NASCAR Power Rankings: Predicting the playoffs

Which of these 16 drivers will be the champion? (AP)

Welcome to the Chase. Sorry, welcome to the Cup Series playoffs.

In the three years since the elimination format’s introduction in what used to be known as the Chase, randomness has reigned. This year should be different, as drivers have the ability to carry over the bonus points they earned for race wins and stage wins (plus their position in the points standings).

That should give us some separation pretty quickly. The drivers who have been good through the first 26 races of the year will be rewarded in the second and third rounds and theoretically have an easier path to be a part of the final four racing for the title at Homestead. A massive crash at Talladega may not mean a win-and-in situation for four or five drivers at Kansas a week later.

Below is how we think the final standings will look like. Remember, playoff points can accumulate throughout the first nine races of the playoffs. Drivers get five points for a race win and one point for a stage win and remember, a win means automatic advancement into the next round. The final four drivers will race heads up for the title at Homestead on Nov. 19.

16. Austin Dillon

• 1 win, 3 top-five finishes, four top-10 finishes

• Begins playoffs with 2005 points

As you can see from the statistics above, Dillon hasn’t had much speed so far in 2017. If it wasn’t for his fuel-mileage gamble at Charlotte, he’s not in the playoffs to begin with.

Richard Childress Racing needs more speed at intermediate tracks and Dillon finished 13th at Dover and 15th at New Hampshire, the other two tracks in the first round. If a driver or two ahead of him is involved in a crash, Dillon could get out of the first round. But it’s hard to have much title optimism here.

““I love the underdog role,” Dillon said. “The pressure is on the guys that gained all the points to lose them and crumble.  A lot of people have already put them in position to get to Homestead because of bonus points, but it can happen real quick where you have anything that can go wrong.”

15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

• 2 wins, 4 top 5s, 7 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2010 points

If Stenhouse makes it through the first round of the playoffs, he’s going to be the favorite to win at Talladega and advance to the third round. If he can do that and win three of the series’ four restrictor plate races it’s a dream season.

Will he? He needs to hope Ford’s issues with right-front tires at Dover in June are rectified to get out of the first round.

“It was awesome watching Brad [Keselowski] win Talladega when he had to a couple years ago, but I would think for us as a team, making it through the first round and giving ourselves an opportunity to get to the third round would be a success,” Stenhouse Jr. said. “I would definitely have confidence going in, but I wouldn’t say I’d just feel like it’s a lock.  It’s so unknown when you go there, but I would feel really happy about that.”

14. Kasey Kahne

• 1 win, 3 top 5s, 5 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2005 points

Kahne could end up a lot higher here if Hendrick Motorsports’ surge at the beginning of the 2016 playoffs repeats itself in 2017. But it’s not too easy to get optimistic about the chances of a lame-duck driver.

“Well, I think the thing that I kind of figured out a week ago is that it’s really what I want to do and it’s what I want to do with the group of guys that I have,” Kahne said. “They have put a lot into it, I’ve put a lot into it and we still can have a great season because of these final 10 races.  So, I just feel like I talked to them and all of us agreed that we put everything that we have into it and if we finish first, fifth, eighth, wherever that is, as long as we all put it in the final 10 races we are going to feel good about it.”

13. Ryan Newman

• 1 win, 6 top 5s, 11 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2005 points

Until the last four weeks of the regular season Newman had been a non-factor after winning at Phoenix in the spring. He’s on a roll of four-straight top 10s, so it’s certainly possible he could end up finishing in the top 10. But if you’re expecting a repeat of his 2014 charge towards the title, we’re here to poke holes in the tires of your expectations.

“I think anybody who has experience at the Cup level at this point, after 26 races and is in the Playoffs, has just as good a shot as the other,” Newman said. “Experience is definitely nice to have, but it’s no guarantee.”

12. Kurt Busch

• 1 win, 5 top 5s, 13 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2005 points

Busch is hoping his 2017 is the opposite of his 2016. Busch was hot to begin the season a year ago and then wasn’t competitive in the playoffs. After winning the Daytona 500 to start 2017, Busch wasn’t great, though his performance has improved as the summer has gone on.

