The chase for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship will begin this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The first round will conclude with races at Richmond Raceway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.
The following three race rounds include Kansas, Dover, Talladega, Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix. The four winless drivers with the fewest amount of points in each round will be eliminated in a cutoff race until there are only four remaining to participate in a best-finisher-takes-all showdown at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Without the Big ThreeÂ from last year and a radically different rules package this year, there is a degree of unpredictability that hasnât been present since the introduction of playoff points three years ago.
And if Joey Logano proved anything last year, there is no predicting all the playoff possibilities. With that said, hereâs a playoff primer for the next 10 weeks.
While there isnât a Big ThreeÂ nor any obvious championship favorite like Martin Truex Jr. in 2017, there is a contender who stands above the rest.
Even though the 2015 Cup Series champion only has four victories this season, the underlying statistics reveal speed capable of winning each of the next 10 races.
With 21 top-10s and 13 top-fives, Busch is on pace to match the most statistically impressive season in the modern era: Jeff Gordonâs 2007 run. That season, the four-time champion and Hall of Famer notched 30 top-10s and 21 top-fives in 36 starts.
Of course, Gordon straight-up got beat in the playoffs by Jimmie Johnson, so even the most dominant of seasons can still be undone by comparable contender once the leaves start to turn.
Buschâs four victories come with an asterisk of sorts. You could make the case that he could have won at least 10 times by now. Despite having the best speed each week, circumstances surrounding this rules package have cost the No. 18 track position, and that ultimately means more than anything else this year.
Itâs why Busch is such a frequent critic of what the Cup Series is doing this year, despite his relative success with it.
SoÂ donât take much stock in the fact that Busch hasnât won in 12 races. Heâs unloaded with a race winning-capable car virtually every week. Â
THE 500 WINNER
There is a narrative out there that this is the best chance Denny Hamlin has ever had to win a championship.
Respectfully, 2010 will disagree with you, the season in which Hamlin led Jimmie Johnson entering the final race of the season but choked it away.
With that said, this might be Hamlinâs last serious chance to win the championship. Thatâs because at 38 years old, Hamlin is closer to the end of his career than he is the beginning. That’s because,Â while a driverâs prime usually begins in his late 30s, HamlinÂ drives for a team that seems intent on dismissing veterans for the next big thing — see: Erik Jones and Christopher Bell — over the past half-decade.
Perhaps, with his FedEx relationship, Hamlin is the outlier. Maybe he will be the veteran mainstay at Joe Gibbs Racing as long as he wants. But even with that said, seasons like this donât come around very often.
Hamlin has four wins, tied with teammates Busch and Martin Truex Jr. He made the inaugural championship race in 2014 but hasnât been back since. Thatâs why this could be his last chance to add to whatâs almost a Hall of Fame career.
There are just five Chevrolet drivers represented in the field of 16, and not a single one of them is named Jimmie Johnson.
Further, the Chevrolet drivers are all ranked seventh or lower in the initial playoff seeding, led by Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott in seventh with 2003 champion Kurt Busch just behind him. These are the two best bets from the Bowtie Brigade.
Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron are also in the field but have inspired little confidence to this point that they can make a deep run.
This is an important playoff for Chevrolet, which has collectively looked lost and far behind the two other OEMs since rolling out its Camaro last season.
Elliott and Busch are the headline attractions here and could very well advance to Homestead, at which point anything is possible. But itâs going to take these teams executing at their best to get there, especially with so many drivers ahead of them on playoff points from round to round.
BEST OF THE REST
This is the first year that there are no wild cardÂ drivers represented in the Round of 16, the byproduct of a winner from outside of the top 16 in championship standings stealing a victory and knocking a more statistically viable contender from the tournament.
As a result, do not underestimate the bottom four of William Byron, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman.
After all, folks have slept on a winless Newman before and it nearly resulted in a history-altering championship race victory in 2014 that very well could have forced NASCAR to immediately reconsider this current format.
As for the other three, does it really seem unlikely that a Hendrick Motorsports or Stewart-Haas car to make a deep run into late October?
Newman has proven throughout his career that he will do whatever it takes to get the positions he needs to advance in addition to being the toughest pass in the modern history of the NASCAR Cup Series.
As for Byron, Almirola and Bowyer, there is something to be said of this rules package taking longer for some drivers to adapt to than others. Certainly, that has been the case for Bowyer, who has shown he can still easily race inside the top 10 when heâs got the right feel.
Almirola has the same equipment as Bowyer, and Byron has the same capability as Elliott — perhaps even more so with seven-time championship-winning crew chief Chad Knaus at his disposal.
Each of these four drivers needs to start scoring championship points and playoff points to make a title run more realistic, but they areÂ likely more capable of it than any bottom four seeds since this format was introduced in 2014.
RACING FOR MORE THAN A TITLE
Silly season has already produced several unexpected driver switches for next season.
Christopher Bell is expected to be named to the Leavine Family Racing No. 95. Meanwhile, Paul Menard’s surprise retirement allowed the otherwise rideless Matt DiBenedetto to take over at the Wood Brothers in 2020.
But there are several drivers in this year’s playoffs that are racing for more than just a championship. A championship could be the deciding factor for what they do over the next several years.
Clint Bowyer is a free agent at the end of this season. With Cole Custer having a breakout season in the Xfinity Series, his dad Joe Custer, the Stewart Haas Racing president,Â seems enthusiastic about a graduation. Bowyer brings some degree of funding but is struggling to find suitors to keep him in a winning ride come 2020. Winning a championship would completely shift the narrative.
Alex Bowman has a contract for next season but doesn’t yet have a sponsor with Nationwide scaling back its support for the popular driver whoÂ took over the No. 88 for Dale Earnhardt Jr. His first victory at Chicagoland was a pivotal moment, but a deep championship run and the attention that comes with it could do wonders for getting sponsorship support for 2020 and beyond.
Erik Jones just signed a one-year extension with Joe Gibbs Racing, but there is already speculation that he is simply keeping the No. 20’s seat warm for Christopher Bell, who will get necessary experience next year with Leavine Family Racing. Jones is just 23 years old and has always been considered an elite talent. It would be pretty tough for Joe Gibbs to dismiss a guy whoÂ wins a championship, or at least comes close, over the next two years.