So, you win some, you lose some.
Before the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season began, I ventured to make some predictions about how the year would shape up. Naturally, some turned out better than others. On the whole though, I can live with them — and the same applies to these postseason predictions.
At your own risk, our 2018 playoff predictions:
First out: None of these decisions were “easy,” per se, but this one was the most evident. While several struggling drivers — Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman come to mind — hung on for the final available playoff spots, their inclusion would feel a bit like cheating.
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Instead, we’ll go for the only driver who absolutely, no way, flat out could not have qualified for the playoffs without winning a race this season. Actually, it’s been the same situation for this driver in back-to-back years, with an unlikely victory pushing him into the playoffs when he otherwise might not have deserved it. And like last season proved, the strategy Austin Dillon employed isn’t effective for making a long playoff run.
Overhyped: As the Big 3 of Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Kevin Harvick rose to prominence this season, a secondary storyline emerged alongside them — who could complete their quartet in the making?
Answer: Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott ... or in other words, so many people that none of them actually assumed that mantle. But lost in the shuffle was one driver who excelled earlier in the season and has gradually tapered off since then. And while he’s one of the few drivers with multiple wins this year, one of them was called early and the other broke a 500-day winless streak. Great personality, great guy, great driver ... but Clint Bowyer is just a little overhyped for his actual results.
Dark horse: Earlier this year, I predicted Chase Elliott would break out in 2018. Back then, he’d finished second almost more times than you could count on two hands, and it was clear this season would be a breaking point for him – either finally win, or risk becoming one of those also-ran drivers whose celebrity outweighs his success.
The reality of the situation was ... a little bit of both. Elliott did finally win his first Cup race, and it was as celebrated as you might imagine for the incoming Most Popular Driver. Other wins didn’t follow, but generally good runs did. It’s the sort of progress and quantifiable growth, not to mention his previous playoff experience, that makes it easy to see how young Elliott could go on a run come October and November. So he’s my dark horse.
Best race: Lots of tempting choices here, from Talladega to Martinsville to the eventual championship at Homestead. But with the current clamoring for NASCAR to revise its schedule, there was one answer that rose above the rest, the Roval race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Truth be told, the “best” race is sort of a subjective thing. While this race might end up being one of the more enjoyable for fans to watch (see: destruction; wrecks; chaos), the one using Charlotte’s oval and an infield road course very well could be the drivers’ least favorite of the entire season. But if this race turns into the wreck-fest most of the industry is expecting, it’ll be must-see TV.
Championship 4: For all the crazy finishes this season, for all the heartwarming stories and first-time winners and dominant victories, ultimately this NASCAR season comes down to naming a champion. Last season, it was Martin Truex Jr. completing his storybook season and winning the first Cup title of his long career, beating Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Brad Keselowski to do so.
This season, it should be ... the exact same foursome. Might seem unlikely, but there was a reason they all made it last year. Truex, Harvick, and Busch are as close to locks as it comes, and Keselowski is arguably the hottest driver in the series today. Pencil him into that fourth spot, with the potential for someone to steal it away at a later date.
Series champion: Being asked to pick one of the Big 3 to win the entire Cup Series title is as difficult a selection as there is.
Kevin Harvick has been the fastest driver week-in and week-out, and he has the most wins of anyone this to date. Kyle Busch has been the most resourceful, winning races by a country mile and a slim margin. Truex took some time before he caught up to last season’s pace, but he was every bit as dangerous from then on as Harvick or Busch. And Keselowski, the winner of two straight, has all the momentum on his side.
But in the end, with the season on the line and 10 laps to go, there’s one driver I want more than any other driving my car. I want a fast car, but I also want one a team with a high-functioning pit crew, the ability to adjust to adversity on the fly, and an absolute non-negotiable drive to win at any cost. Only one driver has been that desperate this year, and in the fight for a title, he’s the one willing to do whatever it takes to win.And that is Kyle Busch.
This week’s NASCAR race at Las Vegas: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400.
Distance: 267 laps, or 400.5 miles.
Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile asphalt tri-oval in Las Vegas, Nevada.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday.
Also this week: DC Solar 300, Xfinity Series, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 5 p.m., Saturday, NBCSN.
Worth mentioning: This is the first fall race for Las Vegas, after it was announced last season that New Hampshire was losing its second date.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Brad Keselowski: A second consecutive win to end the regular season bumps Kez to fourth in the playoff standings and gives him a rush of momentum when he needed it most.
Kyle Busch: With the regular season over, it’s almost like a complete restart for the 16 remaining drivers — and in that chaos, boy is it nice to be first on the leaderboard.
Jimmie Johnson: It’s now been well over a calendar year since his last win, and while he still qualified for the playoffs, 15th place isn’t scaring anyone.
Alex Bowman: He nabbed the last spot in the playoffs in his first full-time Cup season, and while that’s impressive, he also has his work cut out for him if he wants to advance to the second round.