Storylines so far and what to watch in the second half of the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season

From The Marbles

Whoa, we’re halfway there.

Living on a prayer? Maybe for some teams. With the dominance of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. so far in 2018, only seven drivers have officially qualified for the 2018 playoffs. With just eight races to go until the playoffs begin we are guaranteed to have at least one driver make it to the playoffs on points.

Who’s in the playoffs right now?

Locked in via wins: Kyle Busch (5), Kevin Harvick (5), Martin Truex Jr. (3), Clint Bowyer (2), Austin Dillon, Erik Jones, Joey Logano

Tentatively in on points: Brad Keselowski (596 points), Kurt Busch (566), Kyle Larson (544), Denny Hamlin (538), Aric Almirola (503), Ryan Blaney (496), Jimmie Johnson (461), Chase Elliott (444), Alex Bowman (426)

The playoff bubble isn’t that big

Bowman’s in a precarious position as the final driver in the playoffs via points. If a new winner gets a victory anytime soon he’s on the outside of the playoffs. And that’s pretty likely to happen.

If for some crazy reason it doesn’t — 2018 is weird — he doesn’t have too many competitors for that final spot on points. Only two drivers are within easy striking distance.

On the bubble: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (407), Paul Menard (371)

These guys need a late surge. Or more likely a win.

Ryan Newman (94 points behind Bowman), Daniel Suarez, William Byron, Jamie McMurray and any other driver not listed in this article so far needs to get a win to qualify for the playoffs. Otherwise a playoff berth isn’t happening.

Who is going to be the next new winner?

Hamlin and Keselowski haven’t shown race-winning speed so far in 2018. Elliott and Johnson have been way off. Aric Almirola was really fast at Chicago but two loose wheel issues relegated him to a finish outside the top 20.

Larson seems to be the best bet, but then that leads us into the next question.

Is Chevy going to win a race?

Austin Dillon won the season-opening Daytona 500, the first race for Chevrolet’s Camaro in the Cup Series. A driver in a Camaro hasn’t won since.

This is an unprecedented drought in modern NASCAR and doesn’t show any non-Kyle Larson signs of disappearing anytime soon. If Larson isn’t the one that breaks Chevy’s 17-race winless streak it’s hard to figure who is going to do it.

Larson has led 365 laps so far in 2018; fifth-most in the Cup Series. Every other Chevrolet driver has combined to lead 263 laps. Yes, that’s a gap of 102 laps.

What speed secrets do Stewart-Haas and Joe Gibbs Racing still have?

We were going to go with Toyota and Ford on this but let’s be real. Toyota is for all intents and purposes Joe Gibbs Racing (and we’re lumping Furniture Row Racing in here via association on this) and Ford’s success in 2018 has been largely dependent on Stewart-Haas Racing even as the Penske cars have been consistent. So we’re going to focus on those two teams.

Toyota teams — led by Truex and Busch — won eight of the 10 playoff races in 2017. No manufacturer is likely to do that in 2018. But it’s certainly plausible that we’ll see a 5-5 or 6-4 Ford/Toyota split with Chevrolet left to fight for the scraps. And we’re not sure who we’d give the advantage to at the moment.

A bright spot for Chevy is that Toyota had a (relatively) slow start in 2017 with its new Camry before dominating the series in the second half. But Toyota’s slow start would have been considered an astronomical success by Chevy’s standards this season. All signs point to the title fight coming down to drivers from Ford and Toyota teams even if Larson wiggles his way into the periphery of the picture.

Will Johnson have a new sponsor soon?

One of the biggest off-track storylines surrounds the seven-time champion’s team. Lowe’s is leaving at the end of the season and Hendrick Motorsports has not announced a replacement for the home-improvement chain.

Lowe’s has been Johnson’s only Cup Series sponsor. Whoever the new company — or companies — is will have a tough task in rebranding one of the most iconic drivers in NASCAR.

Will NASCAR point to the future for another major change?

The 2018 season has been all about hurrying up and waiting for NASCAR. The Cup Series will have a new title sponsor system. But that starts in 2020. We have to wait until then for significant schedule changes as well. The 2019 season is the final year of a five-year sanctioning agreement NASCAR signed with its tracks and the schedule for next season was announced with very little fanfare.

The sanctioning body tried a new rules package during the All-Star Race and it produced entertaining, if inauthentic, racing. This being NASCAR, of course, the use of the rules again in 2018 were immediately teased by series executives.

But that’s not happening in the present either. NASCAR said earlier this summer that the All-Star rules wouldn’t be used until 2019 at the earliest and cited the competition of the 2018 season as a reason for holding off.

If 2018 was so competitive — based on the points gaps in the standings and the small number of winners it’s not an easy argument to make — NASCAR wouldn’t have found it necessary to try the All-Star Race rules in the first place. We’ll see what other future changes are in store as the second half of the season rolls on. Given that the only constant in NASCAR is change, it’s a safe bet there will be more future changes announced before the end of the season.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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