The 2020 NASCAR season is less than a week away. It’s time to make some playoff guesses.
The playoffs are going to look a little different in 2020. Phoenix takes over for Homestead as the site of the winner-take-all finale. Bristol is now in the playoffs. Martinsville is now the site of the final race of the third round.
We don’t think the playoff field will look much different, however. We think three of the four drivers who raced for the title in 2019 will be racing for the championship in 2020. And it wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest to see the same four drivers make the finale again.
Here are our predictions for the 16 drivers who will make up the 2020 Cup Series playoff field. But before we get to that, here are all of the drivers that we think will come up short.
Need a miracle to make the playoffs
Anyone else not named on this list
Sorry Brennan Poole, Quin Houff, Joey Gase and JJ Yeley. Y’all ain’t making the playoffs unless lightning strikes twice at Daytona.
Dillon is entering his fourth full-time season in the Cup Series and has four top-10 finishes. Three of those came a season ago as Dillon got the first top five of his career with a fourth-place finish at Daytona in July. But there’s just not enough speed there to think Dillon gets into the playoffs even if he’s become really good at getting his car back to the finish line in one piece. Dillon has failed to finish just five races over the past three seasons.
LaJoie had two top-10 finishes in his first season in the No. 32 car in 2019. But he also had an average finish of 26th and only finished on the lead lap nine times. Only David Ragan finished below LaJoie in the points standings among eligible drivers who competed in every race in 2019.
McDowell came back to Front Row in 2020 after a season where he had fifth-place finishes at Daytona and Talladega and a whole lot of nothing else. McDowell lost an average of three spots per race and completed the fewest laps of any full-time driver.
John Hunter Nemechek
Nemechek parlayed his three-race run as Matt Tifft’s replacement at the end of 2019 into a full-time ride for 2020. Nemechek has proven he can win and consistently run up front in the Xfinity Series and Truck Series but running up front in a Front Row Motorsports car in the Cup Series is an insurmountable task.
Suarez scrambled to find a full-season Cup Series deal after he didn’t come to terms with Stewart-Haas Racing on a 2020 contract. While Suarez got a deal with Gaunt Brothers Racing, the team doesn’t have a charter or a ton of resources. There’s a decent chance that Suarez misses out on qualifying for the Daytona 500.
Wallace finished third at Indianapolis in 2019 and that was a legit third, too. The car had speed. He followed that up with a 12th at Richmond and a 13th at Martinsville. Those were the three best finishes of his season. If that carries over into 2020 then Wallace could end up inside the top 25. But his Richard Petty Motorsports team will need a lot more improvement to put him closer to the playoffs.
Maybe, but maybe not
Bell has won 16 Xfinity Series races in just 74 starts and moves to the Cup Series with Leavine Family Racing. You can expect some adjustment as Bell races at a top NASCAR level without the benefit of direct Joe Gibbs Racing equipment and help for the first time. NASCAR’s move to cut downforce at shorter tracks could help speed that adjustment process for the sprint car ace. Look for him to get a top 10 or three at tracks a mile and under.
Custer takes over for Suarez in the No. 41 car after winning seven races in the Xfinity series in 2019. And, like Bell, he’s in for a serious adjustment racing cars with substantially more downforce at bigger tracks. While Custer will be in very good equipment, Stewart-Haas Racing’s drivers not-named Kevin Harvick didn’t have the speed to compete with Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske a year ago.
Another year, another new crew chief for Dillon. Well, if you can call Justin Alexander a new crew chief. Alexander was Dillon’s crew chief in 2018 when he won the Daytona 500 but the team elected to replace him with Danny Stockman in 2019. Stockman was Dillon’s fourth crew chief in six seasons.
The crew chief shuffle has been happening because of Dillon’s declining results. After 13 top 10s and an average finish of 16th in 2016, Dillon has finished in the top 10 just 19 times over the past 108 races with an average finish worse than 18th.
Preece was 26th in the points standings in his rookie season. He could end up a lot closer to 20th this season. JTG Daugherty Racing has shown flashes of being a midpack team and Preece strung together four-straight top-20 finishes during the playoffs a year ago.
Could Reddick outrun his teammate Austin Dillon in 2020? It wouldn’t be surprising unless you believe that Alexander’s return to Dillon’s pit box will energize the No. 3 team. The two-time defending Xfinity Series champ was so good in his first year with Richard Childress Racing that the team parted ways with Daniel Hemric after just one season in the No. 8 car.
Making the playoffs in 2020 will be a tough ask, however. RCR has been much faster in the Xfinity Series than it has been in the Cup Series lately.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse’s move from Roush Fenway Racing has already paid immediate attention dividends when he grabbed the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500 in his first race with JTG Daugherty. Stenhouse has proven to be one of the better — and most aggressive — racers at Daytona and Talladega over the past couple seasons and it’s not going to be surprising in the slightest to see him run up front for most of the race.