“So with Chicago, I think that’s the most important one,” Busch said. “If you win there, you can win at Charlotte.  It’s a fast mile-and-a-half with high grip, but that’s that first race in that round and then you go to Martinsville.  That’s the most important race, I think, in the final 10 other than Homestead if you want to win the championship is getting through Martinsville clean and if you win there, you get a free ride to Homestead.”

11. Ryan Blaney

• 1 win, 3 top 5s, 9 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2009 points

Blaney’s had speed throughout 2017 but he’s also had a ton of bad finishes. He’s finished outside the top 20 in 12 of the first 26 races of the season. If that rate continues, he’s going to have an incredibly difficult time making it out of the second round of the playoffs without a win.

“There are a lot of members on my team that it’s their first time ever competing for a championship, so we’re all just really excited,” Blaney said. “I don’t think there are any nerves just because we don’t know what to expect.  If we can have the mindset that it’s just racing, because that’s all it is and it’s nothing different that what we’ve been doing, I think that will be pretty good.  But I don’t really feel any pressure.  I hate to use that word.  I hate to hear that word, to be honest with you, but I’ve never really felt any of that, just good opportunities.”

10. Chase Elliott

• 6 top 5s, 14 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2006 points

Elliott winning his first title before winning his first race would be one heck of a storyline. But the odds of that happening aren’t very good. Based off Hendrick Motorsports’ performance this summer, his odds of winning a race aren’t very good either. Can the team repeat the speed it had at Chicago in 2016?

“Our game plan right now is to try to focus on ourselves,” Elliott said. “We need to be better as a whole. We need to improve, for sure. We need to be competing for race wins.  We haven’t been doing that recently. I’ll be the first one to admit that.

“I think for us, we got to focus on ourselves first and foremost, try to be consistent.  I think consistency will carry you a pretty good distance in this deal.  I don’t think consistency will get you to Homestead alone, but I do think consistency will carry you a good ways.”

9. Jamie McMurray

• 2 top 5s, 13 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2003 points

McMurray starts the playoffs with the fewest bonus points of any driver. But he’s in the playoffs because he’s been maddeningly consistent and great at avoiding bad finishes. With bonus points carrying over, the ability to get a top 15 every week may be less important than it was. But McMurray could be the surprise guy in the third round of the playoffs with a real chance at Phoenix to make it to Homestead.

“When you look at the format and the way it’s laid out, it’s a race-by-race scenario,” McMurray said. “If we go to Chicago and three or four of those guys have bad races then it changes the outlook for the next races for the other guys. If you have somebody who has a bad race at Chicago… if it’s someone like [Martin Truex Jr.] who has won a few races this year then you know they are able to win one of the next two. You have to look at it race by race.”

8. Matt Kenseth

• 7 top 5s, 12 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2005 points

Perhaps Kenseth’s appearance in the playoffs after getting ambulanced at Richmond is the karma for what’s happened in the past two seasons of the playoffs. If Kenseth’s title hopes end with another crash while racing for the lead in 2017, we’re going to be shaking our head in amazement.

So I think the first round, as good as we’ve run, if we don’t have any trouble, you should be able to get through the first round,” Kenseth said. “I feel like we’ve been a top five‑ish car every week pretty much the last few months. If you can do that for the first three weeks, you’ll move on to the next round, then kind of worry about that. Just one race at a time, try to get the finishes this first go around, and hopefully you can be fortunate enough to win some stages or some races and gather some points.”

7. Kevin Harvick

• 1 win, 8 top 5s, 16 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2015 points

Like McMurray, Harvick has been maddeningly consistent. Does Stewart-Haas Racing have the speed to get him to the championship? Counting out the wily veteran and his crew chief Rodney Childers isn’t a good idea.

“Chicago the last two years hasn’t been a good start for us just because of self-inflicted circumstances and those are the types of things you don’t want to do this time around,” Harvick said. “So we’ve learned a lot and I think everybody has done a really good job of getting everything transitioned over.  We’ve put two cars in the Playoffs and now we can go out and fight every week to get everything we can and see where it falls in the end.”

6. Brad Keselowski

• 2 wins, 11 top 5s, 14 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2019 points

Can Team Penske improve its performance at intermediate tracks enough to make Keselowski a contender? He’s going to be confident heading into Martinsville after winning there in April. And Keselowski is the best restrictor plate racer in the Cup Series, so he’s one of the safer bets in the two races considered to be the biggest playoff wild cards.

