Ready to read some predictions that are probably going to be wrong? You’re in the right spot.
With the Daytona 500 just days away, it’s time to take a stab at guessing what the 16-driver playoff field will look like in 2018. It could look a lot like the 2017 field as Kasey Kahne is the only playoff driver who has a new ride in 2018 and Matt Kenseth is the only playoff driver who isn’t racing this season.
Will the other 14 drivers make the playoffs again? Most of them will. Others, we’re not so sure. Here’s our best guess as to what the field will look like after Indianapolis in September.
Chip Ganassi Racing
• Kyle Larson – We think this is Larson’s year to make the final four. He had the fastest Chevrolet over the course of the 2017 season and was a blown engine away from making the third round of the playoffs.
Larson will easily make the playoffs thanks to an early-season win. Auto Club Speedway, where he won a year ago, is probably his best first shot, though he’ll be a contender at Atlanta and Las Vegas too. Pencil in Larson for multiple victories before the playoffs begin and he could also win a race or two in the playoffs.
• Jamie McMurray – We’re waffling on McMurray because he hasn’t come close to winning a race since his last win at Talladega in 2013. But we’re taking him as a driver who will make the playoffs without a victory because of his ability to avoid calamity.
McMurray has made the playoffs each of the past three seasons despite just 39 top three finishes in 108 races. Those berths are because of his proclivity for top-15 and top-20 finishes. Expect McMurray to be the guy that capitalizes on the late-season trouble of another playoff contender.
Furniture Row Racing
• Martin Truex Jr. – What will the defending champion do for an encore? And how the hell do you follow up a career year? Truex was the most dominant driver of the 2017 season and enters 2018 as one of the biggest favorites.
We’re fascinated to see how other teams adapt to the strategy Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn masterfully employed throughout stages in 2017. Not only was Truex a contender for wins at most tracks, he was always making his way towards the front at the end of stages too. We’re comfortable saying Pearn is the best in-race strategist in NASCAR. Can anyone keep up in 2018?
• Jimmie Johnson – What will Johnson do with a new car in 2018? We’re bullish on the No. 48’s chances for title No. 8 as Chevrolet looks to have the same aerodynamic advantages that Toyota enjoyed throughout the end of the 2017 season with its new Camry.
Johnson, 42, had a bizarre season in 2017, winning three races but not really doing much else. It was his worst season in the Cup Series.
Three race wins before the playoffs in 2018 seems doable, as does another trip to the final four. As NASCAR continues to focus on its next wave of drivers in an attempt to stay afloat in the future, a 40+ Johnson winning a record-setting eighth championship would be a bit ironic. He’s our pick yet again for the title.
• Chase Elliott – This is going to be the year where Elliott wins a race. Wait, was that sentence originally typed in 2016? Or was it 2017?
We’re choosing to see Elliott’s late-race failures in 2017 as learning steps towards a fruitful 2018. If he doesn’t visit victory lane — and other drivers in his generation do — we’ll be quite surprised. An Elliott win at Martinsville in the spring would be sweet redemption, don’t you think?
Joe Gibbs Racing
• Kyle Busch – It’s not if Kyle Busch is going to win a race, it’s how many races he’s going to win. It’s not if Kyle Busch is going to be a championship contender, it’s how close he’ll get to hoisting a championship trophy for the second time.
Busch is perhaps the most gifted all-around driver in the Cup Series and capable of winning on any type of track. If he doesn’t have multiple wins heading into the playoffs, something’s gone seriously wrong like it did in 2012.
• Denny Hamlin – Is it fair to call it a make-or-break year for Hamlin? He’s secure in his role at Joe Gibbs Racing and has a longtime sponsor in FedEx that isn’t going anywhere. But how much longer will his championship window continue to be open?
Hamlin was one of the favorites to make the final four for the first, oh, 8.8 races of the playoffs. But as soon as Elliott put him into the wall as retribution for what happened at Martinsville, Hamlin was having another Phoenix nightmare.
The best thing Hamlin can do is win at either Martinsville or Texas in the third round of the playoffs in 2018 and avoid playoff disaster striking at Phoenix yet again.
• Erik Jones – No pressure kid, you’re just replacing Matt Kenseth in a car number that’s been driven by two surefire NASCAR Hall of Famers.
Jones showed some serious speed in his one-season spin at Furniture Row Racing, though consistency was a bit of an issue. We expect it to be less of one in 2018 and if Jones doesn’t win a race before the playoffs begin he should have enough points to easily make the playoffs otherwise.
• Daniel Suarez – We’re perhaps more bullish on Suarez than others. He may not win a race before Elliott or Jones but should score enough points to get into the playoffs if he doesn’t.
How? As a rookie in 2017, Suarez had six DNFs. Not great, but not terrible either. More promisingly, he finished outside of the top 20 just three times when he didn’t have a DNF. Finishing in the top half of the field in 27 of 36 races isn’t bad for a guy who found out he was going Cup Series racing less than two months before the season began.
• Aric Almirola – Will a change in scenery and an upgrade in equipment mean a playoff berth for Almirola for the first time since 2014? We think it can.
2018 is Almirola’s first shot in the Cup Series in top-level equipment. He’s spent his career driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. (post Junior), Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, James Finch and Richard Petty Motorsports. It’s not exactly a who’s who of modern NASCAR contenders.
