Preview: 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs


Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

After twenty-six races, the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is about to begin the Playoffs; the final ten races that will decide this year’s champion. For the Playoffs, sixteen drivers will be in contention, having earned their spot through race wins or on championship points.

The sixteen drivers will slowly be whittled down as the playoffs go on. After the first three races at Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover, the bottom four drivers of the sixteen will be eliminated. Another four drivers will be eliminated after the next round of three – Charlotte, Talladega and Kansas – with four final drivers being eliminated after Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix.

This will leave just four drivers, all equal on points, heading into the final round at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Whoever finishes the highest of the four remaining championship contenders will be crowned the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.

Let’s take a look through the sixteen drivers that will fight it out in the Playoffs for the championship and see who could go all the way:

Martin Truex Jr:

Car: #78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota Camry
Wins: Four (Las Vegas, Kansas, Kentucky, Watkins Glen)
Top Five Finishes: Ten
Top Ten Finishes: Seventeen
Current Points: 2053

Overview: Martin Truex Jr’s season so far has been nothing short of stellar. In the opening twenty-six races, he’s taken seventeen top ten finishes. He’s shown consistently excellent speed at short tracks, speedways and road courses, with only the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega having been his consistent let-down. Barring major issues, you have to expect Truex to be able to make it all the way to the championship decider at Homestead.

Our prediction: Makes it to the championship four

Kyle Larson:

Car: #42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet SS
Wins: Four (California, Michigan, Michigan, Richmond)
Top Five Finishes: Eleven
Top Ten Finishes: Fifteen
Current Points: 2033

Overview: Larson’s start and finish to the regular season were very impressive indeed. There was a brief slump in the middle of the first twenty-six races, but nevertheless, the #42 Chip Ganassi Racing driver was frequently at the top of the scoreboards in both qualifying and the races. With such a quick car on pretty much every type of track that the Cup series visits, this could be Larson’s first proper championship bid; providing he can stay out of trouble and keep on the right side of ‘lady luck’.

Our prediction: Makes it to the championship four

Kyle Busch:

Car: #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry
Wins: Two (Pocono, Bristol)
Top Five Finishes: Ten
Top Ten Finishes: Sixteen
Current Points: 2029

Overview: Kyle Busch’s speed has been steadily building throughout the regular season. For the first handful of races, all the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry’s looked down on speed, but once they found it they capitalized accordingly. Like the two ahead of him on the playoff grid, Busch has shown impressive pace at the majority of race tracks on the schedule, so he definitely has the potential to make it to the championship decider at Homestead for the third year in a row.

Our prediction: Makes it to the championship four

Brad Keselowski:

Car: #2 Team Penske Ford Fusion
Wins: Two (Atlanta, Martinsville)
Top Fives: Eleven
Top Tens: Fourteen
Current Points: 2019

Overview: Brad Keselowski started 2017 with a bang. In the first eleven races he took nine top ten finishes; including his two race wins at Atlanta and Martinsville. However, around the middle of the regular season, his and Team Penske’s pace began to falter. He and the team always seem to find a little more speed once the playoffs begin, so we could see Keselowski begin to challenge again, but I don’t expect them to have to pace to get all the way to Homestead.

Our prediction: Eliminated in the round of eight

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Jimmie Johnson:

Car: #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet SS
Wins: Three (Texas, Bristol, Dover)
Top Fives: Three
Top Tens: Eight
Current Points: 2017

Overview: Jimmie Johnson managed to pick up his three race victories early on in the regular season, but after that, his pace dipped dramatically. He only took five other top tens that weren’t his race wins, with most of his finishes coming solidly in the mid-pack. However, the #48 Hendrick Motorsports team have been known in the past to experiment once they’re assured of a playoff position, ready to come out all guns blazing once the final ten races begin. If they do this again this year, then expect Johnson to get quite far in the playoffs. However, such is the pace of his rivals in 2017, I don’t think this year is the year he get’s his record-breaking eighth Cup series championship.

Our prediction: Eliminated in the round of eight

Kevin Harvick:

Car: #4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Fusion
Wins: One (Sonoma)
Top Fives: Eight
Top Tens: Sixteen
Current Points: 2015

Overview: Kevin Harvick’s 2017 has been strong when you consider that the Stewart-Haas Racing team have had to manage their manufacturer switch from Chevrolet to Ford during the off-season. Despite the new car and learning curve that goes hand in hand with that switch, Harvick has consistently finished inside the top ten. His sole victory at Sonoma isn’t an accurate indicator of his pace this year. I believe that Harvick will grab another win soon and will be in contention for most of the playoffs. Could he sneak his way into a spot in the championship four? Perhaps. However, I feel it’s more likely that he’ll one of the final eliminated drivers in the round of eight and will have to wait until next year for a shot at a second Cup series championship.

Our prediction: Eliminated in the round of eight

Denny Hamlin:

Car: #11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry
Wins: Two (New Hampshire, Darlington – encumbered)
Top Fives: Eleven
Top Tens: Fifteen
Current Points: 2013

Overview: Denny Hamlin’s 2017 season has been largely positive. The #11 FedEx Camry driver has been in the top ten in over half of the regular season’s races and has been getting quicker and quicker as the year goes on. However, his Darlington victory was ruled encumbered due to his car violating technical regulations, perhaps showcasing a chink in the team’s armour. If they can avoid further encumbered finishes and keep their car legal, there’s every chance that Hamlin could be in with a shot of the title.

