surprise for all of NASCAR. He has been competitive, especially the past two weeks with third-place finishes at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville. Still, the X-factor on whether Earnhardt makes the Chase or not will be his crew chief, Steve Letarte. If Letarte limits his mistakes, Junior should make the Chase.

12. GREG BIFFLE (currently first): His consistency has enabled him to take the lead in the Cup standings, as his average finish this season is 6.8. A big reason for that is Biffle is qualifying well. He has qualified in the top 10 in five of the first six races. The question for Biffle is can he maintain that consistency throughout the season? Also, he needs to get in Victory Lane sometime in the regular season.

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