Almirola finished in the teens in the standings for three seasons before dropping outside the top 20 in each of the past two seasons. Yes, 2017 was affected heavily by a back injury, but he wasn’t coming close to the playoffs with a healthy season. We’re thinking that had to do more with the equipment than the driver. We’ll find out this season.
• Clint Bowyer – It’s time for Bowyer to win a race for the first time since 2012 and make the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Anything else is a disappointment and, dare we say it, a failure.
You don’t sign a driver in 2015 to drive for you in 2017 just to come close to making the playoffs. Bowyer was a championship-caliber driver earlier in the 2000s. Can he still be one? We think he could, but it’s not a guarantee.
• Kurt Busch – Busch’s year peaked in February last season. Granted, it’s hard to top a Daytona 500 win, but there really wasn’t anything else going well for Busch after that. He didn’t win another race and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
He’s got a new crew chief in 2018 and is on a one-year contract extension with Stewart-Haas after some late-season free agent limbo that really didn’t present any other compelling options. Busch should make the playoffs.
• Kevin Harvick – Harvick joins Johnson as the vocal wisened veteran leaders of the sport with the departures of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth from the Cup Series. It’s a role Harvick seems to enjoy embracing. He’s got a weekly show on SiriusXM, has excelled in his work as a guest analyst for Xfinity Series racing and is willing to offer his opinion on almost any topic in the sport.
Yes, Harvick is setting himself up wisely for his post-racing career. But he’s not done being competitive just yet. The 2014 champion should be the leader of the Stewart-Haas stable both on and off the track in 2018. If new NASCAR inspection system really is leveling the playing field for Ford teams, Harvick is one of the Ford favorites for the title.
• Ryan Blaney – It was a weird offseason. Twitter was unhappy with the fact that Blaney had to get rid of his facial hair and cut his long, flowing locks.
But the clean-cut look is a Penske staple. Blaney knew that. We all should know that. Why the hell are we still talking about this?
Anyway, Blaney’s move to Team Penske from the Wood Brothers is a lateral one at worst. He’s moving from the satellite team to the in-house one and keeping crew chief Jeremy Bullins. What was No. 21 is now No. 12 and Blaney will be back in the playoffs with maybe a win or two on his resume.
• Brad Keselowski – Keselowski is our pick to win the Daytona 500 and become the first driver to lock himself into the 2018 playoffs. Keselowski’s Clash win was his first February win at Daytona, a staggering statistic when you consider that the pilot of the No. 2 car has become the best restrictor plate racer in NASCAR.
If it’s not Daytona then there’s Talladega in May. And a lot of tracks in between. Keselowski is with Busch and others on that short list of drivers capable of winning anywhere. He’s as close to a playoff guarantee as you can get in 2018. It’s just a matter of how far he’ll make it towards the title.
• Joey Logano – How do you bounce back from a season in which you became the first driver in the win-and-in playoff era to miss a race because your win didn’t count due to a failed inspection?
You go win a race with a fully legal car and then raise hell in the playoffs.
Nearly every top Cup driver not-named Johnson has had a playoff-missing season near the peak of their careers and maybe 2017 was that season for Logano. He’ll be back in the playoffs in 2018 and will be vying for his third berth in the final four.
DRIVERS JUST MISSING OUT
• Alex Bowman – The Daytona 500 polesitter is the driver who we’d swap in above if we were going to take a driver out of the playoffs (say, Jamie McMurray). If Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports have things figured out, Bowman seems to be the guy best primed to take advantage.
• William Byron – The prodigy and 2017 Xfinity Series champion will make his Cup Series debut in the Daytona 500. All signs point to Byron being a future Cup Series star, though there’s nothing wrong with 2018 being an acclimatization year of sorts. A season like Jones or Suarez had in 2017 would be a perfectly acceptable rookie season.
• Austin Dillon – Dillon doesn’t make the playoffs without his fuel-mileage win at the Coca-Cola 600. We’re not willing to bet on that happening again. Richard Childress Racing got two cars into the playoffs because of strategy plays that turned into wins. The team could very well have more speed in 2018, but we want to see it before we believe it.
• Kasey Kahne – The Brickyard 400 winner is downgrading in his move from Hendrick Motorsports to Levine-Family Racing. LFR may have less pressure than Hendrick, but it also has less resources and will probably have less speed. We’ll be surprised if Kahne makes the playoffs.
• Paul Menard – Menard’s final season with Richard Childress Racing wasn’t one to remember. Now he’s in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 car, which should be an upgrade. That’s a benefit to having a family who owns a billion-dollar home improvement chain. Menard’s upgrade in equipment shouldn’t immediately make him a race-winner in 2018, but he could make the playoffs much like he did in 2015.
• Ryan Newman – Did you know Newman’s seven top-five finishes were the most he’s had in a single season since 2009? That said, we’re inclined to think the peak of Newman’s career came in 2014 when he raced Kevin Harvick for the championship. Newman’s average finish has landed somewhere between 12.7 and 16.0 every season since
• Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Stenhouse enters 2018 as one of the drivers to beat at Talladega and Daytona. But it’s the other 23 races that worry us. Has Roush closed the gap on the teams above at intermediate tracks and short tracks? It’s not going to be surprising in the slightest if Stenhouse gets into the playoffs again via a restrictor-plate race win. But we’re not inclined to bet on it.
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