NASCAR.com staff's 2019 playoff predictions

Staff Report

The extended NASCAR.com staff makes its picks for 2019 title contenders, postseason surprises and who will hoist the Monster Energy Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

RELATED: Printable playoff grid | Complete standings look 

ZACK ALBERT

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Championship 4: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski. Expecting a veteran feel to this season’s title-eligible quartet, made up of drivers who have snatched up victories in multiples this year.

Sleeper: Kyle Larson. A lengthy winless skid seems like an ominous sign, but it’s balanced by a recent show of strength from the No. 42 team, which is due for a turnaround at the right time.

Early out: Aric Almirola. One top-10 finish in 26 races this year makes the No. 10 tough to count on for a deep playoff run.

Champion: Kyle Busch. The regular-season champ is primed to become the overall champ at Homestead, where the No. 18 team’s benchmark of performance should carry the day.

PAT DeCOLA

Championship 4: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano. NASCAR’s top-tier talents show why they’re the best and ride strong regular seasons into strong playoff runs all the way to Miami.

Sleeper: Kurt Busch. Kurt has quietly been lurking in that next rung under the top dogs all season, could be ready to pounce on any mistakes and sneak into the Championship 4 for another shot at a second title.

Early out: Alex Bowman. Bowman rides into the playoffs with a pretty decent No. 9 seed but has seemed to lose all the momentum he built up that led to his Chicagoland Speedway win.

Champion: Kyle Busch. Everyone seems to think Hamlin will be the favorite if he makes it to Homestead based on his track history, but this feels like Busch’s year. He got hot early on but has been extremely strong all season despite a recent winless streak.

MARISSA FULLER

Championship 4: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano. These four all stand out in their own way this season — Busch and Hamlin will continue their winning ways, Elliott is going to fight for his life and solidify his spot with a win at one of the tracks in the Round of 8, and Logano‘s momentum from last year‘s title win will follow him back to the Championship 4.

Sleeper: Ryan Newman. The veteran has showed an insane amount of confidence this season and has slowly but surely found himself running up front and closing out races in the right spot at the right time.

Early out: Aric Almirola. The No. 10 driver made it into the NASCAR Playoffs on points, but I think a lack of confidence being winless in the playoffs will hurt him in the long run.

Champion: Denny Hamlin. Redemption is the name of the game for Hamlin, who is hoping to put 2010 behind him, as he and his new crew chief have shown their capabilities and I don‘t think they‘re done winning. It also helps that the playoff tracks are pretty good to Hamlin.

RJ KRAFT

Championship 4: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano. Hamlin’s and Harvick‘s summer hot streaks continue, while Busch and Logano have been the top drivers all season.

Sleeper: Kyle Larson. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s late-summer surge stayed under the radar due to Hamlin, Harvick and Erik Jones’ strong summers.

Early out: Ryan Blaney. He may be the reigning winner at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, but Richmond Raceway is statistically his worst track and despite solid numbers at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he has one top 10 on a 1.5-mile track in 2019.

Champion: Kevin Harvick. In addition to winning three of the last seven races, “Happy” always seem to shine when the pressure is on.

STEVE LUVENDER

Championship 4: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott. Oh, and I‘ve got a little bit riding on this.

Sleeper: Ryan Newman. He appeared to have fallen asleep during a red flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — the only driver to do so — making him the true sleeper.

Early out: Alex Bowman. He won his first career race at Chicagoland leading precisely 88 laps, so really, that‘s good enough for 2019.

Champion: Denny Hamlin. If the race is somehow delayed a day, he‘ll be crowned champion on his (and, selfishly, my) birthday, Nov. 18.

JONATHAN MERRYMAN

Championship 4: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott. Busch, Harvick and Hamlin are expected to make it, while the next step for Elliott is to advance past the Round of 8.

Sleeper: Ryan Blaney. He‘s a sleeper because he hasn‘t won this year, but if he can close out races, he will be hard to deal with.

Early out: Kyle Larson. Historically, Round 1 has not been kind to Larson and 2019 has proven to be tough for the No. 42.

Champion: Denny Hamlin. Confidence is as abundant as the No. 11‘s speed. This feels like Hamlin’s year.

@NASCARCASM

Championship 4Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson (Sorry, habit), Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin

Sleeper: Kevin Harvick

Early out: Kevin Harvick

Champion: Denny Hamlin. It’s bizarre to have a year where Joe Gibbs Racing is so dominant that a past champion with three regular-season wins IS YOUR SLEEPER, but the JGR big three (If we’re using that designation again this year) will all make their way to Homestead, and it’s absolutely the year of Hamlin, and if I’m wrong, well then I’ll just ask my editor to delete this.

BRAD NORMAN

Championship 4: Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. Playoff points reign supreme here, but the No. 9 team has a history of turning it up in the postseason.

Sleeper: Erik Jones. The No. 20 team has the look of a group primed for the Round of 8 — perhaps more.

Early out: Brad Keselowski. Speed abounds at Team Penske, but the No. 2 crew seems just a tick off.

Champion: Martin Truex Jr. Somehow, the 2017 champion enters the postseason under the radar — a situation he and crew chief Cole Pearn will thrive upon on the way to another trophy.

TERRIN WAACK

Championship 4: Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano. It was either Logano or Keselowski for Team Penske, but the reigning champ needs at least a chance to repeat.

Sleeper: William Byron. The young driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has the points system figured out, so expect him to get far in the playoffs and perhaps his first win.

Early out: Aric Almirola. Almirola only has one top-five finish this season and hasn‘t steered his No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to a top-10 ending in the last eight races — not a good trend.

Champion: Denny Hamlin. It’s about time Hamlin wins a title after 14 full-time seasons, and the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota sure has been proving his capabilities this season with four wins, including the Daytona 500.

ALEX WEAVER

Championship 4: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin. These guys are winning consistently throughout the season and know how to dominate on the biggest stage with the most pressure.

Sleeper: William Byron. He and crew chief Chad Knaus are finding their stride and heating up at the right time.

Early out: Clint Bowyer. Bowyer and the No. 14 team have let mistakes determine their season. If they can put together a well-executed race, they may be in. If not, think they’re out early.

Champion: Denny Hamlin. Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart are the two best friends anyone can have right now in the garage. They have found it, and the No. 11 team is having fun winning.

GEORGE WINKLER

Championship 4: Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano. Tough decisions at the top, but I stuck with Team Penske for my last driver in based on the speed the team has shown all season.

Sleeper: Kyle Larson. If he learns to stay out of trouble, Larson has the talent to be a title contender.

Early out: Alex Bowman. He has just one top-10 finish in the nine races since his win at Chicago.

Champion: Denny Hamlin. What a story if Hamlin comes back from a zero-win season to claim a championship in honor of J.D. Gibbs.

CHASE WILHELM

Championship 4: Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. Joe Gibbs Racing has been the class of the field all season and that will show in the Championship 4, but Chase Elliott is also in there to spoil the party.

Sleeper: William Byron. Byron and Knaus are starting to really click, so I wouldn‘t be surprised if we see the second-year driver make it to the Round of 8.

Early out: Aric Almirola. The 2019 season hasn‘t been pleasant for Almirola, so elimination after the first round is very likely unless the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing team can dig deep.

Champion: Chase Elliott. The No. 9 driver is going to go on a heater during this 10-race playoff stretch and beat some seasoned veterans at Homestead.

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