Sweet Sixteen: The case for each driver
Sixteen drivers will continue the quest for the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship in a 10-race series that is scheduled to begin Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network). The final four will race for the title in the season finale at HomesteadMiami Speedway on Nov. 19. It will be winner-take-all, with the top-finishing driver claiming the championship.
uUSA TODAY Sports’ Mike Hembree analyzes why each driver might win the Cup, and why he might not. Martin Truex Jr. (2,053 points)
Why he’ll win: Truex has carried the big hammer virtually all season. His four wins tied for most this season, and he consumed stage wins at a frantic pace, totaling 18 for a runaway lead on the way to the regularseason championship. This year he completes the ride, winning his first Cup title.
Why he won’t: Across a series of seasons, Truex has seemed like a magnet for bad luck. He’ll lead hundreds of laps in a race only to blow a tire late in the day or find himself in the wrong place as a caution flies. A late yellow flag cost him the win Saturday at Richmond, for example. In the pressure of the playoffs, this can be a hill that can’t be conquered. Kyle Larson (2,033) Why he’ll win: Young, smart and fearless, Larson made a giant leap in performance, making fans forget he was building a reputation as a driver who couldn’t close out wins. He scored four this year and could be in line for his first championship.
Why he won’t: Still too inexperienced in heat of playoff battle. Kyle Busch (2,029) Why he’ll win: He’s done it before (2015) in a season in which he rebounded from crushing injuries in February. His win total (two) this year is lower than expected, but he’s arguably the
sport’s top wheelman. If he’s in the final four, he might be the favorite. Why he won’t: Busch often can be his own worst enemy. Just when you think he’s matured beyond the goofy behavior he sometimes displays, it pops up again. Anger usually doesn’t win big matchups. Brad Keselowski (2,019)
Why he’ll win: He’s has had an up-and-down season, but he tends to bring big performances to big moments. Don’t get in his way if he’s in the final four.
Why he won’t: Team owner Roger Penske hasn’t been to the NASCAR throne room since Keselowski won the title in 2012. With Joey Logano stunningly absent from the playoffs, Keselowski is the Captain’s only shot. He’d probably have a better chance if Logano were along for the ride. Jimmie Johnson (2,017) Why he’ll win: Crew chief Chad Knaus, for one big thing. And incentive — a title would make Johnson the all-time leader in championships with eight, dropping Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty a notch. No bigger incentive is needed.
Why he won’t: Johnson has won three times this year, but he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates haven’t shown the strength of previous seasons.
Kevin Harvick (2,015)
Why he’ll win: Harvick is a bulldog. Throw him into the final four at Homestead, and he’ll fight you to the last tire cord. He’s won previously in this eliminationstyle format, in 2014.
Why he won’t: One win a season is not a cool total for a leading Stewart-Haas Racing car. Harvick is lacking strength and bonus points. Denny Hamlin (2,013) Why he’ll win: Hamlin seemed destined to win a Cup championship when he appeared on the scene in 2005, but the Virginian has been one of those close-butno-cigar guys for much of his career. This year he rides the strong Toyota Camry all the way to the trophy. Why he won’t: In a season in which Toyotas showed big strength in the second half of the schedule, Hamlin scored only two wins, and one of those (at Darlington Raceway) was deemed encumbered. He’s fast, but not fast enough. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2,010) Why he’ll win: It seems long ago, but Stenhouse won the Xfinity Series championship in 2011 and 2012. His Cup career has been a struggle, but this year has seen a breakthrough with wins at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International
Speedway. The needle points up.
Why he won’t: Roush Fenway Racing has made significant strides in improving a mediocre product, but it’s too early to think about championships. Ryan Blaney (2,008) Why he’ll win: Because it would be a great story. The Wood Brothers, NASCAR’s oldest team, winning its first championship. Are you kidding?
Why he won’t: Blaney has a world of potential, but he’s still very new to this process. Chase Elliott (2,006)
Why he’ll win: Elliott remains winless in his time at Hendrick Motorsports, so he’ll carry additional incentive into the final 10 races. He’s beginning to get questions about why it’s taking him so long to win, but a couple of trips to victory lane could put him in position to bring home a trophy to match that of his father, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.
Why he won’t: Although smart and steady, Elliott is too young to challenge the graybeards of the playoffs. Ryan Newman (2,005) Why he’ll win: Newman, once known as the Rocket Man because of his propensity to win the pole, will turn 40 in December. His championship chances are declining, giving him a major reason to push forward and make it happen this season.
Why he won’t: Newman hasn’t shown consistency in recent years, and Richard Childress Racing seems generally a notch behind the lead competition. Kurt Busch (2,005) Why he’ll win: Winner of the first championship (2004) under the radically revised points system, Busch knows how to advance through the format. And, still looking for a team next season, he has powerful incentive.
Why he won’t: Busch hasn’t won a race since taking the seasonopening Daytona 500. He’s had good runs, but consistency has
been lacking. Kasey Kahne (2,005)
Why he’ll win: Kahne has the power to surprise. With a final 10-race run scheduled to end his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports, a championship would make a grand statement.
Why he won’t: Once considered an almost-certain future champion, Kahne has won only twice in the last four seasons. He hasn’t raced consistently with the lead pack this year. Austin Dillon (2,005) Why he’ll win: Dillon rides with one of the sport’s iconic numbers — the 3 made famous by seventime champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. He runs to another title for the 3 car with the support of Richard Childress, his grandfather and Earnhardt’s longtime car owner and best friend. Why he won’t: Dillon has shown improvement this year but remains a bit behind the championship curve. Matt Kenseth (2,005) Why he’ll win: If he can avoid stray ambulance drivers, Kenseth could put himself into position to score a second championship. Long known as one of the sport’s best points racers, he has been an awkward fit for the new championship formula, but his talent and smarts overcome that handicap. Why he won’t: Kenseth limped into the playoffs without winning a race and almost missed the postseason altogether in the chaos of the Richmond finish. He isn’t exactly riding momentum. Jamie McMurray (2,003) Why he’ll win: McMurray and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Larson should pack a tough one-two punch. McMurray bursts out of a mediocre regular season to finish strong. Why he won’t: McMurray opens the playoffs the 16th of 16 drivers. The climb is too long for a driver who was shut out of victory lane all season.
NASCAR Cup Series drivers race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway on May 7. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the race.