With the playoffs upon us, it’s time to do Power Rankings a little differently. Let’s take a look at the playoff field and try to figure out who has the best (and worst) chance of racing for the championship at Homestead.
16. Austin Dillon, 2,005 points
Dillon gets the unfortunate distinction of being the driver least likely to advance. He could surprise us with a performance like he had in 2016 when he advanced to the second round of the playoffs. But he may need a lot of help to get to the second round in 2018.
Dillon has the worst average finish of anyone in the playoffs at 18.4 and has just four top-10 finishes all season. He’s in the playoffs because he won the season-opening Daytona 500 but was outside the top 16 in the points standings by the end of the 10th race of the season. Since finishing fourth at Michigan in August, Dillon has finishes of 13th, 16th and 22nd.
15. Alex Bowman, 2,000
Believe it or not, Bowman has performed better than Jimmie Johnson this season. His average finish is one spot better than Johnson’s and has just as many top fives and one more top 10. That number of top fives is two, however.
Bowman has been consistent enough to get into the playoffs and didn’t have to sweat his playoff spot much at Indianapolis despite wrecking with AJ Allmendinger. Much like Dillon, it’s going to take some help for Bowman to advance. But making the playoffs in his first full-time season with Hendrick Motorsports should be considered a win.
14. Aric Almirola, 2,001
Almirola is one of seven Ford drivers in the playoffs. It’s the most of any manufacturer. Five Chevrolets and four Toyotas complete the playoff field.
“I feel like we’re under the radar and not a lot of people have noticed how much speed we’ve had, so hopefully we surprise a lot of people starting next week,” Almirola said Monday. His car was fast but he had a tire issue and ended up finishing 23rd.
The No. 10 team’s inability to put together an entire race is why Almirola and company are so low on this list. He’s led 144 laps over four races in 2018 and has just one top-10 finish in those four races. Yeah, one of those races was the Daytona 500 — hello, Austin Dillon — but if Almirola can’t close the deal in the regular season you can see why we’re not sure he’ll be able to do it in the playoffs.
13. Jimmie Johnson, 2,003
Yeah, it’s weird to believe the seven-time champion doesn’t have a great chance of making the second round of the playoffs. But welcome to Jimmie Johnson’s 2018. Heck, this has been a trend dating back to the summer of 2017 for Johnson. Since winning at Dover in June of 2017 Johnson has 14 top-10 finishes in 49 races. Only three of those 14 top-10s have been top fives.
Maybe Johnson and team will surprise us with a gangbusters performance at Las Vegas, Richmond and the Charlotte Roval. We’re not ruling it out. But if the No. 48 team had a magic switch to flip, wouldn’t they have flipped it already?
12. Kyle Larson, 2,005
Yes, we think Larson is on the edge of making it out of the first round of the playoffs. That’s how crowded things are from 4th-12th in the standings. You can make a very good argument for each of the nine drivers in that grouping for second-round elimination or final-round advancement.
Perhaps we’d be more bullish on Larson if he closed out a race or two in 2018. He’s shown some great speed (he’s led more than 100 laps on three separate occasions) and could be a real contender at Las Vegas, Dover and Kansas. If he gets a win at either Dover or Kansas then he’s making it to the third round and we look foolish.
11. Ryan Blaney, 2,007
Blaney has become remarkably consistent heading into the playoffs. He hasn’t finished any worse than 15th over the past eight races of the season since he was dead last at Daytona because of a crash. Three-straight top-15 finishes should be good enough to advance to the second round easily. It’s the ability to turn the top-15s into top 10s that will determine if Blaney makes the third round of the playoffs.
10. Joey Logano, 2,014
Logano needs to recapture the form he had in the first half of the regular season to make a serious playoff run. Or win a couple races. He qualified for the playoffs with a win at Talladega, his ninth top-10 finish in the first 10 races of the season. He was a worthy second in the points at that time.
The final 13 races of the regular season have been a bit different. While Logano finished in the top 10 in eight of those races he’s also finished worse than 25th in three of them. A bad finish in the second round of the playoffs can be the difference between advancing and elimination.
9. Denny Hamlin, 2,003
We’ve been bullish on Hamlin’s playoff chances in this space in recent years. Maybe putting him at No. 9 this season will mean he’ll defy our expectations once again.
Hamlin has to be buoyed by his team’s speed at Indianapolis even if he didn’t win Monday’s race. The No. 11 team has been the third-slowest Joe Gibbs Racing team recently as both Jones and Kyle Busch have been performing better. Hamlin hasn’t finished any worse than 16th in the past eight races, but he’s finished better than 10th just twice.
8. Erik Jones, 2,005
Jones would have made the playoffs without his win at Daytona in July. He has the ninth-best average finish of anyone in the Cup Series so far this year. He’s not a fluke.
