The Chase for Eight will have to wait for Jimmie Johnson, but storylines abound as 16 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers enter the big dance this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It’s a Royal Rumble that includes six champions, a single first-timer and everything in between.
So what’s going to happen between now and Homestead? Don’t expect too many miracles. It’s always fun to lose yourself in fantasy, imagining a driver doing the unthinkable like Tony Stewart did in 2011, winning half of the ten playoff races and turning a 9th place season into a championship. Reality says that in 15 playoff seasons the eventual champion ended the regular season fifth or better 10 times. Those are likely the odds you’d take as the circuit begins its 10-race jaunt to the finish line.
That being said, here’s each driver (by current ranking) and why he could hoist the trophy at season’s end.
No. 16 – Ryan Newman
He entered the 2014 playoffs with a pair of top-five and 10 top-10 finishes. He rode that to a career-best 2nd place standing. This year he comes in just one worse with one top-five and nine top-10s.
No. 15 – Clint Bowyer
In 2007 he started the playoffs in the final spot, won the first race, and turned it into a top-three ranking.
No. 14 – Aric Almirola
His first chance at top equipment in 2018 resulted in a fifth place finish and a win at Talladega. With Stewart-Haas Racing finding its stride, there’s no reason to believe he won’t make a run.
No. 13 – William Byron
No driver has won the playoff in his first try, but his crew chief, Chad Knaus, has won this rodeo seven times before so why not the 24?
No. 12 – Ryan Blaney
He’s in basically the same position as this point in 2018, won the only ROVAL race and has already proven his meddle at Texas if he makes the final eight.
No. 11 - Erik Jones
His team has won half the races in 2019, and with a crown jewel win at Darlington and contract talks in the past, his mind should be on one thing, a championship.
No. 10 – Alex Bowman
Consistency is key in the 10-race title chase, and Bowman’s got it. He’s finished worse than 21st just twice in 2019 and after breaking through to win at Chicago, the sky’s the limit.
No. 9 – Kyle Larson
Larson is finding a groove of his own, wreck at Indy not withstanding. Seven of his last ten races have resulted in top-tens. The last time he did that was early 2017, when he led the series much of the year.
No. 8 – Kurt Busch
The winner of the first playoff has more top-fives and more top-tens than he had at this point in his championship season.
No. 7 - Chase Elliott
The only driver to make the playoffs in each of his seasons in Cup, Elliott is on par with his previous two final eight appearances so far. A small break through would mean a big star turn.
No. 6 – Brad Keselowski
In his championship season in 2012, Keselowski entered the playoffs with three wins, 10 top-fives, and 15 top-10s. Right now he has three, nine, and 14. Oh, and he’s already led 231 more laps this year than he did in all of 2012.
No. 5 – Kevin Harvick
When he won his lone championship in 2014, Harvick succeeded from the front, taking a playoff-record eight poles. This year is much the same with five pole awards, second best in his career.
No. 4 – Joey Logano
There’s only been one repeat champion in the playoff era (Jimmie’s five straight), but Logano could be primed. Only five of 15 champions have entered the playoffs with double digit top-five finishes. Joey has 10 of them.
No. 3 – Martin Truex, Jr.
This is MTJ’s third straight year entering the tournament with four wins under his belt. Two years ago he added four more and a title. Last year he stayed on four and went home in 2nd place.
No. 2 – Denny Hamlin
Hamlin’s average finish of 9.7 is the first of his career below double digits, and it’s equal to or better than every season champion except Truex in 2017 (9.4).
No. 1 – Kyle Busch
Busch is getting more out of his car than he has in previous years. His 11.9 starting average is his second worst since 2011, while his 8.2 average finish is the best of his career. With five top-five starts in his past nine races, that should worry everyone.
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