Analysis: Where the contenders stand entering NASCAR's playoffs

Kenny Bruce takes an in-depth look at the 16 drivers who will battle for the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Analysis: Where the contenders stand entering NASCAR's playoffs
Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing, Toyota Camry Auto-Owners Insurance
Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Fusion Mobil 1/Rush Truck Centers Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Fusion Jimmy John's New 9-Grain Wheat Sub Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Fusion Smithfield Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Fusion Haas Automation/Monster Energy
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry M&M's Caramel
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry M&M's Caramel
Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Fusion Jimmy John's New 9-Grain Wheat Sub
Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing, Toyota Camry Auto-Owners Insurance
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske, Ford Fusion Discount Tire celebrates his win
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske, Ford Fusion Discount Tire celebrates his win
Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Fusion Mobil 1/Rush Truck Centers
Joey Logano, Team Penske, Ford Fusion Shell Pennzoil
Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Fusion Haas Automation/Monster Energy
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro NAPA Auto Parts and Alan Gustafson
Ryan Blaney, Team Penske, Ford Mustang Menards/Richmond
Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry buyatoyota.com
Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet Camaro American Ethanol e15
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet Camaro Credit One Bank
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry FedEx Possibilities
Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Fusion Smithfield
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Lowe's for Pros
Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Axalta

Martin Truex Jr. will try to become the first driver to win back-to-back titles since Jimmie Johnson in 2009-10 when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs get under way this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Top seeds Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are attempting to become the 16th driver to win multiple Cup series championships.

Erik Jones and Alex Bowman are making their first Playoff appearance and Johnson, winner of seven titles, is seeded next-to-last and goes into this year’s postseason almost as an afterthought.

It all begins Sunday at LVMS with the South Point Hotel & Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR).

A look at this year’s 16-team field (listed in order of points position):

1.  Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota (2,050 pts)

A six-race winner with 21 top-10 finishes in 26 starts; has won at every Playoff venue except for the Charlotte road course; mega-bonus points means he likely won’t have to win to advance through early stages; fourth time he’s gone into playoffs ranked No. 1; ranked No. 2 when he won title in 2015.

2. Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford (2,050 pts)

Career best seven wins in ‘18; has won at all Playoff tracks except CMS road course; 10th or better in last eight starts, including two wins. Big bonus points here, too. No reason to believe this team won’t be racing for title in November.

3. Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing No. 78 Toyota (2,035 pts)

Defending series champion has been off a bit of late with two DNFs in last three starts. Team has speed but word that it is shutting down at end of season will be a huge distraction; has won at four playoff venues excluding CMS. Winning it all would make for an incredible story, given the circumstances.

4. Brad Keselowski, Team Penske No. 2 Ford (2,019)

Currently the hottest driver with back-to-back wins (Darlington, Indianapolis) heading in to the Playoffs; a winner at first six Playoff tracks (minus road-course) but winless at Texas, ISM (Phoenix) and Homestead; five DNFs this season for 2012 champ; could go three rounds, but four? Needs speed.

5. Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Ford (2,015)

Two wins this season after going winless for five years; SHR cars have been strong and Bowyer’s No. 14 no exception; back in the Playoffs after missing cut in ’16 and ’17. Talladega and Martinsville, two trouble spots for several drivers, are right in his wheelhouse; has been up front in two of last three races.

6. Joey Logano, Team Penske No. 22 Ford (2,014)

Didn’t make the Playoffs last year, won at Talladega this year to qualify; maybe the team making the least noise among the 16; sixth consecutive appearance in Playoffs; finished career-best second in 2016; a contender, but a very average contender since mid-point of ’17 season it seems.

7. Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Ford (2,014)

Won the very first “playoff” in 2004; six consecutive Playoff appearances; three career Playoff wins; has eight consecutive top-10 finishes, including a win at Bristol.

8. Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet (2,008)

Scored first win of career this season at Watkins Glen; has been the top team for Hendrick Motorsports all year and is top-seeded Chevrolet; 15th-place finish at Indy ended string of six consecutive top-10 results.

9. Ryan Blaney, Team Penske No. 12 Ford (2,007)

Second Playoff appearance; advanced to third round last year with Wood Brothers Racing; one of six in field without a win in ’18; 12.9 average finishing position in last 10 races; needs to improve overall performance to advance beyond second round.

10. Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota (2,005)

First-time Playoff participant; four top-five finishes in last six starts, including second at Indianapolis; win at Daytona in July was his first and put him in the playoffs; steady performer whose biggest drawback is lack of experience in Cup cars.

11. Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing No. 3 Chevrolet (2,005)

Won the season-opening Daytona 500 and then posted only one more top five during regular season; average finish of 20th or worse at five of 10 Playoff tracks means team can’t afford a slip – anywhere.

12. Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet (2,005)

After winning four times last year, Larson still looking for first victory of season; five runner-up finishes; with team’s speed and Larson’s talent, could be competing for title in Homestead; only one win at Playoff tracks (Richmond) however.

13. Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota (2,003)

Four top 10s in last six starts; hasn’t won since Sept., 2017; has made playoffs five years in a row; hasn’t been among final four since first year of current format (2014); could be a sleeper or a first-round casualty.

14. Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 Ford (2,001)

Returns to Playoffs after three-year absence; only one top-five finish in ’18 but 10 top 10s; SHR’s overall speed should get him into second round if team puts together three uneventful races.

15. Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet (2,000)

The only driver to qualify for every Playoff since initial format debuted in 2004; his 27 Playoff wins leads series; seven-time champ has never started worse than eighth until this year; only two top 10s in last 12 starts.

16. Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet (2,000)

First playoff appearance for the 25-year old is a notable achievement given HMS struggles with new Camaro; could step it up enough to advance out of first round but not without help from the troubles of others.


Take a virtual lap around Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the No. 78 Toyota Camry of Martin Truex Jr., courtesy of NASCAR Heat 3, which you can order now:

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