When the checkered flag flew over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on cloudy Monday afternoon, the playoff field became officially set. The Hendrick teammates of Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman squeak into the 16 car field while the “Big 3” had been comfortable all season. We see some of the young guns, like Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, find their way into the big dance. Meanwhile, Richard Childress Racing with Austin Dillon in that iconic #3, dragged their feet to the finish. Below are my predictions of those that will be eliminated, my final four, a dark horse who could win it all, and the 2018 champion.
For reference, this is the 16 car field:
1. Kyle Busch: 2,050 points
2. Kevin Harvick: 2,050 points
3. Martin Truex Jr.: 2,035 points
4. Brad Keselowski: 2,019 points
5. Clint Bowyer: 2,015 points
6. Joey Logano: 2014 points
7. Kurt Busch: 2,014 points
8. Chase Elliott: 2,008 points
9. Ryan Blaney: 2,007 points
10. Erik Jones: 2,005 points
11. Austin Dillon: 2,005 points
12. Kyle Larson: 2,005 points
13. Denny Hamlin: 2,003 points
14. Aric Almirola: 2,001 points
15. Jimmie Johnson: 2,000 points
16. Alex Bowman: 2,000 points
Round of 16: Las Vegas, Richmond, and the Charlotte Roval
Those Eliminated: Alex Bowman, Jimmy Johnson, Austin Dillon, and Aric Almirola.
Unusually at the back end of the Hendrick stable, the 7-time champion will lead his teammate Alex Bowman home after the much anticipated Roval at Charlotte. Finding speed has been hard for both of these race teams, and it won’t be any different when the playoffs begin.
Winning the Daytona 500 in the regular-season debut for the Camaro ZR1 was about the only highlight that #3 team could find. Other than the 4th place at Michigan, consistency is not this team’s strong suit. Neither are their finishes.
Aric Almirola has had an excellent first season in the Stewart-Hass Racing #10. He has shown the actual performance of that car but getting it into the playoff will have to be enough, as their roller-coaster season will come to a screeching halt.
Round of 12: Dover, Talladega, and Kansas
Those Eliminated: Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin
We will see two Penske cars eliminated when the Round of 8 starts. Joey Logano, who was the spring winner at Talladega, and teammate Ryan Blaney will become eliminated. Both cars have been strong throughout the season, but I think the SHR cars will have the advantage as their Ford will out duel their manufacture counterparts at Penske, squeezing these two out of contention.
Coke Zero Sugar 400 winner Erik Jones will see himself out at this Round as he will barely beat Almirola to get into the Round of 12. He has had great finishes as of late, but his inexperience will show when racing against the veterans of the sport.
Denny Hamlin’s season has not panned out the way he would have liked it. Winning three poles has shown that he has had speed in the Fed-Ex Toyota, but the wins haven’t been there. His second half of the season has been par at best, and the woes will continue as he goes winless this season.
Round of 8: Martinsville, Texas, and ISM Raceway
Those Eliminated: Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, and Chase Elliott
Kyle Larson has been fast but mistakes…mistakes…mistakes. Martinsville and ISM Raceway are not his strong suits when it comes to race tracks, and those will seal his fate. If he is going to win to move on, then Texas will have to be it.
Clint Bowyer has been driving the wheels off of that #14 Ford. Breaking his losing streak of 190 races at Martinsville earlier this year, you might say that he is going to be circling that on the calendar and rightfully so. There’ won’t be enough points for everyone and will find himself eliminated.
Arguably NASCAR’s most popular driver, Chase Elliott will bow out at the Round of 8. His win at Watkins Glen shot confidence into the young driver, but like Clint, the points are going to be hard to come by, and he will be outside looking in.
Kurt Busch will have a chance at Texas to advance as he was dominating at various points of that Spring race. He will have to try to beat SHR teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer for points, but the “Big 3” is going to be too strong this deep into the season and will take crucial points away from him down the stretch.
Final 4: Homestead-Miami Speedway
Championship Contenders: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., and Brad Keselowski
Brad Keselowski and that number #2 Penske Ford have hit their stride the last several weeks becoming winners at Darlington and Indy. They will go through the playoffs making little noise during the races but will be there when it matters most. They will head into Homestead with a chip on their shoulder as no one had them being in the final four at the beginning of this season. They are getting hot at the right time and could have an outside shot at winning a championship.
Martin Truex Jr. will have the light shined on him the brightest. Not only will it be the final season of Furniture Row Racing but trying to repeat as champions will be a major story throughout the playoffs. They have gotten into some trouble toward the end of the regular season, but I believe they will be at their peak performance when the pressure is at its highest. Don’t underestimate Cole Pearn and what that #78 crew can do. They’ve done it once; it can be done again.
Kyle Busch won the regular-season championship, and with that, he carries extra playoff points in his pocket. He has a knack for making the most out of his equipment which can lead to him taking away points from his rivals when maybe he shouldn’t. With six wins on the season and the foul taste of last year’s championship still lingering in his mouth, the #18 will be laser-focused.
Champion: Kevin Harvick
Claiming his second series championship will not be easy. Kyle Busch will be charging hard behind him, but the steadiness of Harvick on 1.5-mile tracks will be the difference. He ends the regular season with the highest win total of 7 and looking into the tracks within the playoffs; it isn’t crazy to think he could finish with ten at seasons end. ISM Raceway is a dominating track for him and could propel that team’s confidence into the final race weekend. The #4 Ford will be rock solid until the checkered flag in Miami.
Dark Horse: Kyle Larson
If he can get into the final round at Homestead, he can spoil the party and claim his first Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series championship. He runs excellent at high-speed tracks, his last three races at Homestead are top 5 finishes, and in this current format, all you need to do is win the race. What would that mean for NASCAR and their championship if someone who had no wins going into the playoffs, survives the playoffs on points, and claims the championship because he is exceptional at Homestead? Larson has had runs that were solid but couldn’t piece them together for a victory. Who knows, maybe he rattles off wins and puts on a performance like Tony Stewart was able to do in 2011. I have him eliminated at the Round of 8 but don’t take your eyes off of that #42.
The track I’m Most Looking Forward to Watching: Charlotte Roval
The first time NASCAR is going to try anything of its kind. Some drivers are finding it difficult to get a handle for the track and then couple that with it being an elimination race and we have the makings of what could be a classic. Does someone not in the field of 16 snag a win? Does Jimmy Johnson or another lower seed find a way to advance? How safe do you play it if you’re the “Big 3”? So many questions to ask, and it indeed will be a mystery until that green flag waves.
This list was a challenge. Predicting a sport that has unpredictable moments is tough because we never know when an engine or a crash can end a driver’s race. I’m sure by the time Las Vegas quiets from the roar of the engines; this list could be thrown in the trash. So with that said, let’s only remember the right ones.