Out in the first round: Chris Buescher Austin Dillon, Chase Elliot, Tony Stewart
Buescher got in by virtue of his Pocono win, but has only one other top-10 finish this season, which won’t cut it during the playoffs.
Although he’s having the best season of his career, Dillon’s Richard Childress Racing Chevrolets lacks the speed of the other competitors. Dillon has only led eight laps all year.
In his final season, Stewart made a great run to win at Sonoma. But the storybook season for the three-time champion likely will end in the first round. In the last four races, Stewart hasn’t finished better than 21st. That said, if anyone could make a magical run, it’s Stewart, who did it once already in 2011.
Elliott has had an excellent rookie campaign, but like teammate Jimmie Johnson, he ran better in the first half of the regular season than the second half. In the first half of the year, Elliott had four tops five and nine top 10s. In the last 13 races he’s had just three top fives and four top 10s.
Out in the second round: Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson
Consistency will get McMurray to the second round, when lack of speed will knock him out. McMurray has only one top five this year and hasn’t led a single lap all season.
The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have been the class of the field this year, but they won’t get all four drivers to the final eight. Kenseth trails all three of his JGR teammates in top fives and top 10s, and is third among the four in laps led.
Busch has had remarkable consistency, finishing on the lead lap 24 times in 26 races so far this season. But he’s fallen off the pace a bit lately, posting just two top-10 finishes in the last eight races.
Johnson has struggled mightily for most of 2016. During his amazing career, Johnson has never had fewer than 20 top-10 finishes in a season, yet he has just 10 right now. Johnson has led just 266 laps this year; three years ago, he led 1,958; and in 2014, 1,310. And he admits to being frustrated with his performance, which has led to unforced errors.
Make it to the semifinals: Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson
To get to this level, you have to be really, really good and any of these four drivers could well make it to the finals.
Edwards and Hamlin have been fast all year in their JGR Toyotas, with Hamlin winning three races and Edwards two. They won’t slow down in the playoffs.
Logano is something of a wild card. Last year, he won a series-high six races, including three in a row in the Chase. But he’s only won once so far this year, although he has 12 top 10s in the last 14 races.
Larson’s been red hot lately, with top three finishes in each of the three most recent races. But this is his first Chase and it would be ambitious to think he can make the final four
The final four: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr.
These are the heavy hitters. Collectively, these four drivers have won 12 of 26 races run so far this season and led 56 percent of the laps. That’s incredibly stout. Busch, Harvick and Keselowski are past champions and all have had stellar seasons.
Busch gets the nod over his JGR teammates because he’s won a championship in the Chase format and Harvick’s ability to deliver clutch victories with the pressure on is well documented.
Truex, meanwhile, is having the best year of his career, and his Furniture Row Racing Toyota is often faster than his quasi-teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing.
So who wins the big prize?
The final race at Homestead likely will come down to who makes a mistake and who doesn’t. Pit stops and restarts at Homestead in all probability will determine the winner.
And by a slight margin, the edge goes to Kyle Busch, who has had fewer issues on pit road than either Harvick or Truex, and on average slightly faster cars than Keselowski.
But, then again, that’s why they run the races. With one race, four drivers and the title on the line, anything can happen. And it probably will.