Welcome to the playoffs. The 10-race NASCAR postseason begins Sunday evening at Las Vegas. Yes, Sunday evening. The first race of the playoffs starts just after 7 p.m. ET. You’ll have to pick between the race on NBCSN and NBC’s Sunday Night Football with the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons.
Here’s how we think the 16-driver playoff field will look at the end of the playoffs. This will undoubtedly be wrong, but consider it your guide to what could unfold over the next 10 weeks.
16. Aric Almirola
How he could win the title: Almirola recaptures the form that saw him fifth in the points standings after the first seven races of the season. Almirola finished 32nd in the Daytona 500 but then reeled off six straight top-10 finishes and rocketed his way through the standings. A run of six straight top 10s through the playoffs could advance him enough to give him a fighting chance.
Why he won’t: It’s been a rough road for Almirola lately and it’s hard to see his Stewart-Haas Racing team suddenly flipping a switch. Almirola hasn’t finished in the top 10 since Daytona in July and his last top-10 at a track that hosts a playoff race came at Talladega in May. Almirola is tied for last among all playoff drivers with the fewest top-five finishes (1) and it’s pretty easy to see how that lack of speed will show in the playoffs.
15. Alex Bowman
How he could win the title: The form that Bowman showed at Kansas and Chicago — where he won the first Cup race of his career — shows up at intermediate tracks. Both of those races were run in the evening and the finale at Homestead concludes after sunset.
Why he won’t: Bowman has shown quality. He has three second-place finishes in addition to the Chicago win. He just hasn’t shown a large quantity of that quality. His best finish since winning has been a 10th at Michigan. He’s finished between 14th and 21st in each of the other eight races. That’s not good enough in the playoffs.
14. Ryan Newman
How he could win the title: The other 15 drivers qualified for the playoffs all crash in each of the remaining 10 races. Newman then finishes 12th in every race to easily clinch his first Cup Series title.
Why he won’t: The preceding paragraph is clearly tongue-in-cheek, though there’s no compelling reason to pick Newman for the title. His best finish of the season is a fifth at Daytona in July, and he’s scored eight other top tens.
Newman made the playoffs on the shoulders of his ability to finish inside the top 25. He never finished worse than 25th all season. That skill could keep him in the playoff picture longer than you may think. However, the inability to score a lot of points to recover from a bad finish if it happens is why Newman isn’t a legit title threat.
13. Clint Bowyer
How he could win the title: Bowyer’s six top fives are more than five other playoff drivers. And five of those six came in the first 14 races of the season. And Bowyer has finished seventh, sixth and fifth in each of the past three races. If the trend continues … OK, it very likely won’t.
Why he won’t: Bowyer has been the anti-Newman. He’s finished outside the top 25 six times in the first 26 races of the season. At that rate, well, he’s probably going to have a bad finish in the playoffs. And that could end up dooming his playoff hopes. It’s not going to be terribly surprising to see Bowyer get to the third round this year. It’s also not going to be surprising if he’s eliminated in the first.
12. William Byron
How he could win the title: The top-10 speed Byron has flashed over the second half of the regular season gets even better over the final 10 races. Byron gets the first win of his Cup Series career early in the playoffs and then he wins again in the third round to advance to Homestead, where Chad Knaus’ genius shines through.
Why he won’t: It feels like 2019 is a year too early for the Byron-Knaus pairing. While Byron has a series-leading four poles this season, his best finish in any of those races is ninth. He’s also led just 10 laps over the last 10 races of the regular season. You gotta be able to run up front for more than short bursts to be a title contender.
11. Kurt Busch
How he could win the title: Busch has finished in the top 10 in 14 of the first 26 races. He also had a 11-race stretch from race Nos. 2-12 where he finished no worse than 13th. If Busch replicates that run in the playoffs he could be racing for the title at Homestead.
Why he won’t: Busch doesn’t score enough stage points. He’s got the sixth-best average finish of all drivers but ended the regular season eighth in the points standings. Busch has also tailed off a little bit too, even counting the win he scored at Kentucky. The third round seems like Busch’s ceiling.
10. Erik Jones
How he could win the title: Jones starts to catch his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates in the points standings and grabs a win or two to advance his way to Homestead where he wins and finishes in the top 20 at the track for the first time in his career.
Why he won’t: A four-car team has never gotten all four of its drivers into the finals. And it doesn’t seem like it will happen this year. Jones has shown plenty of speed in 2019 — he had a four-race run over the summer where he never finished lower than fourth. But he’s also had five finishes outside the top 25. Don’t be surprised if Jones makes a run into the third round, though.
9. Ryan Blaney
How he could win the title: Blaney’s average finish of 14.6 is the best of his career. He kicks that up a notch and scores six or seven top fives and a win or two on his way to Homestead, where he beats the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas for the championship.
Why he won’t: An average finish of 14.6 isn’t going to get it done. And it’s much easier to envision Blaney’s performance staying flat than it is to see it spike over the final 10 races. Blaney has just one DNF at tracks outside of Daytona, so he shouldn’t be out of the playoffs in round one. But he has just one top-five finish at a 1.5-mile track in 2019. That’s not a good title sign.