Jones has been one of the better drivers in the series over the last 11 races of the season as well. He’s finished outside the top 10 just twice in that span and hasn’t finished any lower than 16th. We may be undervaluing Jones in this position. Don’t be surprised at all if he easily makes the third round and advances further than his predecessor Matt Kenseth did in 2017.
7. Chase Elliott, 2,008
We’re pretty certain that Elliott’s team won’t be deploying spoiler tape on his car at Las Vegas this weekend. If it does, then they’ll probably be a little more surreptitious than in 2017.
Elliott’s 15th-place finish at Indianapolis broke a string of six-straight top-10 finishes by the No. 9 bunch. But the team has still been far faster recently than it was at the beginning of the season. Elliott led a grand total of eight laps through the first 17 races of the season. He’s led more than 10 laps in five of the last nine races. Elliott could get a win at Talladega and, if his Watkins Glen performance is any indication, could be a favorite to win at the Roval in Charlotte.
6. Clint Bowyer, 2,015
Bowyer had a great chance to race for the win at Indianapolis but never was able to keep up on the final two restarts. He ended up finishing fifth, his seventh top-five finish of the season. He had six in the entirety of 2017.
The bigger difference, of course, is the two wins Bowyer has. If he’s around in the third round of the playoffs, Bowyer will be the most confident driver in the series heading to Martinsville.
There are a couple warning signs, however. That Indianapolis finish was his first top five since he was fifth at Chicago at the beginning of July. And for Bowyer to get through to the third round he’ll also have to avoid disaster at Talladega. He hasn’t finished in the top 10 in four-straight races there and has gotten crashed out of the last two.
5. Kurt Busch, 2,014
Maybe Kurt is simply doing a reverse of 2016. He was one of the best drivers in the series that season until the second half of the season. That slip was just enough to keep Busch out of the final round of the playoffs.
Busch has never advanced to the final four in his career and 2018 may be his last and best opportunity. He’s finished inside the top 10 in eight-straight races and in 14 of the last 17 races. Consistency like that is a great thing to have in the playoffs.
4. Brad Keselowski, 2,019
Keselowski’s wins at Darlington and Indianapolis are the third time in his career that he’s won back-to-back races in the Cup series. He previously won consecutive races in 2014 and 2016. He didn’t make the final round of the playoffs in either of those two seasons.
We think that changes in 2018 and gives the Cup Series its first back-to-back Final Four field. Yes, that’s right, we’re going out on a limb and saying the four drivers who competed for the title in 2017 will be the same four that competed for the title in 2018. Keselowski’s team may not have the fastest cars at the moment but they’ve had good pit stops and solid strategy to get into winning positions. Sometimes you have to get a couple of good finishes in the playoffs that way.
3. Martin Truex Jr., 2,035
Keselowski’s win at Indianapolis also meant that the top four drivers in the playoff standings were the four drivers that competed for the title. Lotta symmetry going on.
Truex is third among the Big Three for a few reasons. First, he’s got 15 fewer playoff points than Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick do. Second, he’s got fewer wins than Harvick and Busch do. Third, you have to account for the variable of a lame-duck team competing for the title.
Truex was adamant at Indianapolis that his team will work its tail off over the last 10 weeks of the season with the goal of getting Furniture Row another title before the team shuts down. We have no reason to doubt him. But this is now a Denver-based team full of people looking for new jobs (and likely new home cities) in 2019. How well will everyone at the team be able to compartmentalize? It’s human nature to worry about the future. Winning a second championship is usually tougher than the first. We can’t imagine how much tougher it will be for Furniture Row in 2018 given the circumstances.
2. Kyle Busch, 2,050
Busch won the regular-season championship and a 15-point bonus for being the regular-season points leader. But it’s worth noting that he’s only tied for first in the points standings right now because Kevin Harvick’s Las Vegas win was penalized. If Harvick’s win at Vegas counted he’d have five more points than Busch.
That’s nothing against Busch, by the way. He would have won the regular-season title even if Harvick hadn’t gotten that points penalty. We’re extremely confident Busch will be racing for the title at Homestead and watching him race Harvick and others heads up for the title will be a fitting end to the 2018 season.
1. Kevin Harvick, 2,050
Harvick has the edge over everyone else because he’s won seven races in 2018. Four of those seven races came at tracks that have races in the playoffs. Those four races are spread out over three rounds of the playoffs.
We’re not saying Harvick is a guarantee to sweep the races at Las Vegas, Dover, Kansas or Phoenix, but he’s going to be the favorite at each of those four races. Oh, and Harvick won the fall race at Texas in 2017. He’s going to be one of the favorites there too, even if the track is repaved and reconfigured.
Harvick’s in such a good position that he doesn’t have to rely on wins to advance through the playoffs. But he’s probably going to get a couple anyway. Don’t be surprised if he wins three more races to bring his win total to 10 on the season.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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