The 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs has widdled down to just 8 drivers left, and those remaining have three races until the field get cuts in half to the final Championship Four at Homestead. Round 2 was full of drama with Talladega and a surprising ending to Kansas, and now the teams have Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix to get through if they want to have a shot at becoming the next Cup Series Champion. Here’s a quick snapshot of what the Points Standings looks like heading into the first race of Round 3, which is Martinsville:
- Kyle Busch (+18 pts from cut line)
- Martin Truex, Jr. (+14 pts from cut line)
- Denny Hamlin (+9 pts from cut line)
- Joey Logano (+2 pts from cut line)
- Kevin Harvick (-2 pts from cut line)
- Chase Elliott (-6 pts from cut line)
- Kyle Larson (-19 pts from cut line)
- Ryan Blaney (-21 pts from cut line)
So now the question is, who is in the best position in Round 3 to advance to the final race? Obviously those with points advantages are looking a lot better than others, but even Kyle Busch’s 18-point advantage over the cut line can be wiped out in a couple of Stages next week.
Ranking the Remaining Playoff Drivers
#1 Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick and the #4 crew have been kind of quietly consistent all season long, ranking 4th-best in average finish for the year behind Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex, Jr. What I really like about Harvick, though, is how he kind of turned things up a notch right as the Playoffs were starting; since the New Hampshire race in late July, a span of 12 races, “Happy” has amassed all three of his wins for this season and has also posted ten finishes of 7th or better, seven of which were also top 5s. Looking at this third Round of the Playoffs, Harvick is usually a top 5 contender at Martinsville, has won each of the last two fall races at Texas, and although he hasn’t been as dominant as Kyle Busch at Phoenix recently, the #4 Ford has easily been one of the bests there. Looking at the last 15 races at Phoenix, Harvick has seven wins and 14 single-digit finishes. What I like most about Kevin Harvick, and the reason why I have him ranked #1 of the remaining eight Playoff drivers, is that we’ve seen this #4 Ford really dominate some of the 1.5-mile tracks this year, and going by averages, Harvick is averaging the most laps led on that track type this season and the 2nd-most fastest laps per race. He’s going to be a major factor at Homestead, which he should advance to pretty easily.
#2 Denny Hamlin
Honestly, if Denny Hamlin can make it to Homestead, I think he’s got a great shot at winning this year’s Championship. When it comes to average finish, Hamlin is having the best season of his career (9.6 thus far), and his four wins on the season rank as his 3rd-best year since joining the Cup Series–plus the year’s not done yet. Hamlin is a five-time winner at Martinsville, has won at Texas three times (including this year’s first race), and has a respectable resumé at Phoenix, with top 5s in two of the last three races there. Unless there’s a surprise winner in one of these next three races, Hamlin should be able to point his way into Homestead, if he doesn’t lock himself in this week at Martinsville. Denny did win at Bristol back in August, and also finished 2nd at New Hampshire, both of which are short tracks. He came home 5th in the first Martinsville race this year. For what it’s worth, nobody has a better average finish than Hamlin (8.3) over the last 17 races this season.
#3 Kyle Busch
That 3rd-place finish at Kansas is exactly what the doctor ordered for Kyle Busch and this #18 team. Lately, Rowdy has been struggling–at least from a finish perspective–and that good result should help give this team momentum heading into Round 3. So not only does Busch have the best points advantage heading into Martinsville, but he’s also been the best car at “The Paperclip” in recent years; over the last eight Martinsville races, Busch has never finished worse than 5th, and he’s led 100+ laps in four of the eight events. Combine the speed this #18 Toyota has had lately (it’s seriously been one of the fastest cars over the last month) with Kyle’s track history, and he could clinch his Homestead spot on Sunday. If not, he’s got Phoenix to fall back on, a track where he’s absolutely dominated recently, with 100+ laps led in four of the last five races and wins in the last two. It’ll take a couple catastrophic races for Kyle Busch to not make the final race of this year’s Playoffs. Honestly, it’d hard for me to imagine these four aforementioned drivers not being the ones that battle it out for this year’s Championship, and I don’t foresee it being close on points at Homestead, either.
#4 Martin Truex, Jr.