“At this moment, there’s really no reason for Toyota not to have all four spots going to Homestead, but all of that it’s dynamic – kind of like we just talked about with Jimmie [Johnson],” Keselowski said. “You never know what people are gonna show up with at Chicagoland in the first round and Charlotte and so forth in the second round.  And then of course getting to the third round, which is a tough one in itself with Martinsville and so forth, it’s tough too.”

5. Kyle Busch

• 2 wins, 10 top 5s, 16 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2029 points

Busch has led laps in nine of the last 10 and 17 of the last 18 races. Yeah, he’s had some serious speed. But there’s going to be a stellar driver who misses out on the final four … and three Toyotas can’t make the championship race, can they?

“Everybody says Truex is an automatic lock for getting to Homestead,” Busch said. “If he has a bad race in that last round before Homestead, there’s three winners that move their way through, he’s not one of them, I overtake him in points because I have 20 less points than he does or whatever, then he’s out. So it’s obviously any man’s game still. So just kind of depends on what all happens.”

4. Kyle Larson

• 4 wins, 11 top 5s, 15 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2033 points

Larson’s win at Richmond Saturday night is a massive boost for his confidence. It was his first win at a non-2-mile track and there are no 2-mile tracks in the playoffs. While Larson likely knew his team was capable of winning most anywhere else, actually doing it is a big benefit.

“I didn’t really think of it at the time, but it’s cool to finally win somewhere that’s not two miles,” Larson said. “Obviously, I’ve been really fast at a lot of different styles of racetracks.  I’ve ran second I feel like at every racetrack.  I mean, I’ve been close to win.  It’s not like I’m only good at two-mile tracks.

“Yeah, I could have a lot of mile-and-a-half wins. I could have won the Daytona 500 this year.  But it was nice to win at a track where I would put it down there as Martinsville as being my worst tracks. Richmond and Martinsville would be my worst tracks.  For me to win at Richmond was a huge confidence booster.”

3. Denny Hamlin

• 2 wins (1 counts), 11 top 5s, 15 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2013 points

We picked Hamlin as our pre-playoff favorite a year ago based off the run he was on entering the final 10 races of the season. He’s on a similar type of roll this year even if his victory at Darlington doesn’t count for the playoffs because of an inspection failure.

It’s tough to go into the Chase, the Playoffs, the favorites,” Hamlin said. “We’ve been on both sides of it. When the expectations are high, you got a big lead like you see out there on that board, you tend to play defensive a little bit. I think the challenge is having the lead and keeping it.”

2. Martin Truex Jr.

• 4 wins, 10 top 5s, 17 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2053 points

Truex is by far the best bet to make the championship race because of the massive amount of points he accumulated through the regular season. He and crew chief Cole Pearn have been the best at stage racing in 2017. We’re likely going to see how good they are racing three other drivers heads up for a championship.

Our focus, our goal is to not have to use any of those bonus points right now,” Truex said. “Obviously we want to get through there and have them in case something bad happens. If we perform at the level we can, and we’re capable of, I don’t think we’ll need them. But this is racing, a lot can happen. You never know. So definitely nice to have them in your pocket. How effective they’ll be, I guess nobody really knows yet.”

1. Jimmie Johnson

• 3 wins, 3 top 5s, 8 top 10s

• Begins playoffs with 2017 points

There are a lot of reasons to pick against Johnson, namely the team’s huge struggles over the summer. It’s staggering to think that NASCAR’s greatest driver hasn’t finished in the top five outside of any of his three wins this season.

But there were a lot of reasons to pick against Johnson a year ago and he ended up winning the title. He’s going to be the favorite at Dover and Texas and one of the favorites at Martinsville and Charlotte. To be the best you have to beat the best. We’re sticking with our preseason pick for the title.

““I think we all look at winning as the best way to advance,” Johnson said. “Last year I made it through being consistent in the first round, and then we were able to win.  I think the first round is easy, but last year was the only year in this format that I made it to the final four.  And winning made that happen. So, the goal, especially deeper in the rounds, is winning.  If you can win in the round with Talladega, then that makes life easier and we had that luxury last year.  So nice.  If there is a round that I can pick a win in, it’s that one so I can take Talladega off the table and race at those three after it.”

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