Our prediction: Makes it to the championship four

Ricky Stenhouse Jr:

Car: #17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford Fusion
Wins: Two (Talladega, Daytona)
Top Fives: Four
Top Tens: Seven
Current Points: 2010

Overview: Our first somewhat surprising playoff contender on the list, Ricky Stenhouse Jr’s brace of victories on the superspeedways was enough to see him comfortably in the top sixteen. However, his speed off of the superspeedways, should it continue at its current level, won’t be enough to see him out of the first round. With Talladega in the second round, he may be able to steal another victory then, but chances are he’ll already be eliminated from the running after the round of sixteen.

Our prediction: Eliminated in the round of sixteen

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Ryan Blaney:

Car: #21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford Fusion
Wins: One (Pocono)
Top Fives: Three
Top Tens: Nine
Current Points: 2008

Overview: 2017 has been Ryan Blaney’s true ‘breakout year’. His first win at Pocono will obviously be the highlight, but he and the #21 Wood Brothers Racing team have shown flashes of great pace throughout the year. However, the consistency hasn’t been there. He should be able to get through the first round, but it could be tough to advance further than that. However, 2018 could be a great year for Blaney once he moves to the #12 Team Penske Ford.

Our prediction: Eliminated in the round of twelve

Chase Elliott:

Car: #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet SS
Wins: None
Top Fives: Six
Top Tens: Fourteen
Current Points: 2006

Overview: Chase Elliott has had an average 2017 season. Since his major shot to win at the Daytona 500 fell at the last gasp, the #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been in the top ten most of time, but never really challenging for a victory. Elliott himself knows that he needs to step up and win soon, but if he can’t, I don’t think he’ll be able to rely on his consistency to see him through to the second half of the playoffs.

Our prediction: Eliminated in the round of twelve

Ryan Newman:

Car: #31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet SS
Wins: One (Phoenix)
Top Fives: Six
Top Tens: Eleven
Current Points: 2005

Overview: Ryan Newman’s surprise victory at Phoenix was a great display of a fantastic, brave strategy call coupled with a great driver to make it work. Of the surprise winners of 2017 so far, Newman has perhaps been the strongest. He always seems to find a way to the front when races see late cautions, so if those situations arise during the playoffs, he may be able to capitalize and drag some great finishes out of midfield machinery; as he has done fairly regularly this year so far.

Our prediction: Eliminated in the round of twelve

Kurt Busch:

Car: #41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Fusion
Wins: One (Daytona)
Top Fives: Five
Top Tens: Thirteen
Current Points: 2005

Overview: Kurt Busch’s 2017 season got off to the best possible start when he won the Daytona 500 back in February. Since then, his #41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has gotten quicker and quicker, but he’s not really had a shot to get win number two. During the last few races, he’s strung together a series of strong finishes, so the momentum is there for him to utilize in the first few races of the playoffs. He should make it through the first round if he has no dramas, but I don’t believe he’ll be able to make it much further than that unless he can sneak a victory at some point.

Our prediction: Eliminated in the round of twelve

Credit: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

Austin Dillon:

Car: #3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet SS
Wins: One (Charlotte)
Top Fives: Three
Top Tens: Four
Current Points: 2005

Overview: Austin Dillon is another one of our surprise race winners in 2017. His win at Charlotte Motor Speedway gained him access to the championship playoffs, but aside from that race he really hasn’t shown great speed this year. With his Charlotte victory coming thanks to a fantastic fuel strategy, his #3 team are going to have to be creative again and rely on some poor finishes for other contenders if they hope to make it out of the first round of the playoffs.

Our prediction: Eliminated in the round of sixteen

Kasey Kahne:

Car: #5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet SS
Wins: One (Indianapolis)
Top Fives: Three
Top Tens: Four
Current Points: 2005

Overview: Kasey Kahne is in a very similar situation to that of the aforementioned Austin Dillon. Kahne took a shock victory at Indianapolis after a well-timed caution whilst he was on pit-road cycled him to the front of the pack. It was a fantastic result for the #5 team, a result that got them into the playoffs. However, Kahne’s hopes of advancing past the first round of eliminations are low. If he can stay out of trouble whilst others around him are caught up, he may sneak into the second round; but that’s unlikely in my opinion.

Our prediction: Eliminated in the round of sixteen

Matt Kenseth:

Car: #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry
Wins: None
Top Fives: Seven
Top Tens: Twelve
Current Points: 2005

Overview: Matt Kenseth may have had a tough and tense time of getting into the playoffs, but now he’s here he could be in it for the long haul. He’s had consistently good finishes in the races leading up the playoffs, with the win sadly eluding him so far. His consistency may be good enough to see him advance through the first couple of rounds, but ultimately if he can’t close on a race win then he won’t be able to go all the way to the championship.

Our prediction: Eliminated in the round of eight

Jamie McMurray:

Car: #1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet SS
Wins: None
Top Fives: Two
Top Tens: Thirteen
Current Points: 2003

Overview: McMurray has had a quiet and relatively unassuming regular season. Consistent mid-pack finishes mixed with semi-regular top ten finishes have allowed him to just sneak into the playoffs on points. Those results won’t be good enough to get him very far in the playoffs, however. Unless he can find the pace of his team-mate, Kyle Larson, you can expect McMurray to be one of the drivers to fall at the first hurdle.

Our prediction: Eliminated in the round of sixteen