Barring an epic collapse, Martin Truex, Jr. should be able to easily make it to Homestead. This team has made it a point to get better at the short tracks over the last couple of years, and that should help them out at the upcoming Martinsville race, a track where Truex has finished 8th or better in the last four races, and also has three top 5s over that span. What this team seems to have done, though, is take a step back on the 1.5-mile tracks, which is why I have Martin ranked 4th. At Texas specifically, Truex has just one top 5 finish in the last two and a half years, and that was the 2017 fall race. At Phoenix, he has three top 5s in the last four races there, but he’s never really had a race-winning car. If this #19 team would have a mechanical failure at some point in this Round, I could see Truex getting eliminated at Phoenix, but that’s about the only way. The guy has six wins on the year and an average finish of 9.7 since the break between Michigan and Sonoma–which is 2nd-best in the series. As far as winning the 2019 Championship, though, I think it’ll be tough for this #19 crew, although I do think they’ll have a shot.
#5 Chase Elliott
The bad news for Chase Elliott is that there aren’t any road courses or superspeedways left on the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Don’t get me wrong, it’s impressive that he’s grabbed three wins this year, but none of them were at the track types left on the schedule. As far as this #9 team advancing to Homestead, I think it’s going to take a win out of them. Yes, they have consistency–Chase has seven top 10s in the last ten races overall–but consistent top 10s doesn’t win championships anymore. And in order for Chase to point his way in, he’s going to need help from others. Of the remaining Championship contenders, Chase ranks 5th in terms of Stage top 5s this season, which are more than likely going to be very important in this round. The good news for Elliott fans is that he probably had the best car at Martinsville earlier this year, and we’ve seen him easily run top 3 at Phoenix in years past. The achilles heel I see for this #9 team is actually Texas, where Chase hasn’t had a top 5 finish since 2016–even though he now has the best average finish on 1.5-mile tracks in 2019 after Kansas.
#6 Kyle Larson
Everyone always says, “watch out for Larson if he makes it to Homestead!” but the key words in that sentence are the second half: if he makes it. Martinsville is just an awful track for Larson when it comes to actually racing there, as he has qualified 9th or better in each of the last five races there but hasn’t finished better than 16th. Yeah, he wound up 3rd there back in 2016, but you know that saying about a blind squirrel and a nut? Same thing. More than likely, Larson is going to be in an even bigger points hole after race #1 of this third Round, and then we go to Texas, where he has just three top 5s in 12 career starts and has finished 36th or worse in three of the last four. The cutoff race is then at Phoenix, a track where Larson has finished 6th or better in four of the last six races, but he’s never really been a true contender for the win–he has just 69 laps led (nice) in 11 career starts–and that’s the miracle it’s going to take for him to make it to Homestead.
#7 Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney is the lone bright spot at Penske right now, as he was at a 16.6 average result through the first 15 races of 2019 but has improved to 12.8 in the 17 events since then–as opposed to the sharp decline that we’ve seen his teammates have (which we’ll get to soon). With that being said, Young Ryan Blaney is only in this third round of the Playoffs because of his win at Talladega, and it’s going to take some of his best career efforts to make his way in to Homestead on points. One way I could see him advancing to the final race is with a win at Martinsville this upcoming weekend, as Ryan has turned into one of the best short track racers in the Cup Series and has two top 5s in the last three Martinsville races. Other than that, at Texas, Blaney is going to have to re-create his 2nd-place finish from the fall race last year, and then do the same thing at Phoenix, as he won the pole and led 94 laps en route to a 3rd-place finish earlier this year in March. For that to happen, though, it’s going to take great qualifying efforts out of this #12 team, and they have just one top 5 start int he last 23 races this season.
#8 Joey Logano
Do I have to be the one that brings it up? What the hell is wrong with the Penske Racing veterans? Not only was Brad Keselowski eliminated from championship contention at Kansas last weekend, but Joey Logano, the defending series champion, barely got in to this Round of 8. Here’s the crazy thing, though: Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski won five of the first fifteen races this season. Since then, those two have a COMBINED eight top 5 finishes, with averages finishes of 14.4 for Logano and 14.2 for Keselowski. These teams have fallen off in a big way, especially when you consider that those average finishes were at 7.8 and 10.1 (respectively) through the first 15 races. Logano starts Round 3 with a small points advantage but that should evaporate with the first race at Martinsville, despite the fact that he’s the defending winner of the fall event there. Don’t forget, though: Joey was on the pole earlier this year at “The Paperclip” and led just 5 laps before finishing 19th.