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Seven drivers unanimous picks to return to Chase

January 14, 2011, , NASCAR.com

Jamie McMurray and Juan Montoya hope to have the final laugh on those NASCAR.COM staffers who think the EGR teammates will narrowly miss out on the Chase in 2011.

Burton, Biffle, Busch among those that could miss the postseason party in 2011

As Daytona inches closer on the calendar, the NASCAR.COM writing staff looks ahead to the 2011 season and offers up some predictions. The focus for Friday is, if the Chase remains 12 drivers, which 12 will make the Chase and who will be on the outside looking in finishing 13th.

MARK AUMANN

Greg Biffle

Clint Bowyer

Kurt Busch

Kyle Busch

Carl Edwards

Jeff Gordon

Denny Hamlin

Kevin Harvick

Jimmie Johnson

Matt Kenseth

Joey Logano

Tony Stewart

Odd man out: Jamie McMurray

When it comes to Jamie McMurray and the Chase, it always seems to be a case of "close but no cigar." But McMurray's four poles and victories in the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and later in the season at Charlotte capped a very successful return to Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team, and hopes are running high heading into February. However, looking closer at the stats, 2010 was an "all or nothing" season for McMurray. He had nine top-five runs but only three other races in which he wound up in the top 10 at the checkered flag. Since recording 23 top-10s in 2004, McMurray hasn't come close to that figure. And scoring consistently high finishes is a hallmark for making the Chase. For example, every driver who made the 2010 Chase had a minimum of 15 top-10s. If McMurray can finish what he started, he could break that Chase jinx. But odds are he'll miss out by the barest of margins again.

JARROD BREEZE

Clint Bowyer

Kyle Busch

Carl Edwards

Jeff Gordon

Denny Hamlin

Kevin Harvick

Jimmie Johnson

Matt Kenseth

Mark Martin

Jamie McMurray

Ryan Newman

Tony Stewart

Odd man out: Greg Biffle

Despite making the Chase for the third consecutive year and ending Ford's long winless drought, Greg Biffle regressed in some ways in 2010. His nine top-five finishes and 25 lead-lap finishes were the fewest he's had since the last time he missed the Chase, in 2007. And his 15.4 average finish was his highest since then, as well. And for a driver who seemingly walks the Chase tightrope every year -- sure, 19 top-10s last year but also finishes of 20th or worse in one-third of the races -- it's that lack of consistency that will burst his bubble in 2011.

DAVID CARAVIELLO

Greg Biffle

Clint Bowyer

Kurt Busch

Kyle Busch

Carl Edwards

Jeff Gordon

Denny Hamlin

Kevin Harvick

Jimmie Johnson

Matt Kenseth

Juan Montoya

Tony Stewart

Odd man out: Jeff Burton

From a media perspective, nothing beats having Jeff Burton in the Chase. His weekly interview session, required of all drivers in the top 12, is almost always a professorial dissertation on all things racing. And yet, keeping him the media center could be tough this year, given that Burton is trending in the wrong direction. Last year was his second consecutive campaign without a victory. His late-season results were a train wreck, with only three top-10 finishes in his final 14 starts. He made the Chase, but sank to the bottom, and didn't get to give a speech in Las Vegas. It all makes you wonder if he can hang on to a top-12 spot this year.

JILL ERWIN

Clint Bowyer

Jeff Burton

Kyle Busch

Carl Edwards

Jeff Gordon

Denny Hamlin

Kevin Harvick

Jimmie Johnson

Matt Kenseth

Juan Montoya

Ryan Newman

Tony Stewart

Odd man out: Jamie McMurray

McMurray became the trendy pick to make the Chase right around the time he won the Brickyard 400. Then he became the trendy pick to make the Chase in 2011 right around the time he was all but mathematically eliminated from the 2010 version. But the dangerous thing about trends is they're very rarely ever long-lasting. The thing about making the Chase -- not winning it, but making the field -- is that consistency rules all else. McMurray had flashes of brilliance, but fell short. Kevin Harvick had only one more win in the regular season, but led the points after Richmond, before the reset, based in large part on his 16 top-10 finishes. McMurray had nine. Until he finds a way to be more consistently strong, McMurray will remain on the outside looking in at the Chase.

