2017 Preview: Jimmie Johnson leads our projected final four of drivers

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You could probably figure out from the rest of our countdown as to who the top four drivers would be in our 2017 projections. Now it’s time to list those drivers in a projected order. And there’s a gr-eight chance the defending champion is No. 1.

Hamlin made the final round of the Chase in 2014. (Getty)
Hamlin made the final round of the Chase in 2014. (Getty)

4. Denny Hamlin: Perhaps the new playoff format will be Hamlin’s catalyst for a championship.

Hamlin has frequently lamented his bad luck in previous Chases, and has even gone so far as to use the term “Denny Hamlin luck.” And while the three-race rounds in the NASCAR playoffs are ripe for randomness, the carryover of bonus points should serve Hamlin well.

As bonus points are added to the first three rounds, Hamlin (and everyone else) has a cushion for a blown engine or an untimely crash.

But to accrue as many bonus points as possible, Hamlin has to stop speeding on pit road. He was ticketed frequently in 2016 despite generally being able to recover and salvage good finishes. While an early pit road penalty gives drivers plenty of time to get a good finish at the end of the race, the new segment format makes those penalties much more significant. A penalty in the first two stages could cost a driver points.

Harvick didn’t make the final round for the first time in 2016. (Getty)
Harvick didn’t make the final round for the first time in 2016. (Getty)

3. Kevin Harvick: There will inevitably be hiccups in Stewart-Haas Racing’s transition to Ford, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ll affect Harvick and his team enough to prevent them from being excellent once again.

And if they do, there’s 26 races before the playoffs to figure any issues out.

It’s possible that we’ve taken the excellence of Harvick and the No. 4 team for granted over the past two years. Since winning the 2014 title, Harvick has 55 top-10 finishes in 72 races. And 40 of those 55 are top-five finishes. Yes, he’s been more than twice as likely to finish in the top five as he has been to finish outside the top 10. Insanity.

So if there’s a slight step back, it’s not because the team has necessarily gotten worse but simply because the bar over the last two seasons has been set so crazily high. If it wasn’t for Jimmie Johnson’s seven titles in modern NASCAR, Harvick’s excellence at Stewart-Haas would be seen with more awe. Perhaps a second title will make more people pause and appreciate the greatness.

Keselowski’s Chase ended at Talladega in 2016. (Getty)
Keselowski’s Chase ended at Talladega in 2016. (Getty)

2. Brad Keselowski: Speaking of guys looking for a second championship, Keselowski is going to be a championship threat for the foreseeable future. But despite his excellence over the past three years he hasn’t been a part of the final four at Homestead since the elimination playoff’s inception in 2014.

We think that changes this year, and, like with Hamlin, the bonus point carryover in the first three rounds will have a lot to do with that. The third round was Keselowski’s undoing in 2014 and 2015 while he didn’t get out of the second round in 2016.

Despite leading less than half the laps he did in 2015, Keselowski won four races last season vs. the one he won in 2015. He also finished in the top five seven more times despite having three fewer top-10 finishes.

Keselowski has been one of the champions of NASCAR’s new format and he and crew chief Paul Wolfe have been unafraid to try some rogue strategy maneuvers. We’re looking forward to seeing if the No. 2 team races the first two segments of races differently than the rest of the top teams.

“I think until Homestead you’re seeing that the points leaders, the guys that are transferring through to Homestead, have some kind of connection to the regular season with this new format, which I think is so important,” Keselowski said. “It’s important on multiple levels. It’s important from the team side and the driver side because it keeps us honest, it keeps us pushing, it keeps us from taking races not necessarily off, but races that we would have looked at before and said, ‘Let’s save our best car. That race isn’t important.’ The propensity to do that is gonna go down.”

Will seven-time be eight-time after 2017? (Getty)
Will seven-time be eight-time after 2017? (Getty)

1. Jimmie Johnson: How do you bet against a record-breaking eighth championship? That’s the question we kept asking ourselves as we went through our top 16. Johnson made our preliminary cut for the top four and as we went through the options we couldn’t bring ourselves to not put Johnson No. 1 even though we think each of the four drivers in this post have a great title shot.

But when you’re a seven-time NASCAR champion, you get the benefit of the doubt. Johnson should adapt quickly to the lower-downforce package and we’re intrigued to see how he qualifies in 2017 because of the segment bonus points. After the introduction of the new format Johnson lamented his (still really good) qualifying efforts, and we’re certain that he and crew chief Chad Knaus have figured out a way to rectify those issues.

2016 also showed us that it really doesn’t matter how Johnson performs in the regular season, either. He had two early wins and struggled mightily — again, by his standards — over the summer. But then the Chase happened. Johnson led 737 laps in 2016. 471 came in the final 10 races of the season.

Johnson is going to break his tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. It’s just a matter of when.

“And with the new format, there are two opportunities to earn points before the traditional moment in time,” Johnson said. “Qualifying has been tough for us. We might leave points on the table in that first segment because our qualifying isn’t where we want it to be. It’s just not one of my natural strengths. So, it’s going to force people to be more aggressive and more competitive in some situations, not all. I don’t see any downside in that.”

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of From The Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!