By: Isaac Donsky, Columnist
It’s that time of the year. The time when all of the hard work, sweat, and tears accumulated over the first 31 races of the season comes to a boil. The final 10 races of the NASCAR season will determine who raises the coveted Cup Series trophy in ten weeks time. 16 drivers have qualified for the playoffs. They are as follows:
- Kevin Harvick: #4 Busch Beer Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing
- Denny Hamlin: #11 FedEx Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing
- Brad Keselowski: #2 Discount Tire Ford Mustang for Penske Racing
- Joey Logano: #22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford Mustang for Penske Racing
- Chase Elliott: #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro for Hendrick Motorsports
- Martin Truex Jr.: #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing
- Ryan Blaney: #12 Menards Ford Mustang for Penske Racing
- Alex Bowman: #88 Llumar Chevrolet Camaro for Hendrick Motorsports
- William Byron: #24 Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro for Hendrick Motorsports
- Austin Dillon: #3 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet Camaro for Richard Childress Racing
- Cole Custer: #41 Haas Automation Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing
- Aric Almirola: #10 Smithfield Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing
- Clint Bowyer: #14 Rush Truck Centers Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing
- Kyle Busch: #18 M&Ms Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing
- Kurt Busch: #1 Monster Energy Chevrolet Camaro for Chip Ganassi Racing
- Matt DiBenedetto: #21 Menards Ford Mustang for Wood Brothers Racing
All sixteen of these drivers have fought hard all year long to make the postseason, with some waiting until the last moment to do so (Bowyer, DiBenedetto, and Byron all clinched postseason berths in the final race of the regular season). Now, the question emerges as to who will emerge victorious from this royal rumble. I’ve taken the liberty to pick 6 of our contenders who I believe have the best chance of winning the title.
As I mentioned in my last column, Kevin Harvick is driving on another level compared to his competition. With 7 victories on the season, Harvick locked up the regular season championship with 1 race to go, and is most people’s pick for the championship, primarily thanks to his 57 point cushion heading into the first round. On top of that, NASCAR recently changed the location of the championship race from Homestead-Miami Speedway to Phoenix Raceway, which just happens to be Harvick’s best track.
The thorn in Harvick’s side all season, Denny Hamlin has been there to win whenever Harvick hasn’t, scoring 6 victories this year. A championship run would be the crowning achievement for the defending Daytona 500 winner, as he is the winningest active driver without a championship currently in NASCAR. Hamlin has developed a habit of choking in championship races. Back in 2010, he led the points entering the final race at Miami, but an early crash left him second in the final standings. In 2014 and 2019, he entered the final race as a favorite to win the title, but suffered from multiple issues in both races that left him fourth in points both years. If you want to win the title, you have to be perfect.
With three wins on the year, Keselowski has been a solid contender for the title all season, sitting third in points behind Harvick and Hamlin. However, it should be noted that 2 of his wins came from the misfortunes of the next driver, Chase Elliott. Keselowski has been a major title contender almost every year of his career, but he only once hoisted the trophy prior. That was back in 2012. It’s been 8 years since that season, and everyone is wondering when Keselowski will claim his elusive second title.
It wasn’t the best start to the year for Chase Elliott. NASCAR’s most popular driver struggled to finish races, with mental errors and crashes resulting in him losing several races he should have one (although I don’t think Brad Keselowski is complaining, as he won those races). But Elliott managed to turn his season around, scoring two wins and winning $1 million by winning the annual All-Star race.
The 2018 Cup champion started the year off on a hot streak with two wins at Las Vegas and Phoenix respectively. But ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Logano has been a non-factor for much of the year. Don’t count him out though: Logano famously won the 2018 championship by lying in wait during the regular season and pouncing during the playoffs.
Martin Truex Jr.
The 2017 champion may have only scored a single victory this year (which is odd considering Truex is usually a multi-time winner each season), but his consistent finishing in the top-sixth makes him a major threat to win a second title. Entering the playoffs, Truex has finished no worse than fourth in the final eight races of the regular season. Now that’s consistency!
Those are my picks to win the championship. But before you pick the same drivers, remember this: NASCAR’s postseason is so wild and unpredictable that all 6 of these guys could fail to win the championship. After all, they have ten other playoff drivers to worry about, plus the rest of the field every week.
16 drivers. 10 races. 1 trophy. Gentleman, start your engines.