BILL KIMM

Greg Biffle

Clint Bowyer

Kurt Busch

Kyle Busch

Carl Edwards

Jeff Gordon

Denny Hamlin

Kevin Harvick

Jimmie Johnson

Juan Montoya

Ryan Newman

Tony Stewart

Odd man out: Matt Kenseth

Don't let Matt Kenseth's strong finish in the Chase last year fool you, consistency only gets you so far and not being able to win will catch up to the No. 17 team this year. I'm not saying Kenseth is going to be horrible -- the words Kenseth and horrible have never gone together -- but what I am saying is coming from behind week in and week out will not get the job done in 2011. Kenseth's average start of 19.3 put him 21st last year, and his 108 laps led ranked 18th and was last among Chase drivers. There are too many strong teams, capable of Chase runs, and Kenseth has to start winning and collecting bonus points if he wants to make the Chase in 2011.

JOE MENZER

Greg Biffle

Clint Bowyer

Kyle Busch

Carl Edwards

Jeff Gordon

Denny Hamlin

Kevin Harvick

Jimmie Johnson

Matt Kenseth

Jamie McMurray

Juan Montoya

Tony Stewart

Odd man out: Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch had his moments in 2010. Unfortunately, most of the best ones were bunched up in a two-week stretch last May in Charlotte, where he swept the All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600 within a stirring eight-day span. All in all, with another race victory in Atlanta and his fifth Chase appearance in the seven years the format has existed, it could be considered a successful first season with new crew chief Steve Addington. But there always seems to be a caution flag waiting around the next turn with Busch, whose constant struggles to get along with folks even in his own camp frequently hamper the overall efforts of his team. That seemingly always lurking dark cloud -- plus the impending emergence of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammates Juan Montoya and Jamie McMurray in 2011 -- could leave the talented but temperamental Busch just on the outside looking in as this season's Chase commences.

DAVE RODMAN

Clint Bowyer

Kurt Busch

Kyle Busch

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Jeff Gordon

Denny Hamlin

Kevin Harvick

Jimmie Johnson

Joey Logano

Mark Martin

Jamie McMurray

Tony Stewart

Odd man out: Ryan Newman

Amidst such great competition, as surely as someone has to finish first, seventh and 12th; someone else has to finish 13th. At this stage of the season, it's not even a sure thing what finishing 13th will mean, but it leaves a lot on the table for race No. 26, at Richmond, either way. Ryan Newman's team made great strides in the second half of 2010, to the point where this team is good enough to as easily end up in the top six as it could be outside the top 12. In what will be the most competitive season in a while, not many points will separate 10th from 15th, and only a couple frustrating results will put Newman -- or whoever ends up in 13th -- in that position.

CHRIS STANFIELD

Greg Biffle

Clint Bowyer

Kurt Busch

Kyle Busch

Carl Edwards

Jeff Gordon

Denny Hamlin

Kevin Harvick

Jimmie Johnson

Matt Kenseth

Jamie McMurray

Tony Stewart

Odd man out: Juan Montoya

NASCAR.COM Chase Predictions

DriverAumannBreezeCaravielloErwinKimmMenzerRodmanStanfieldTotal
Kyle Busch********8
Jeff Gordon********8
Denny Hamlin********8
Kevin Harvick********8
Jimmie Johnson********8
Tony Stewart********8
Carl Edwards****** *7
Matt Kenseth**** * *6
Greg Biffle* * ** *5
Kurt Busch* * * **5
Jamie McMurray *   ***4
Juan Montoya  ****  4
Ryan Newman * **   3
Joey Logano*     * 2
Mark Martin *    * 2
Jeff Burton   *    1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.      * 1

Juan Montoya continues to show improvement here and there and even managed to make a trip to Victory Lane in 2010. He led the most laps (411) of his Cup career last season and showed plenty of competitive spirit. But until Montoya can find some consistency and learn to finish strong, he'll remain on the outside of the Chase looking in. With eight DNFs in 2010, his average starting position stayed about the same the past two years, but his average finish dropped four more positions to 18th. Not bad, but no where good enough to guarantee a spot in the Chase.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.