It’ll be surprising to see him make the playoffs, however. While Stenhouse could easily improve on his 23rd place points position from 2019 in 2020, he’s a long shot to make the top 16.
A realistic shot
Almirola should be a playoff lock, right? Well, the second half of 2019 gives us pause. He had 12 top-10 finishes a season ago … and 10 of them came in the first half of the season. While Almirola avoided bad finishes over the final 18 races — he was worse than 30th just twice — he also ran solidly around 15th place. That can be good enough to make the playoffs, but it’s far from good enough to do anything when you get to the playoffs.
A crew chief swap with Clint Bowyer sees Mike Bugarewicz taking over as Almirola’s crew chief in 2020 in an attempt to get him back to the third round of the playoffs.
Buescher’s move back to Roush could be a slight upgrade. Is it enough to put him in the playoffs for the second time?
When Buescher made the playoffs in 2016 thanks to his foggy win at Pocono with Front Row Motorsports, his presence in the postseason was a token one. If he makes the playoffs in 2020, he has a chance to get to the second round.
Buescher’s average finish of 17.8 was better that Matt DiBenedetto and just behind Jimmie Johnson in 2019. If he can improve that a spot or two in 2020 and, most importantly, score some stage points, he could sneak into the playoffs at the expense of a bigger-name driver.
Putting Newman outside of the preseason top 16 is a mistake. Newman never goes away. He’s finished in the top 18 of the points standings in each of his full 18 seasons in the Cup Series and has nine playoff appearances since the format was implemented in 2004.
He wasn’t a favorite to make the playoffs a year ago and he responded with 14 top 10s in his first year at Roush. That was the most top 10s Newman’s had in a season since 2015. He also was running at the finish of 35 races for the third time in the past six seasons. If Newman misses the playoffs he’s a lock to finish in the top 20.
The 16 playoff drivers
16. Matt DiBenedetto
DiBenedetto finale has the good Cup ride he’s been working toward. The first playoff berth of his career is now in reach. DiBenedetto takes over the No. 21 Wood Brothers car after Paul Menard’s retirement and should build on a season where he had three top fives and seven top 10s at Leavine Family Racing.
It may be asking a lot for DiBenedetto to win a race in 2020 but improving on the best season of his career should be expected. If DiBenedetto can get the stage points that eluded Menard in 2019, he’ll be in the playoffs.
15. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer has improved in the points standings in each of his three seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing. But you’ll be forgiven if you thought his 2018 season was better than 2019. Bowyer had two fewer top-five finishes in 2019 and failed to win a race after getting to victory lane twice in in 2018. His average finish also fell to 15th.
Bowyer will have Johnny Klausmeier as his crew chief in 2020 and it won’t be much of a surprise if he wins a race. But a deep playoff run certainly would be.
14. Kurt Busch
Busch’s season peaked at Kentucky when he went to victory lane. That win clinched a playoff berth for Busch and moved him to sixth in the points standings.
He immediately fell to seventh after finishing 18th the following week and never sniffed sixth again. A poor finish at Las Vegas doomed his playoff chances as Busch got tossed from the playoffs in the first round.
Busch’s performance rebounded near the end of the playoffs with three-straight top 10s but with a lower ceiling at Chip Ganassi Racing, it’s easy to see how the summer of 2019 was as good as it’s going to get for Busch at CGR.
13. Alex Bowman
Bowman has made the playoffs in each of his two seasons with Hendrick Motorsports and should make it three-for-three in 2020. He got the first win of his career at Chicago in 2019 and had five top-10 finishes in the playoffs despite a crash at Talladega that took him out of title contention.
A variable that could have some impact, however, is the sponsorship situation on the No. 88 car. Nationwide left after the 2019 season and HMS didn’t find a suitable outside replacement. Chevy Accessories partners are filling the vacated races in 2020.
12. Jimmie Johnson
Yes, Johnson will make the playoffs in his final season. Will he win a points race for the first time since 2017? We’re not as certain about that.
Hendrick Motorsports will give Johnson everything he needs to succeed in his final season, especially one that has the possibility of a walk-off eighth championship. And it’s easy to see Johnson having a season-long boost of adrenaline to avoid going out with a winless streak that stretches over three seasons.
But Johnson has led just 388 laps over the last three seasons. Before 2017 the fewest laps he had led in a single season was 547.
11. William Byron
Byron improved mightily in his second season in the Cup Series. He went from 23rd to 11th in points and his average finish jumped from 22nd to 15th. He also had five pole positions.
There are still some things to work on, however, if Byron is going to break into the elite tier of the Cup Series. He finished worse than 20th in 10 different races. Chopping that number down to six or seven will go a long way to making the third round of the playoffs.
10. Kyle Larson
The story surrounding Larson in 2020 isn’t going to be about what happens on the track. Larson’s contract is up at the end of the season and he’s going to be the most coveted free agent in recent NASCAR history. Chip Ganassi Racing obviously want to keep him. And Stewart-Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports will obviously want to talk to him.
