Sweet Six­teen: The case for each driver

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS -

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.

ADAM HAGY, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

NASCAR Cup Se­ries driv­ers race at Tal­ladega (Ala.) Su­per­speed­way on May 7. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the race.

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