2018 NASCAR predictions: Most improved, playoff favorites, and the Cup champion is...

From a journalistic standpoint, there’s a clear downside to making any sort of predictions: What if you’re wrong?

Or more realistically, what about when you’re wrong. The NASCAR season takes almost the entire calendar year – trying to foretell all that at the very beginning is challenging, to put it mildly. And given the Internet’s permanency, these predictions aren’t going anywhere.

Still, there’s clear value (and entertainment) from season predictions. They’re fun for readers and writers alike, and they help give direction and perspective to the season as it unfolds. So without further ado, your 2018 NASCAR Cup Series predictions:

Daytona 500 champion: In hindsight, it feels like five or six different drivers had a shot at winning the 2017 Daytona 500 ... and from all of them, somehow Kurt Busch came out on top? It was Busch’s only win in 2017, and he only had five other finishes in the Top 5 the rest of the season. So, the win was a bit of an anomaly. This time around, look for one of those runners-up to pull ahead.

This might be a bit of a dark-horse pick, considering how his season ended, but give me Kyle Larson. He should be motivated by his premature playoff exit, and he ran as well at Homestead as could have been imagined. Last season’s breakout campaign carries over and nets him the first win of the season. Prediction: Kyle Larson

At the Daytona 500, Kyle Larson should be motivated by his premature playoff exit. Chuck Burton AP file photo

Rookie of the year: This one basically comes down to Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. and William Byron, and given Byron’s immediate success at every level of racing, he gets the nod. Winning a race would be a huge step in his first Cup season, but Byron has the talent to do the unlikely. Wallace will be more of a wild card. Although he’s talented in his own right, give Byron the edge thanks to Hendrick Motorsports’ superior resources. Prediction: William Byron

Most improved: This isn’t meant to be a slap in the face, especially considering how close Chase Elliott came to making the championship four in 2017. Rather, this is more about Elliott finally capitalizing on his potential.

Any NASCAR fan knows that, to this point in his career, Elliott hasn’t been able to make the leap from perpetual runner-up to perpetual winner. His dad, Bill Elliott, was the same way early in his career ... until he figured it out and became a Hall of Famer. It’s a little early to say Chase is going to have the career his father did, but this is the season he gets his first Cup Series win – and likely once one comes, a bunch will follow. Prediction: Chase Elliott

Championship four at Homestead: Given how dominant both Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch were last season, especially by the end of the year, they have to be two of the favorites to make it back to Homestead. As for Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, as good as they are, their championship appearances were less set in stone and thus less likely to be repeated.

As for the other two, there’s a handful of drivers you could go with – Larson, Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano – and feel good about. Let me have Larson and Johnson, though. Larson was on track to make it to Homestead before his engine troubles in the playoffs, and I see his team correcting those issues in 2018. As for Johnson, what else is there to say? Give a seven-time champion a new car, some motivation coming off a bad season, and we’ll see you in Florida. Prediction: Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson

Look for 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion to make the Championship four at Homestead ... but will he repeat as champ? Brad Loper TNS

2018 Cup Series champion: 2017 belonged to Truex in every way possible. Not only did he win the most races, lead the most laps and have the fastest car all season long, but he had a tremendous story on his side, too. The thing is, repeating as a champion in any sport is incredibly difficult. Doing so in NASCAR, with all the luck involved, is perhaps more so.

And as tempting as it is to give the trophy to Kyle Busch, who came second in 2017, or Jimmie Johnson, whose eighth title would make him the greatest driver of all time, let’s go with Larson, probably the best driver at Homestead of the three. He was in position to pass both Busch and Truex in November, but stayed behind to let them duke it out. This year, they’ll have to watch him drive past and into Victory Lane for his first Cup Series championship. Prediction: Kyle Larson

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks

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