Welcome to part three of our preview series. After checking out these four drivers, it’s pretty obvious who our final four is going to be, right? We’ll reveal our projected champion Friday.
8. Matt Kenseth: This is the part of the preview sections where we should use the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and simply say that any of the eight remaining drivers has a chance of winning the title. While the overall depth of the Cup field gets thinner, the depth at the top gets better.
That’s probably not a coincidence, given the costs of operating a competitive Cup operation. But that’s another point for another day.
Kenseth has been a title contender in each of the elimination Chase’s three seasons. He just hasn’t had the luck to show for it at Kansas in 2015 when Joey Logano made contact with him while racing for the lead or at Phoenix in November when Kenseth got crashed out of … you guessed it, the lead.
There’s nothing that makes us think Kenseth won’t be in the thick of things again in 2017. He’ll win a race or three and run up front a lot. He may never have a season as strong as 2013, but that was one of the best non-title winning seasons in recent memory.
Book Kenseth for an 8th-straight season with an average finish inside the top 15. And maybe the new playoff format with accumulated and carried over bonus points will help him get to the final round for the first time.
7. Chase Elliott: Nah, there’s not going to be a sophomore slump here. Elliott’s going to win a race this season. And much like we said with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., it could happen early in the season.
The speed Elliott showed at intermediate tracks late in the season was real. He was the dominant car at Chicago and led 103 laps at Charlotte before he got caught up in that crazy restart crash. He had a pretty good car at Kansas too. Though it wasn’t reliable. A series of mechanical failures meant his Chase was pretty much over at that point.
If Elliott wins multiple races in his second season, get ready for the comparisons to the performances of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in their second seasons. Gordon won two races in 1994 and finished eighth a year before taking home his first championship. After three wins and a fifth-place finish in his first season, Johnson won three races again and finished second in the standings.
A top-five finish is within the realm of possibility for Elliott.
“One thing I’m excited about, which I haven’t had in the last few years, is having the same crew chief two years in a row. I haven’t had that. I really enjoyed working with [crew chief Alan Gustafson] last year. I think he’s one of the best. Everyone says that about their crew chiefs, but I’m pretty confident saying that. He does a great job and is underrated in what he does and how hard he works in trying to make a race team go.”
6. Kyle Busch: If he makes the final four in 2017 Busch will stretch his streak of final fours to three — the longest stretch of any Cup driver.
The postseason consistency from the No. 18 bunch has been quite remarkable over the past three seasons given the up-and-down nature of Busch’s regular seasons. While they’ve been filled with lots of wins, there’s been a fair number of bad finishes too. It’s possible we’ve underestimated the ability of the No. 18 team to up its game over the final 10 races.
Busch has matured as a driver too, undoubtedly with some assistance from a championship. He’s kept his raw speed while becoming one of the few that can be exceptionally fast while also being calculating and thinking two steps ahead.
There’s no reason to think title No. 2 couldn’t happen in 2017. Like we said, we’re at the crapshoot point of this preview. What we do know, however, is that Busch will continue his streak of seasons with a win and will get his fifth-straight top-10 finish.
5. Joey Logano: Is Logano the oldest 26-year-old in NASCAR history? That question obviously doesn’t make sense, but given that Logano is entering his ninth full season of Cup competition and turns 27 in May, it can be hard to remember that he was the third-youngest driver in the Chase in 2016.
It’s fair to say he’s been the best driver without a title over the past three seasons. Since 2014, Logano has won 14 races and has 76 top-10 finishes in 98 races. Yes, that’s a top-10 rate of nearly 80 percent.
It’s also fair to wonder if the 2015 title was his too. His three-straight wins in the second round get overshadowed by the plunking Kenseth gave him at Martinsville while Logano was leading.
Logano is going to win a championship sooner rather than later. And remember, he’s still got three full seasons left before he turns 30. There’s plenty of time for him to fulfill the “Sliced Bread” moniker as much as possible.
“There is a lot of opportunity when there is change,” Logano said of the new points and race format. “[teammate Brad Keselowski] says that the best. When there is change like this the first person who figures it out is going to have a huge advantage. Right now, the way the new format is, if you can get some bonus points at the beginning of the year it will help you get all the way to Homestead and the Championship 4. Figuring it out early is key. For me, I have one gear and it is wide-open. It doesn’t really change the way I race as a driver but as a team and how Todd will call these races is obviously going to be different.”
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