The opening round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begins this weekend at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Over the next 10 weeks, we will close it down to one champion at seasons end.
But, who will it be?
Right now, I’d say the favorites aren’t who we thought they’d be back in June.
From February through June 23 (16 races) the favorites to win the Cup championship this year were Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano. They’d have won 10 of the first 16 races to the year.
Logano, had eight top five finishes in 16 races.
Busch, had 10.
Truex, had seven.
Logano has two, Busch and Truex have three (10 races).
Now, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Erik Jones look the part. Through June, Larson had one top five. Harvick, had five (all 4th place runs), Keselowski had six, Hamlin six and Jones four.
Over the last 10?
Larson and Jones have five a piece, Hamlin six, Harvick four (3 of which wins) and Keselowski three. Harvick, has won three of the last seven races after being 0-for-19 prior. Larson, has five top eight finishes in his last seven tries including six in the last eight. Jones, has five top four finishes in the last eight while Keselowski has five top 10’s in his last six.
Hamlin and Harvick have won half of the last 10 races.
They’re trending up.
I know Larson, Jones and Keselowski all crashed at Indy but all three told me so long as they had good cars that were fast last weekend, then the momentum wouldn’t derail if they were caught up in an accident.
Even Clint Bowyer is trending up. He has three straight top seven finishes now and improving each week. Ryan Blaney has five top 10’s in the last seven races. Those seven drivers will be tough outs.
Aric Almirola hasn’t had a top five since Phoenix back in March. His last top 10 came at Daytona in July. He’s not trending in the right direction.
Alex Bowman hasn’t scored a top five since his June 30 Chicagoland win. In fact, he has one top 10 since and that was a 10th place effort in Michigan. Same with Kurt Busch. His last top five was his win in Kentucky in mid July. He’s only had three top 10’s since. William Byron has two top five finishes in his last eight starts.
That makes this postseason so difficult to predict. So, lets try to do so anyways.
4 eliminated – Aric Almirola, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch
Almirola, for the reason above. While he has the seventh best finishing average on 1.5-mile tracks among playoff drivers this season, I don’t necessarily think that it will carry much merit. There’s only one 1.5-mile track in this round and that’s the first race in Vegas. Almirola, hasn’t finished outside of the top 10 on that track since joining SHR, but he also hasn’t scored a top 10 finish on the season since the first weekend of July either. Then, it’s to Richmond where he was 23rd in the spring and 17th and fifth respectively last year and finally the ROVAL where he finished 19th last year and was ninth and 12th respectively in two road course starts this season.
For Byron and Bowman, they just haven’t shown me a lot. Bowman, hasn’t had a top five since his win on June 30. Byron, has just three all season. Plus, Bowman and Byron have never finished in the top 10 before at either of the first two stops in this round. They’d be facing a win or go home scenario on the ROVAL.
Finally, Busch is my surprise pick to not advance. He has one top five finish over his last 11 starts on the season and just two in the last 18. That’s not going to be good enough. In Vegas, he did finish fifth back in March but he also has been 20th or worse in seven of his last nine there overall. In Richmond, Busch has one top five in his last eight tries. That leaves the ROVAL.
4 Eliminated: Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney Brad Keselowski
Another surprise here in Keselowski. I just don’t think he’s been consistent enough on these tracks this round. While he could win at Talladega or Kansas, I just don’t think he does. At Dover, he finished 12th back in May but hasn’t been better than fourth in his last nine starts there. For Talladega, since his win in the 2017 playoff race, he’s finished outside the top 10 in 12 of the next 13 superspeedway starts. Finally, it’s to Kansas where he did win back in mid May but that and a second place run in the spring race in 2017 are his lone top five’s since 2012.
I can also see this being the end of the road for his teammate Blaney too. While he’s been solid, he just needs to win and I don’t see any of these tracks being good ones for him to do so on. Blaney has two top 10 finishes in seven tries at Dover, both being eighth place runs. In Talladega, he has one top five and two top 10’s in nine tries while Kansas has seen him finish 37th, seventh and 32nd respectively in his last three starts.
For Newman, his run just comes to an end because he’s facing a time where he needs to get top fives, not top 15’s. Newman has one top five finish at Dover since 2007 and none at Kansas since 2007 too. Talladega is Talladega.
Bowyer does have three top 10 finishes in his last four starts at Dover and was fifth at Kansas back in May but he only has two top 10 finishes at Kansas over the last three years. Talladega is Talladega for him too. Granted, like Keselowski, he can win at any of these three but not being consistent enough hurts him.
Then you have guys that are fringe guys who can make it through which is why I have both Penske’s being eliminated. Chase Elliott has six top five finishes in seven Dover starts. He won in Talladega in April and won the playoff race in Kansas last year while finishing fourth in the spring as well.
Kyle Larson has three top five finishes in his last five Dover starting including a third place run in May. He does struggle on superspeedways but in Kansas, the cutoff race, he has four top eight finishes in his last five tries.
Erik Jones finished fourth in last year’s Dover playoff race and sixth in the spring. He’s typically pretty good on superspeedways and in Kansas, he has three straight top seven finishes including a third place run in May.
4 Eliminated: Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Martin Truex Jr.
The only reason that these guys are eliminated is because I think Denny Hamlin wins in Martinsville, Kevin Harvick in Texas and Kyle Busch in Phoenix. That leaves one spot open to Homestead and Joey Logano takes it.
Truex Jr. isn’t on top of his A game right now and maybe he finds it between now and next month but for the time being, I think he’s the odd one out. Elliott, Larson and Jones will make it interesting but the other three winners are just that good.
Champion: Kevin Harvick
It’s hard to go against him right now. He’s always good in Homestead and he’s having a similar season to what Joey Logano had in a championship winning one a year ago. He went 0-for-19 to start the year off in terms of victories but won three of the next seven. He’s heading into the playoffs hotter than anyone right now and I think he takes the crown in Miami.