The NASCAR Cup series has raced 26 of the 36 races for the 2019 season, but one can argue that the season has only just begun. The collection of race wins, stage wins, stage points and finishes have culminated into creating a 16-car field that will battle elimination to the conclusion of the season at Homestead-Miami.
The biggest story going into the playoffs isn’t about the drivers who found themselves in, but about a driver who found himself out in Jimmie Johnson. For the first time since the inception of the Chase/Playoffs, he finds himself on the outside looking in. A 15-year consecutive streak broken for the 7-time champion.
This year I will give you my five things to watch for along with giving you my dark horse to win it all, and of course, my pick at who will be the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion.
For context, these are the 16-drivers fighting for the championship:
1. Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing: 2,045 points
2. Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing: 2,030 points
3. Martin Truex Jr., Joe Gibbs Racing: 2,029 points
4. Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing: 2,028 points
5. Joey Logano, Team Penske: 2,028 points
6. Brad Keselowski, Team Penske: 2,024 points
7. Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports: 2,018 points
8. Kurt Busch, Chip Ganassi Racing: 2,011 points
9. Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports: 2,005 points
10. Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing: 2,005 points
11. Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing: 2,005 points
12. Ryan Blaney, Team Penske: 2,004 points
13. William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports: 2,001 points
14. Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing: 2,001 points
15.Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing: 2,000 points
16. Ryan Newman, Roush Fenway Racing: 2,000 points
#1. The Team Dynamic of Joe Gibbs Racing
By far, the best team on the grid is JGR. An excellent team dynamic happens because everyone chips in for the betterment of the organization. JGR has done very well for themselves as an organization by getting all four of the team cars into the playoffs. But now the organization will splinter and turn into four individual teams for the final ten races of the season. Will teammates give an extra inch? Will there be team orders? Will there be a disfunction that causes one or more of these cars to not advance to at least the Round of 8?
I believe that at least two cars from the JGR stable will be racing in the Championship Round in Miami, the question is which two and what will their journey look like to get there?
#2. Erik Jones Will be a “Dark Horse” Contender For The Championship
#3. Kurt Busch Will Continue to Carry the Flag for Chip Ganassi Racing During the Playoffs
And possibly into next year?
Kurt Busch has been steady, reliable, and most importantly, a 2019 race winner. Something that his teammate, Kyle Larson, can not say. What the older Busch brother has done since taking over the #1 from Jamie McMurray is show the potential of what those cars at Chip Ganassi can do. When Kurt signed with the team, I instantly thought, “upgrade.” He will make the Round of 8 and have consistent runs within the top-10 to be a thorn in several drivers sides.
#4 The Roval
It was unknown last year, but it produced one of, if not the best, races of last season. I do not doubt that this track will continue that trend. Teams are prepared for it. Drivers know some of the secrets and the fans will be catered to the first elimination race of the playoffs. It was must-watch TV last season as Ryan Blaney took the checkered flag on the final corner of the last lap, and I assume we will have similar drama this year. Whatever you do, make time for this race. I don’t think you will be disappointed.
#5 Logano vs. Harvick
I am predicting that this will be the battle for the last spot to get into the Championship Round. They have had polar opposite starts to the season as Logano began the season strong as Harvick has just found his groove as of late.
There is history between these two, and I don’t believe the authors’ are done writing it yet. Another chapter between these two for a chance to at a championship; sign me up.
My Champion: Denny Hamlin
He is having the best season of his career since his runner-up finish of 2nd in 2010. His new crew chief of Chris Gabehart and everyone on that #11 FedEx Toyota has been on par, at times better, than his JGR counterpart of Kyle Busch.
This season will be the one that Denny puts his stamp on being a sure-fire Hall of Famer. He has two wins at Homestead-Miami in 2008 and 2013, and the path of tracks that lay between him and that elusive championship, are all in his favor with Richmond, Martinsville, and being the winner of the spring race at Texas, he has the potential to secure this championship with dominating finishes in each round of the playoffs.
The real challenge will be defeating teammate Kyle Busch who secured the regular-season champion. The reason he is 15-points ahead of Hamlin in the standings. The intensity is ramping up. The real season is starting, and for 16 drivers, it is their chance at NASCAR glory.
photo credit: NASCAR