2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Drivers Power Rankings – Sizing Up the Top 12 Playoff Drivers: After last weekend’s race at Richmond, the Chase field is finally set, and 12 drivers will begin their quest for the 2011 Sprint Cup this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. From five-time reigning champ Jimmie Johnson to former champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and first-time Chaser Brad Keselowski, this year’s playoff field offers a wide array of challengers. In order to celebrate as champion at the end of the 10-race playoff, drivers and their teams are going to have to be as close to perfect as possible. In the end, some teams are just better equipped to make a title run.

NASCAR Power Rankings – Top 12 Playoff Drivers

  1. Jimmie Johnson

The guy has won five straight championships, with all five coming under the Chase format. Plain and simple, Johnson and his No. 48 team have the system figured out, and they know how to peak at the right time. Johnson’s 19 Chase wins are the most all-time, and he has 11 more victories in the postseason than his next closest competitor. Until somebody knocks him off, he has to be considered the favorite.

  1. Kyle Busch

Busch will open the playoffs with the top spot after piling up a series-leading four victories. He also led more laps than any other driver. Nobody can deny Busch’s talent behind the wheel, and when he stays calm and focused, he is the best driver in the Cup Series. If this is the year he can go 10 pressure-packed races without making a crucial mistake, the title will be his to lose.

  1. Jeff Gordon

He enjoyed a resurgent season in 2011, snapping a long winless drought and going on to win three races in the regular season. More importantly, Gordon has posted a 6.1 average finish in the 10 races leading up to the Chase. He is in championship form at the right time, and he could end up ending his teammates reign as champ and tying him with five career titles in the process.

  1. Carl Edwards

After sitting atop the standings for a good portion of the year, Edwards slipped a bit down the stretch. However, he seemed to catch fire in the final few races before the playoffs and did manage to finish the regular season with a series-leading 17 top-10 finishes. Edwards’ eight Chase wins are the second most in the series, and he could be finding his top form just in time to win a title.

  1. Kevin Harvick

Although Harvick wasn’t nearly as consistent as he was last year, he will start tied for the top spot when the playoffs begin because of his four victories. He showed last year just how close he can come to winning it all, and that experience could prove valuable this year. His ability to stay out of trouble and close out races are a major advantage with the Chase format.

  1. Matt Kenseth

With the Chase schedule making several stops at intermediate tracks, Kenseth instantly becomes a contender. Among the tracks in the Chase are Dover and Texas, where he has already won in 2011. The main thing for Kenseth is that he and his crew need to sure up their late race pit strategy which has cost them several spots in the last month. He can’t finish in the top 10 with a top five car and expect to win the title.

  1. Tony Stewart

After a lackluster regular season, Stewart could turn out to be quite dangerous in the playoffs. He has at least one win at every track on the Chase schedule, and he has multiple wins at six of the 10 tracks. Stewart is also the only driver to win a title under the old point system and the Chase format, and he isn’t going to b intimidated in the least be the big stage.

  1. Denny Hamlin

He should have won the title last year, and Hamlin could end up regretting what might have been for the rest of his career. He simply couldn’t find the same magic he had last year when he won a series-high eight races, and Hamlin seems more like a longshot to win it all this time around. He is more than capable of catching fire and pulling off an upset, but the mechanical issues and other issue at Joe Gibbs Racing will make it tough.

  1. Kurt Busch

Despite solid numbers across the board, Busch has struggled in the Chase since winning the title under the format back in 2004. He always seems to miss the setup at one or two tracks, and even if he can salvage a decent day, Busch simply can’t string enough dominant runs together to make up the ground.

  1. Ryan Newman

He has been rock solid all year, but Newman needs to be spectacular in order to win the title. The problem is that he has basically become a steady source of top-15 finishes, capable of the occasional top-five effort. That strategy is perfect for making the Chase but not for winning it.

  1. Brad Keselowski

Keselowski certainly has momentum on his side heading into the playoffs, but the Chase hasn’t always been kind to first-year participants. Juan Pablo Montoya was a perfect example of hot driver flaming out halfway through the postseason, and even Jimmie Johnson struggled in his first couple of appearances. Keselowski might make some early noise, but history says he will fade down the stretch.

  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Making the Chase was a step in the right direction for Junior, but he doesn’t appear capable of making any sort of a title run. He has the fewest number of top-five finishes and top-10s of any driver in the playoffs. The fact that he struggled down the stretch doesn’t help either.

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