By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Now that the checkered flag has flown following Monday’s rain-delayed Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard, the regular season for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is complete and the 16-driver field for the playoffs is set.
Starting next week in Las Vegas, the playoff contenders will begin a 10-week grind toward crowning a champion at the season finale at Homestead-Miami, but how do they really stack up against each other?
Kevin Harvick (2050 Points) – Harvick and Kyle Busch can be ranked as 1A and 1B, since they both now have the same amount of points each after the reset, but I give Harvick the nod for the top spot with his seven wins on the season and the strength that he and crew chief Rodney Childers have shown throughout the year. Definitely a lock for the championship race at Homestead unless something drastic happens.
Kyle Busch (2050 Points) – Busch won six races and the regular season championship, so he should be able to easily progress through the Playoffs to make his way to Homestead to fight for his second title.
Martin Truex, Jr. (-15) – Though Truex finished dead last at Indianapolis following a brake rotor failure, he and Furniture Row Racing will still be a big threat down the stretch. If they could overcome everything they did last year, banding together for one last ride together before the team shuts down at season’s end will be a piece of cake for this bunch from Colorado.
Brad Keselowski (-31) – While the 2012 series champion went winless through the first 24 races of the season, winning back to back majors at Darlington and Indianapolis places Keselowski squarely in the fourth spot as the favorite to join the “Big Three” at Homestead. Momentum is the name of the game when it comes to the Playoffs and the No. 2 team has that firmly on their side.
Clint Bowyer (-35) – With two wins on his 2018 resume, Bowyer has without a doubt been the second-best driver at Stewart-Haas Racing this season and has shown he wound up in the No. 14 car for a reason. Don’t count the “class clown” out of anything as the remainder of the season plays out, he could shock us all.
Kurt Busch (-36) – Busch finally broke through for his first win of the season at Bristol two races ago and hasn’t finished outside the top-10 in the last eight races. With his future at SHR up in the air after this season, I wouldn’t put it past Busch to make a run in the Playoffs before taking off for greener pastures elsewhere.
Joey Logano (-36) – Logano visited Victory Lane once this season at Talladega back in April, but his results through the first 26 races seem to be hit or miss, with stretches of top-five finishes and top-10 finishes, but stretches of sub-par finishes as well. Which Logano shows up will determine how far he goes in the Playoffs.
Erik Jones (-45) – With a win under his belt and Joe Gibbs Racing equipment underneath him, Jones could definitely have a lengthy stay in the Playoffs. The Cup Series sophomore driver has shown that he has the talent and the ability to step up on tracks of all shape and size, just look at his performance at Indianapolis, so keep an eye on the Michigan boy.
Kyle Larson (-45) – When it comes to the Chevrolet drivers, Larson is definitely a step above all the rest, as his team has been able to compete for wins several times throughout the season, only to fall short for one reason or another.
Take last week at Darlington where they led a lion’s share of the race before letting it slip through their fingers in the closing stages. Should the team be able to keep mechanical issues from holding them back like last season, Larson could be a threat to make some noise in the Playoffs.
Denny Hamlin (-47) – Hamlin looked to be in prime position to break his winless streak Monday at Indianapolis, only to have it taken away in the final laps, leaving him dejected after the checkered flag flew. Definitely not the head space you want your driver to be in as the Playoffs begin. With JGR equipment, Hamlin has the ability to make his presence known in the postseason, but he’ll have to get in the right frame of mind to make it happen.
Ryan Blaney (-43) – Mental mistakes have been the bane of Blaney’s existence as of late, especially at Indianapolis where he had some issues on pit road that he had to try and recover from. As one of seven Ford drivers in the Playoffs and Team Penske backing him, it’s only a matter of time before he can break through for his first win of the season, and what better time to turn the corner than in the Playoffs.
Chase Elliott (-42) – Elliott’s win at Watkins Glen in August remains one of the most popular wins of the season, but aside from that victory, things have not gone according to plan for Elliott and the No. 9 team. He ranks as the best of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers, but with the team and manufacturer still playing catch up, it’s hard to see Elliott making it past the first round or two.
Aric Almirola (-49) – It’s been one thing after another keeping Almirola from joining the rest of his SHR brethren in Victory Lane this season and having bad luck like his team has had is not what a driver needs heading into the Playoffs. If they can get things turned around, watch out, but at this rate that’s a big if.
Austin Dillon (-45) – Dillon may have won the Daytona 500 to lock himself into the Playoffs in week one, but the struggles of Chevrolet as a whole doesn’t bode well for him making a deep run in the postseason.
Jimmie Johnson (-50) – He may be a seven-time champion with 83 wins to his name, but this just hasn’t been the season for Johnson and his No. 48 team. The Johnson we have seen in 2018 is most definitely not the Johnson of old, and while we’ve seen this team get hot a make a run before, it just doesn’t seem to be in the cards this year.
Alex Bowman (-50) – Making the Playoffs in his first full-time season with Hendrick Motorsports is an accomplishment for Bowman and the No. 88 team to be proud of, but that seems to be about as far as they’ll make it this year as they are still battling performance issues this far into the season.