by Julian Spivey
16. Austin Dillon
Austin Dillon pointed his way into the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup playoffs last season with a little more consistency than he’d shown over the first two seasons of his career, but entering his fourth full-time season he’s failed to enter Victory Lane even once. I’ll give him the advantage this year, but this final playoff spot could just as easily go to AJ Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray or Ryan Newman.
15. Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney entering his sophomore season feels like a driver on the cusp of his first career Monster Energy Cup win. His rookie season was somewhat disappointing with three top fives, nine top 10s, finishing 20th in points and only leading 11 laps all season, but his Wood Brothers Racing alliance with Penske Racing has me thinking he’ll crack the top 16 this season.
14. Erik Jones
20-year old Erik Jones is expected to be the next big thing in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series and enters his rookie season in a new second car team for Furniture Row Racing with a Joe Gibbs Racing alliance. Jones has won nine races over the last two seasons in the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series and it wouldn’t be shocking for him to pull a victory out of his rookie year.
13. Daniel Suarez
About one month ago, Daniel Suarez wasn’t even going to compete in the Monster Energy Cup Series, but when Carl Edwards abruptly retired in January, Joe Gibbs Racing turned to the 2016 Xfinity Series champion to take his place. The No. 19 team made the championship race last season and Suarez has enough talent to become the first Mexican born driver to make the NASCAR playoffs.
12. Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson finally entered Victory Lane last season in his third full year and has been getting better year after year. You should probably expect the wins to come easier for Larson now, even though he drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, one of the second-tier teams in the sport.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a big question mark for the 2017 season having missed the second half of 2016 with issues stemming from a bad concussion. Hendrick Motorsports is one of the top two teams in the sport and prior to his injury Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet team were very consistent. He should be a lock to win at least one race and qualify for the playoffs.
10. Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch is consistent enough to average at least one win a season, which locks you into the NASCAR playoffs these days. However, he doesn’t win enough to be considered a major championship threat. The 2004 series champion hasn’t won more than two races in a season in more than a decade.
9. Chase Elliott
It surprised many that Chase Elliott didn’t win a race in his rookie season last year, but he still pointed his way into the playoffs on his way to taking home Rookie of the Year honors. He had some close calls with victory last year and driving for Hendrick Motorsports makes him a threat on a weekly basis. There’s no way he goes winless in 2017.
8. Martin Truex Jr.
Martin Truex Jr. was the biggest surprise of the 2016 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup season going from a disappointing veteran to championship contender in the span of one year. Truex won four races in 2016, which was more than he’d won in the first 10 years of his career combined. You should expect him back in Victory Lane in 2017, but probably not as many times as he appeared their last season.
7. Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin is no doubt one of the best active drivers in NASCAR to not yet win a championship, but it’s kind of hard to do that when you’re probably only the third best driver on your own team. Hamlin was the very first driver to clinch a playoff spot last season by winning the Daytona 500 and is good for two to three wins a season.
6. Matt Kenseth
At 44 years old Matt Kenseth is now the elder statesman of the Monster Energy Cup Series, but he doesn’t seem to be slowing down any. Competing for the series’ top team of late, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth has won seven races over the last two seasons and finished fifth in the point standings last year.
5. Brad Keselowski
Brad Keselowski had four wins last season and looked like one of the favorites for the 2016 championship before faltering in the playoffs. The 2012 Cup Series champion is just about a lock year-in-and-year-out to make the playoffs. Keselowski and Joey Logano teamed together at Penske Racing is probably the most fearsome duo in the sport.
4. Joey Logano
With 14 wins over the last three seasons I don’t believe there’s any doubt that Joey Logano is the best active driver in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series who has yet to win a championship. You should probably expect Logano to win anywhere between three and six races this season and he should be a title contender if he can just find a little more consistency come playoff time.
3. Kevin Harvick
2014 champion Kevin Harvick is a top 10 machine who has averaged 27.5 top 10s over the last two seasons (36 race seasons). He’s a threat in every single race he competes in and averages three-to-five wins per season. Stewart-Haas Racing has made the switch from Chevrolet to Ford this season, but that likely won’t hinder Harvick any.
2. Kyle Busch
It’s weird that a four win season where you finished third in the championship standings could feel underwhelming, but that was sort of how the 2016 season felt for Kyle Busch after winning the championship in 2015. Busch failed to win a race over the last 16 races of the 2016 season, including the entirety of the playoffs. He’s quite possibly the most talented driver in the sport and must be considered a threat to win every season.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson won his record-tying seventh NASCAR premier series championship last season and for much of the season the media was talking about how it was one of his worst seasons ever. That’s how good the guy is. Johnson and his No. 48 team turned it on during the playoffs and won the title. I believe Johnson has to be considered the title favorite year-in-and-year-out.