by Julian Spivey
The NASCAR playoffs begin today (Sept. 17) at Chicagoland Speedway for the Monster Energy Cup Series. Here are my rankings of the 16 playoff drivers from least likely to most likely to win the NASCAR championship:
16. Jamie McMurray
15. Kasey Kahne
14. Ryan Newman
13. Austin Dillon
In today’s NASCAR, you must consistently be a threat to win races to have any shot at winning the championship and these four drivers just don’t threaten Victory Lane often enough, despite three of these guys winning a race this year. McMurray hasn’t won a race since 2013. Newman and Dillon’s wins this season both came on pit strategy, which doesn’t exactly stoke expectations of being able to win on their own. Kahne’s win at the Brickyard 400 at Indy was impressive, but his first win in three seasons. You really must be a threat to win multiple times in the playoffs to win a championship. These guys can’t win multiple times a season.
12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Coming into this season Stenhouse’s career had been a complete disappointment. In fact, I didn’t believe he belonged in the Cup Series any longer. Then he won first career race at Talladega in the Spring and backed it up with a second win at Daytona this summer. The only problem with this is he only seems capable of winning at restrictor plate tracks. To his advantage Talladega is in the second round of the playoffs if he can reach it and a win again there would automatically move him to round three. But, can any driver win three consecutive plate races?
11. Chase Elliott
Chase Elliott has yet to win a NASCAR Cup race in his first two seasons, but I’m going a little easier on him than I did McMurray, Kahne, Newman and Dillon because he’s young and I believe once that first win comes the floodgates will open much like they did for Kyle Larson.
10. Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney got his first career Cup win this season at Pocono in his second full-time season, but he may be a little too young in his career to threaten for a title now. It is fantastic to see the Wood Brothers Racing team in the playoffs, though.
9. Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth is the highest driver on this list who hasn’t won a race this season and, in fact, he was the very last driver to qualify for the playoffs on points. Still, there are two reasons why he’s in the top 10: 1) he’s a veteran who won’t worry much about his winless streak 2) he drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, which I believe is still the most dominant team in NASCAR. I hope Kenseth does well too because he currently doesn’t have a ride for next season and a good performance might sure one up.
8. Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch won the season-opening Daytona 500 and hasn’t won a race since then. I honestly don’t believe his chances at winning the title are very high, but I do have him in the top half of playoff drivers based on his veteran status. The champion will almost certainly come from the top seven drivers on this list.
7. Brad Keselowski
Penske Racing has seemingly been a little bit down this year, especially with Joey Logano missing the playoffs (the biggest surprise of the season maybe thus far), but Brad Keselowski is always a threat to win race, he’s won two this year, and his aggressiveness may benefit him in the playoffs. It could just as easily hinder him, as well.
6. Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion, has been the most consistent driver in NASCAR over the last three to four seasons and it’s that consistency that has me believing he’s a major threat. However, he’s only found Victory Lane once this year, at the road course at Sonoma. There’s reason to believe the Stewart-Haas Racing switch from Chevrolet to Ford has hurt the team a bit with its four drivers only combining for two wins through 26 races.
5. Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin is my prediction for the driver to just miss out making the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway this season. He’s consistently been Joe Gibbs Racing’s second-best driver this year and recently won his second race of the season at Darlington Raceway two weeks ago.
4. Jimmie Johnson
I will never count Jimmie Johnson out. He showed us last season exactly why you shouldn’t do such a thing when he won his record-tying seventh championship. His season this year is like last season’s. Johnson has won three races this season, but all three came within the first quarter of the year. He and crew chief Chad Knaus have seemingly shown the ability in the past to be able to turn it on whenever needed.
3. Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson is a lot of people’s favorite to win the championship this year and his four wins this season are tied with Martin Truex Jr. for most in the series. I have no questions about Larson’s talent, but I do have some about his experience. Can he keep his head together and make the final race of the season? I also wonder if his team Chip Ganassi Racing can keep up with Gibbs, Hendrick and the Furniture Row team aided by Gibbs.
2. Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch is the most talented driver in NASCAR. Kyle Busch drives for the best and most competitive team in NASCAR with Joe Gibbs Racing. The 2015 champion must be considered a title threat always. Busch’s two wins this season aren’t exactly indicative of how close he’s been to Victory Lane all season.
1. Martin Truex Jr.
There’s absolutely no way I could consider any other driver a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series championship favorite other than Martin Truex Jr., who’s seemingly made the series his playground this season along with crew chief Cole Pearn, who I believe is the actual star of this team. Why do I believe this? Truex had three career wins in a decade of racing before teaming up with Pearn. He’s won eight races in the less than two seasons they’ve been together. Honestly, Truex should have won even more than the series-leading four he’s won this season, but has experienced some late race bad luck.