Rating NASCAR’s top drivers as playoffs hit start line
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.
NASCAR Cup drivers gather around the trophy they are all chasing after qualifying for the playoffs.