Rat­ing NASCAR’s top driv­ers as play­offs hit start line

The London Free Press - - SPORTS - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

JOLIET, Ill. — Jim­mie John­son has NASCAR his­tory in sight. Martin Truex Jr. wants to be­come more than a mere foot­note as the reg­u­lar sea­son cham­pion. Kyle Busch, Kevin Har­vick, Brad Ke­selowski, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch each hope to add a sec­ond cham­pi­onship tro­phy to the col­lec­tion.

Some driv­ers would just be happy ad­vanc­ing to the sec­ond round. The Chase is out.

The play­offs are in. What­ever NASCAR de­cides to call the fi­nal 10 races of the sea­son, the fi­nal for­mat re­mains the same: The last four driv­ers stand­ing af­ter three rounds will race for the best fin­ish at Home­stead-Mi­ami Speed­way on Nov. 19 to be crowned the 2017 NASCAR Mon­ster En­ergy Cup Se­ries cham­pion.

Up first, the opener Sun­day at Chicagoland Speed­way. Let’s look at the con­tenders:

Why He’ll Win: He won the reg­u­lar sea­son ti­tle with four wins, 10 top-five fin­ishes and had 18 stage wins for 53 play­off points that he can keep through the first three play­off rounds. Truex has eight wins over the last two sea­sons and has dom­i­nated at times for Fur­ni­ture Row Rac­ing.

Why He Won’t: He’s had some bad luck and a case could be made he should have at least four more wins.

Why He’ll Win: He has two wins over the last four races and is the hottest driver in NASCAR. Lar­son is one of many driv­ers fac­ing spon­sor woes, but a cham­pi­onship could make him at­trac­tive to a For­tune 500 com­pany.

Why He Won’t: Lar­son knows how eas­ily a strong sea­son can slip away early in the play­offs. He suf­fered tire and me­chan­i­cal woes in the first two Chase races last sea­son and was never a fac­tor.

Why He’ll Win: Count out Busch? No thanks. The 2015 se­ries cham­pion won twice and rolls into Chicagoland with six straight top10 fin­ishes.

Why He Won’t: Joe Gibbs Rac­ing was solid but hardly spec­tac­u­lar and Toy­ota’s magic horse­power was found in­stead in Truex’s car.

Why He’ll Win: The 2012 se­ries cham­pion won twice, se­cured a new con­tract with team owner Roger Penske and is al­ways a threat.

Why He Won’t: The Fords haven’t shown the re­li­able speed needed to win a cham­pi­onship and Ke­selowski stum­bles into Chicagoland with­out a fin­ish bet­ter than 11th in his last five races.

Why He’ll Win: Be­cause he’s Jim­mie John­son. He won three times in a bit of a down year, but no driver dom­i­nated the Chase era like John­son and he’s af­ter a record eighth cham­pi­onship.

Why He Won’t: You can’t win ’em all.

Why He’ll Win: Ste­wart-Haas Rac­ing is fac­ing lineup up­heaval in 2018, but Har­vick just keeps rolling along and the 2014 champ is one of the sport’s best Game 7 rac­ers.

Why He Won’t: Har­vick has just one win and his SHR team has been hit-or-miss most of the sea­son.

Why He’ll Win: He has two wins and says he’s as men­tally tough as he’s ever been af­ter a se­ries of nearmisses in his bid for his first Cup cham­pi­onship.

Why He Won’t: Ham­lin is tight with Michael Jor­dan. But in crunch time, Ham­lin has been more like Jor­dan with the Wash­ing­ton Wizards than the Chicago Bulls.

Why He’ll Win: He posted his first two ca­reer Cup vic­to­ries. He gave team owner Jack Roush the lift the team had needed for years.

Why He Won’t: No fin­ish bet­ter than 14th his last nine races.

No. 9 Ryan Blaney (one win); No. 10 Chase El­liott; No. 11 Ryan New­man (one win); No. 12 Kurt Busch (Day­tona 500 win­ner; 2004 se­ries champ); No. 13 Kasey Kahne (one win); No. 14 Austin Dillon (one win); No. 15 Matt Kenseth (2003 champ); No. 16 Jamie McMur­ray.

Ev­ery­one loves an un­der­dog — heck, New­man once made it to NASCAR’s fi­nal four with a win­less sea­son — but it’s hard to imag­ine a cham­pion emerg­ing out of the bot­tom of the play­off pack.

GETTY IMAGES

NASCAR Cup driv­ers gather around the tro­phy they are all chas­ing af­ter qual­i­fy­ing for the play­offs.

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