8. Kyle Larson
How he could win the title: The run Larson has been on before the playoffs carries over into the final 10 races. Larson’s 33rd at Indy on Sunday broke a streak of five straight finishes inside the top eight, and he’s finished in the top 10 in seven of the last 10 races. Throw in a well-timed win or two in another 10-race stretch like that and Larson’s the title driver to beat at Homestead.
Why he won’t: Larson has crashed out of six races in 2019. He also spent 19 straight races during the regular season outside the top 10 in the points standings before he moved into ninth after he was second at Darlington. It’s hard to think a driver who hasn’t won since 2017 will make a playoff run.
7. Chase Elliott
How he could win the title: A strong second round consisting of tracks where Elliott has won at before (Dover, Talladega, Kansas) gives him enough bonus points to make it through the third round and to Homestead. That Kansas performance then carries over to Homestead and Elliott wins there to be both the 2019 champion and NASCAR’s most popular driver.
Why he won’t: Have you seen Elliott’s summer? It’s gotten a lot better since he won at Watkins Glen with finishes of ninth, fifth, 19th and ninth in the four races since. But an average finish of 10.5 probably isn’t good enough to advance to the final round. And Elliott’s June and July is too bad to ignore too. He had a seven-race stretch with no top-10 finishes and four finishes outside the top 25.
6. Brad Keselowski
How he could win the title: Two of Keselowski’s three wins this season have come at tracks in the playoffs. Repeat wins at Kansas and Martinsville mean Keselowski advances through to the final round at Homestead, where he breaks through after he finished fourth in 2017.
Why he won’t: Keselowski’s average finish of 12.5 is 2.4 spots lower than the 10.1 he posted in his championship year of 2012. While the No. 2 team has been extremely solid this year, doesn’t it feel like Keselowski’s team needs a little more something to be a title contender? We’re now in the territory where any of the remaining six drivers could make the final four at Homestead and it wouldn’t be a surprise.
5. Joey Logano
How he could win the title: Logano simply follows the same formula that he used in 2018 and becomes the first repeat champion in NASCAR’s elimination playoff era. Logano has also completed 99.9 percent of the laps run in 2019 and that ability to stay as close to the lead lap as possible pays off as other contenders have issues throughout the first nine races of the playoffs.
Why he won’t: Logano had a summer swoon before finishing second at Indy on Sunday and that continues into the playoffs. Logano was the points leader after he finished ninth at New Hampshire but a run of five straight races without a top-10 finish — and three races with fewer than 30 points — meant Kyle Busch was able to clinch the regular season title at Darlington.
4. Kevin Harvick
How he could win the title: Win a race or two or three in the playoffs this year without getting the win taken away for a post-race inspection violation. And simply carry over the hot streak into the playoffs. Harvick’s three wins have come in the last seven races and he’s finished no lower than seventh in six of those races. The only race he finished lower than seventh was at Bristol, when he had a clutch issue.
Why he won’t: Talladega could be the culprit if Harvick has an early playoff exit. The track hasn’t been kind to him recently. He’s finished 20th and 28th in the last two playoff races at the track and was 38th in the spring after he got caught up in a lap 12 crash. Harvick doesn’t have as many playoff points as he did in 2018, so his margin for Talladega crashing is smaller.
3. Martin Truex Jr.
How he could win the title: Truex has been very, very good at playoff tracks in 2019. His finishes at the tracks that are in the playoffs go second, eighth, second, eighth, first, 20th (Talladega), first and 19th. And he was in position to win at the Roval last year before he got taken out by Jimmie Johnson. He also has the best crew chief in the Cup Series in Cole Pearn.
Why he won’t: Truex enters the playoffs on his worst run of the season with finishes of 13th, 15th and 27th in the last three races. That can and should be turned around, however. We’re taking Truex to be the third of four Joe Gibbs Racing cars because he hasn’t shown the outright recent speed his other two teammates have.
2. Kyle Busch
How he could win the title: Busch simply does what he did in the regular season and scores the most points of any playoff driver over the first nine races and then wins at Homestead. That’s a pretty realistic scenario, don’t you think?
Why he won’t: It’s extremely hard betting against Busch for the title. He easily passed Joey Logano for the points lead in recent weeks all while being perceived to be in a slump. After winning four races in the first 14, Busch is now winless in the last 12. If that stretch continues, then maybe Busch is vulnerable. But he only finished outside the top 10 on five occasions in the first 26 races.
1. Denny Hamlin
How he could win the title: Hamlin’s tied with Busch for the most top fives at 13. And a lot of those have come recently. Over the last eight races Hamlin has finished fifth, second, first, third, second, first, 29th and sixth. That 29th came after he got wrecked while running near the front at Darlington, and the sixth was in a backup car.
Why he couldn’t: Hamlin has entered the playoffs on a tear before with no results to show for it. Hamlin entered the 2016 playoffs with eight straight top-10 finishes and ended up eliminated in the third round after finishes of third, ninth and seventh. It’s also not hard to see how Hamlin gets a bad finish from a late-race pit road speeding penalty. But we’re taking him as our title pick as some karmic payback for qualifying first at Homestead in 2018 and giving the pit stall to Busch because he was racing for the title.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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