The regular season has drawn to a close. With no first-time winners at short-track Richmond Raceway, the field of 16 drivers is set for Chicagoland next Sunday with ten races to crown the 2017 Monster Energy Cup Series champion. Kyle Larson captured his fourth victory of the season on Saturday night after a great final pit-stop and restart that saw regular season points champion Martin Truex Jr. lose out on yet another win after a late-lap caution.
Truex dominated for much of the race and would have cruised to another victory until a lapped car went up into the wall and NASCAR dropped the yellow flag. A wild race saw pole winner Matt Kenseth depart after getting into the back of the No. 14 of Clint Bowyer due to an ambulance obstructing the entry to pit road after a miscommunication causing multiple cars to check up and avoid damage. The No. 20 wasn’t so fortunate, but they are one of three teams locked in on points securing the final positions along with the Jamie McMurray and the No. 1 team and Chase Elliott in the No. 24.
The Richmond race also saw multiple teams that were in contention for a playoff position officially be eliminated after failing to secure a win at the .75 mile track. Dale Earnhardt Jr. secured a top-1o finish and had the speed of a top 5 car, but not enough to run up front with the likes of Truex and Larson. After making a bold strategy call to stay out on old tires, the 88 team was left hoping for a caution to gain track position. That caution didn’t fall for the No. 88 during their window ending their prayer for a win and clinching a spot in The Chase.
Also missing out on the playoffs was the No. 22 team of Joey Logano after his encumbered win at Richmond in April, the team fell off in points and was never able to recover and clinch a birth into the final 16. Logano was the runner-up Saturday night, but didn’t have the car or the speed to win the race and catch Larson or Truex. Rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez finished off the regular season strong in their respective Toyota camps, but didn’t come away with their first win in the top series and couldn’t make it on points trailing the three other teams that ran great all season long.
The field of 16 is set as NASCAR heads to Chicago, New Hampshire and Dover for their round of 16. With the carry over of points accrued from the regular season and four wins in the bank each, Truex and Larson are almost guaranteed a spot in the round of 8 and the No. 78 is just about a lock to be racing for the title at Homestead as long as he runs similarly to what he has done all season starting with 2,053 points after a 15 point bonus for being the regular season points champion.
Now, time for my prediction for how it will all shake out during this ten race dash for a title.
Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney all bow out after the first round. Let’s be honest, Kahne and Dillon wouldn’t have been in on points without a little luck falling their way in their respective wins at Indy and Charlotte. They haven’t been running as well or consistently as their competitors and that lack of running up front will see their championship hopes dashed in round one. Ryan Blaney scored a win at Pocono, but has been too up and down this season to secure a spot in the Round of 12. I could easily see a DNF haltering any shot he has of advancing even entering with an advantage over those who made it in on points alone coming in with a win and a few stage wins. Laslty, I have McMurray bowing out early over the others because although he started great, the No. 1 has been shaky in recent weeks and hasn’t followed up on his hot start. The No. 1 also doesn’t have a win and comes in ranked as the lowest driver in The Chase on points.
Next up is the Round of 12 where the remaining drivers will fight to secure a position in NASCAR’s “elite eight” at Charlotte, Talladega and Kansas. I had Ryan Newman advancing due to his success at NHMS, but he will not advance into the Round of 8. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won at Talladega the first time drivers raced there this season and also scored a restrictor plate race win at Daytona in July, but third time wont be the charm for the Roush Fenway driver. Although the No. 17 may run up front at ‘Dega, Stenhouse won’t score a good enough finish at Charlotte or Kansas to advance. Kurt Busch won at Daytona and has really turned it on of late, but the No. 41 won’t make it into the final 8. The 2004 series champion had his worst average finish in years and Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t pick up his option next year for a reason, he will be eliminated in the Round of 12. The last one is difficult for me, because I can see Matt Kenseth scoring a victory at Kansas or at least running well enough to advance. I think a surprise elimination will be in store this round after a Talladega wreck. I’m going to go ahead and say that driver eliminated is championship contender Brad Keselowski. While he always runs well at Talladega, I can see a DNF and more Team Penske struggles send the No. 2 team out early.
Then there’s the Round of 8. The best of the best battle it out to secure a spot at Homestead. With Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix on the schedule I can assure you of one thing, Jimmie Johnson will be “chasing 8” in Miami come November. The seven-time champ loves this round and always flashes during the playoffs after summer scuffles. Johnson will win at least one of these tracks, I wouldn’t be surprised if he took two out of three at Texas and at Martinsville. That leaves two spots open for the championship, because as I’ve said, Truex will be penciled in with how lethal that 78 team has been all season. Truex is the king of the 1.5 mile track and with Texas in the round, if he doesn’t win, he will score a top three finish. Two spots remain.
Chase Elliott made it this far on points, but unless he can break through for his first career win at Martinsville like the 24 has so many times, he will be no match for the veterans of the series. Matt Kenseth also made it in on points and while I expect him to win this season during the playoffs, it won’t be at these three tracks and he won’t punch his ticket to the championship. However, the veteran Kenseth will impress enough to land a full-time ride in 2018 if he so chooses to continue racing. These final four are tough to pick from as any can win and advance to run for a title at Homestead. That being said, the inexperience of Larson in pressure packed races will do-him-in as he will be eliminated from title contention after coming up short at Phoenix. Kevin Harvick will once again be in a must-win position at Phoenix due to his struggles during his career at Martinsville. If he doesn’t get it done, I have Kyle Busch securing the final spot for Miami because Denny Hamlin will score a victory during the round of eight either at his favorite track in his home state of Virginia in Martinsville or at the one mile short track at Phoenix.
The Championship Four. Two drivers, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, looking for their first championship despite collecting many race wins during their storied careers. 2015 series champion Kyle Busch was one of the most dominant drivers all season outside of the 78 and despite only securing two wins during the regular season, he was one of the most consistently dominant cars and had a chance to win at least eight races. Last up is defending champion and Mr. Seven-Time Jimmie Johnson. How can you count this guy out? The answer is you can’t especially with the legacy of being the only driver to ever capture eight titles on the line.
Three of the four have scored wins at Homestead, with Hamlin doing so twice and Johnson and Busch both securing a win and championship over the last two years. That leaves the dominant car all season in the 78 as the lone car without a win at the track. We’ve seen Truex win 17 stages this year and as good as he’s been, only win four times. That lack of execution late in races as well as terrible luck will cost the veteran again as it will likely come down to one late restart. One restart, take your pick between the 18, 11 and 48. That is the craziness that comes with a one-race championship. One race, one driver, I’m taking the guy that has done it the most of all-time and the driver that is the coolest, calmest and most collected when the lights shine the brightest. Jimmie Johnson is my pick to win it all again, but you can make a case for either one of the four in the final race. Total team effort, and I’ll take the Lowes 48 team and Chad Knaus pitted agaisnt the field.
Strap yourselves in, it’s going to be one heck of a ride to Homestead and a thrilling conclusion to what has been a fantastic year of racing for NASCAR.
Follow Frank Pimentel on Twitter: @FrankBostonTank