Tomorrow night NASCAR will kick off this year’s playoffs at Darlington Raceway with the Cook Out Southern 500. After a hectic race at Daytona last week seeing William Byron win his first Cup race and secure a spot in the playoffs, the field is now set.
This is the playoff field in order of points:
4 Kevin Harvick
11 Denny Hamlin
2 Brad Keselowski
22 Joey Logano
9 Chase Elliott
19 Martin Truex Jr.
12 Ryan Blaney
88 Alex Bowman
24 William Byron
3 Austin Dillon
41 Cole Custer
10 Aric Almirola
14 Clint Bowyer
18 Kyle Busch
1 Kurt Busch
21 Matt DiBenedetto
Round of 16: Darlington, Richmond, Bristol
Eliminations: Cole Custer, Austin Dillon, Matt DiBenedetto, Kurt Busch
Before the races at Kentucky and Texas, it would be very unlikely that anyone would have predicted Custer to be in the playoffs and Dillon was on the bubble. With almost no points backing them, it’s no surprise to see them eliminated early. Both are in via the “win you’re in” rule.
The feel good story of Matt DiBenedetto has been a great storyline this season, but there’s just no way he can advance without a win. Don’t rule it out though because Bristol is historically his best track, but I just don’t see that happening.
Kurt Busch has been very consistent this season, but only as a P10-20 car. He hasn’t shown any winning speed this season, and has been off-and-on at the three tracks in the first round. An early exit would be disappointing for the 1 team, but not surprising.
Round of 12: Las Vegas, Talladega, Charlotte ROVAL
Eliminations: Alex Bowman, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola
This is the toughest round to predict. Absolutely anything can happen at Talladega, and the ROVAL will be interesting too. This pick is the opposite of what their stats at these three tracks will tell you, but Alex Bowman won’t reach the round of eight. He just hasn’t been good since his win at Auto Club pre-COVID. He recently has put together a couple of good races, but nothing indicating a deep playoff run.
The pair of Stewart-Haas Racing drivers in Almirola and Bowyer have had good seasons but not even close to where their teammate Harvick is. Almirola has been a pleasant surprise this year, but again lack of playoff points vs. other drivers is where he falls short. Bowyer hasn’t been as good as Almirola however. He’s a good road course racer though so he should run well at Charlotte, but like Almirola he just won’t have enough points to advance without a win.
Here’s the controversial pick. Kyle Busch, KFB, the reigning Cup champion. In my opinion the biggest surprise of this year is that he hasn’t won. It’s incredible that the champion hasn’t been to victory lane yet. Yes he’s been unlucky, but where’s the dominance from last year? I don’t see his luck changing and the 2019 Cup winner’s back-to-back championship hopes are over.
Round of 8: Kansas, Texas, Martinsville
Eliminations: William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano
Fresh off his first Cup win, William Byron is carrying tons of momentum into the playoffs. This has real meaning in my eyes, and I can see him and his team racing their way into this round. The only reason Byron will be eliminated isn’t because he’ll run badly, it’s just the other cars have been so much better.
Ryan Blaney, like Kyle Busch, has been very unlucky this season. He’ll lead a ton of laps and then have an issue in the last stage only to end his chances at winning. He’s had the best car in at least three races but fell short. It feels like he should have a few more wins than his sole one at ‘Dega.
On the other hand, it’s the opposite for Brad Keselowski. Many people are making him out as a championship contender with the most win’s behind the 4 and 11, but two of his three were gifts. Don’t forget his Bristol win came after Chase Elliott and Logano wrecked on the final restart running first and second. His Coke 600 win came after a late caution came out with two to go. Elliott would have cruised to the checkered if not for the yellow. Missing the championship four would be hard on the team but not unexpected.
The third Penske driver is Joey Logano. If he starts running well, I can easily see him making the championship four. But in the equipment he’s in and with his skill, it’s hard to justify only two wins this year, both pre-COVID. He’s always run well at these three tracks though, so if any of these four drivers prove me wrong it may very well be him.
Championship Four: Phoenix
Eliminations: Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick
Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott are both semi-controversial picks to make it to Phoenix. Truex is currently on a streak of eight top-4 finishes. His team has been so good lately, and it feels like it’s just a matter of time until he wins again. Like I said earlier, momentum is important and it’s definitely possible for him to make another championship run.
Chase Elliott has been good this year, but can be so much better. From Talladega until Michigan he barely ran in the top five, average finishes in those ten races. With two wins (although could be three or four), he’s good on points to make a run at the Cup. He’s been average at most tracks in the playoffs, but some he’s been outright dominant. Expect him finish high – if not win – at Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, the ROVAL and Talladega even though it’s a superspeedway. Although it doesn’t count for points, he’s the most recent winner at Bristol after his victory in the All Star race. This could very well be the year he finally breaks through the round of eight.
Finally, there’s Kevin Harvick. The regular season champion, driver with the most wins and the favorite to win it all. This year is championship-or-bust for him, so there’s obviously a lot of pressure on him. While the playoff schedule seems to suit him perfectly, there’s only one reason I believe he won’t become a two-time champ. Denny Hamlin.
Even though he was one less win, Hamlin has arguably been more consistent than Harvick. In every single race this season Hamlin is up there competing for the win. Short tracks, mile-and-a-halfs, superspeedways, road courses, Hamlin is always running up front. Without a crash he would’ve beaten Harvick at the Brickyard 400, and other than a few races he is running in the top five. The amount of P2s and P3s he’s gotten just shows how he could easily have 10+ wins this year.
Harvick, also running in the top ten most races, wins if he has a winning car. There has been a considerably less number of times he doesn’t win with the best car than Hamlin. And that’s what it comes down to. Not wins, but winning cars. We’ll have to wait to see how everything plays out, but we’re definitely in for a great ten weeks of racing.
2020 Cup Series Champion: Denny Hamlin
Photo credit: NASCAR