The cuts to downforce on Cup cars at shorter tracks should help Larson in 2020. A win at Richmond looks likelier, don’t you think? He’s a playoff driver and should make the postseason with ease. But it’s hard not to wonder if he’s capped out at CGR and needs to make a move if he wants to get his first Cup Series title.
9. Erik Jones
Did you know that Jones is still just 23? He enters his fourth Cup Series season with a top-10 rate of 44 percent and has increased his number of top five finishes in every season. And remember, he lost out on a top five at Richmond in the playoffs when his car failed post-race inspection.
It’s easy to overlook Jones given the other three drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing. But you shouldn’t. He’s younger than both Bell and Reddick and will make his 125th Cup Series start the day after he turns 24.
8. Chase Elliott
Elliott is going to make it past the third round of the playoffs at some point. We promise. It just may not be 2020. Though he could easily do it this season if his winning trend continues.
Five of Elliott’s six wins over the last two seasons have come after the 20th race of the year. Only his win at Talladega in May of 2019 has come in the first half of the season.
Four of those victories have come in the postseason, too. While Elliott hasn’t made the final four (yet), you can’t accuse him or his team of shrinking in the playoffs. The time will come for Elliott to race for the title at Phoenix. If he can get one of those playoff wins in the third round, it’ll be this year.
7. Ryan Blaney
Blaney gets the benefit of a Cup-winning crew chief as part of Team Penske’s crew chief shuffle. Blaney will have Todd Gordon, who won the 2018 Cup Series title with Joey Logano, atop his pit box in 2020.
The first order of duty will be for Blaney to get to victory lane multiple times in a season. Blaney has won just one race in each of the past three seasons despite leading over 300 laps in every one of those seasons and finishing in the top 10 in the points standings each year.
6. Brad Keselowski
The 2012 Cup champion’s quest for a second title continues into 2020. Keselowski has won 21 races in the seven years since his championship and has finished in the top 10 of the points standings six times. But he’s raced for the championship just once in the six years of NASCAR’s winner-take-all playoff format. And he was fourth when he did that in 2017.
Keselowski will have Jeremy Bullins as his crew chief this season and the Daytona 500 will be the first Cup Series race without Paul Wolfe as Keselowski’s permanent crew chief since 2010. How will Keselowski handle that adjustment? Will it provide an immediate spark or will it cause a season like 2013, when Keselowski won just once and finished 14th in the standings?
5. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex and Keselowski have the two biggest crew chief questions heading into 2020. James Small takes over for Cole Pearn as Truex’s crew chief and it’d be a surprise if Truex can maintain the success that he had with Pearn.
That’s not a knock against Small either. He could easily turn out to be a great Cup Series crew chief. But Truex and Pearn formed a top-three driver/crew chief combination and won 23 races over the past four seasons. Truex and the No. 19 team should still be excellent in 2020. They just may not be as excellent as they were in 2019.
4. Kevin Harvick
Harvick confirmed over the weekend that he had re-upped with Stewart-Haas Racing through the 2023 season. Get used to seeing Harvick in the No. 4 for four more seasons.
We’re also quite used to seeing Harvick in third place. 2019 was Harvick’s third-straight season of finishing third in the standings. And he’s now finished third in the standings in six of his 19 Cup Series seasons. That’s an impressive rate. Don’t be surprised at all if Harvick wins his second Cup title this season or adds to that third-place tally.
3. Joey Logano
Logano got Keselowski’s longtime crew chief Paul Wolfe in the Penske crew chief swap. He might have upgraded.
Logano’s stats in 2019 weren’t too far off from those in his title-winning 2018 season despite his fifth-place finish in the points standings. Granted, Logano won the 2018 title against three drivers who had dominated the season, but there wasn’t much of a dropoff last season.
Pencil in Logano for a few wins, a lot of top 10s and a deep playoff run.
2. Kyle Busch
Busch has proven himself to be the best and most adaptive driver in the Cup Series. And he’s in the prime of his career that should last a long while.
Busch has won at least four races in each of the past five seasons and there’s no reason to think that he won’t hit four or more again in 2020. After all, this is the guy who won for the first time in 21 races at Homestead in November to clinch his second Cup Series title and became the only active driver outside of Johnson to have multiple Cup titles. Busch is the closest thing to a lock as there is for the final four.
1. Denny Hamlin
Yeah, we’re still on the Hamlin bandwagon. One of our predictions for Hamlin to win a Cup Series title has to come true at some point, right?
Hamlin should finally shed the label of most accomplished active Cup Series driver without a title in 2020. He’ll also hit 40 career Cup Series wins and will continue to gobble up top 10s at a rate greater than 50 percent. Hamlin had the best season of his career in 2019 and there’s little reason to think he’ll take a large step back in 2020. Heck, he may actually be even better thanks to NASCAR’s downforce changes at short tracks.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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