September 12, 2017
By Micah Roberts
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Yes, let's drop the green flag already and get this playoff party started!
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs kicks off this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway with 16 eligible drivers vying to become the season champion. Martin Truex Jr. comes in with a 20-point lead over Kyle Larson based on incentive points earned during the regular season, but he's only 50 points ahead of 16th-place Jamie McMurray. For the next 10 races, it doesn't matter what drivers did in the first 26 races.
Right now, it's put up or shut up.
For a quick overview of how this playoff system works, think of a bracket with four stages of advancement. Sunday's Chicagoland race starts the Round of 16 which also consists of next week's race at New Hampshire and the following week at Dover. Any driver winning any one of those races automatically advances and the top-12 points earners advance. The bottom four drivers in points will be eliminated.
The same process occurs in the Round of 12 with races at Charlotte, Talladega and Kansas. Then it's the Round of 8 with races at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix where the Final Four drivers will be determined to race in the Championship Round at Homestead on November 19. Whoever has the best finish among those final four drivers will be the 2017 Champion.
Picking the favorites to win it all isn't a hard process because we've been seeing the likes of Truex and Larson dominate for most of the season, especially on 1.5-mile tracks and it's important to note that five of the 10 playoff races are on 1.5-mile tracks starting with Chicagoland. We've seen six races on 1.5s this season so far and Truex won on three of them. He has four wins this season, which is tied for the series lead with Larson.
The last time we saw a race on a 1.5-mile track was at Kentucky way back on July 8 and a lot has changed in the series since then. The biggest change has been the resurgence of Joe Gibbs Racing which has won four of the past eight races. They started to regain some speed by the time Kentucky came around with Denny Hamlin finishing fourth and Kyle Busch finishing fifth, but they were still behind the likes of Truex, who won, and Larson, who finished second.
Last year's race at Chicagoland saw Truex win with Joey Logano finishing second and Chase Elliott third. Elliott is an interesting look this week to win his first Cup race. He was third at Kentucky in July also. Hamlin won this race to kick off the 2015 Chase.
Brad Keselowski won it in 2014 and Matt Kenseth won it in 2013. Kevin Harvick and Keselowski lead all active drivers with two Chicagoland wins, and surprisingly, seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson doesn't have any although he has averaged a 9.4 finish in 15 starts.
The best long shot of the bunch might be Ryan Blaney in the 25/1 range. He's had lots of speed on big horsepower tracks in the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford. Last season in his first Cup start at Chicagoland he finished fourth.
I wish I could offer some great advice on a few long shot drivers to win the title, but it would be irresponsible to suggest anyone else than those who have dominated all season. However, I could see Hamlin, Kenseth or Keselowski giving Truex, Larson and Kyle Busch some trouble. As for Chicagoland, it's hard to make a strong case for anyone but Truex.
As for the championship in 10 weeks, it's hard to go against Truex there as well, but I'll be rooting for Las Vegan Kyle Busch and his teammate Denny Hamlin.
The best story of all would be Jimmie Johnson winning a record eighth championship, but it seems very doubtful based on what he's been doing lately. The famed No. 48 won three times this season, but last one was June 4 at Dover. He hasn't really been a factor in any race since then. It's been quite a bizarre fall off.
Top-5 Finish Prediction
1) #78 Martin Truex Jr (9/2)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
3) #42 Kyle Larson (5/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
5) #24 Chase Elliott (18/1)