The time has come for the NASCAR Cup Series to start the 16th edition of the playoffs. It all started as the “Chase” in 2004 but has since evolved to a playoff format of three rounds, 16 drivers, with one champion left standing by time the checkered flag flies in Phoenix this November.
The last three years we’ve had Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. each in the Championship 4 in all three seasons. You had Brad Keselowski (2017), Joey Logano (2018) and Denny Hamlin (2019) as the “other” driver each of the last three years and two of them finished fourth out of the four. Logano, was the outlier and he won the championship against them in 2018.
Combined, the “Big 3” have won 44-percent of all races since this reign started in 2017. They won 42% of the races in 2017 (15/36) but really jumped up to 56% in 2018. Coincidentally enough, that’s the year that they didn’t win the title too. Last year, they won 44% of the races (16/36) but this year, that total has dropped to 31% so far (8/26).
So, who makes it to the Championship 4 this year? Is is the same “Big 3” and then one new one? Trends do say, yes. I mean three straight years of this, why not a fourth? Does the trend hold true for a new driver as the fourth as well? If so, Logano, Keselowski and Hamlin are out of that title.
Chase Elliott makes a strong case to supplant them. He’s having a good year with two wins already this season. He’s also entering the postseason hot in scoring three top five finishes in his last four races run including six top 10’s in his last seven overall. Plus, he’s made it to the Round of 8 in three straight years now and has the experience that it takes to finally push through and get into the Championship 4. Elliott, has 20 playoff points to his credit so he can carry those all the way through if needed. Then, in terms of the playoffs, he can easily skate through the first round, has some strong tracks for him in the second round and can snag a win at Martinsville to propel himself forward.
But, is anyone else in play? I mean, I actually think this could be the year where we get two new drivers in.
Harvick should be a shoo in. He’s won seven times this season and enters the playoffs with 11 top five finishes over his last 13 starts. The only races he hasn’t had a top five in are at Daytona. He’s accumulated 57 playoff points. I think he’s good.
Truex may have only won once this season, but he also has eight consecutive top four finishes on the year and nine in his last 10 starts. He’s good in the playoffs and too has some good playoff tracks. While he has only had 14 playoff points so far, I think Truex makes it in.
Here’s where it gets dicey.
Hamlin, like Harvick, you can Sharpie his way to Phoenix. He has 47 playoff points and has reached victory lane six times this year. He won six of the 36 races last year and has done the same in 10 less races so far in 2020. Hamlin, has four top three finishes in his last five starts to go along with 11 top two finishes in 26 races. He has enough points in the bank to afford a bad race or two and has the skill and speed to get by to Phoenix.
So, the real question is, does Busch make it or do we get the same Championship 4 as a year ago, just in a different track?
Busch, hasn’t won all season. He has one win in his last 48 starts. That came last year in the season finale (last playoff race) at Homestead. Also, Busch only has three playoff points. He has to almost be perfect to make it by. As the rounds tick by, he’s going to have to win. But, can he?
2020 has been a bad luck season for him. That’s why I like Elliott to replace Busch and two of the “Big 3” of recent years make it on and Hamlin forging closer to making this a “Big 4.”
Still, Busch has the capability to get hot too and with this being the second time through eight of these tracks too, Busch has the data to where he can win in each round.
Then you have Logano. He’s made the Championship 4 in 2014, 2016, 2018…2020?
The race for the Championship 4 is going to be tight as two spots may almost be filled, but the other two is going to be a fight.