Previewing the 2019 NASCAR Playoffs

Here is a preview of the drivers and teams who have made the 2019 NASCAR playoffs and have a chance at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

The field for the 2019 NASCAR Playoffs have been set. A total of 16 drivers will battle it out over the course of ten races until one is crowned champion at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Here are the 16-driver previews for the 2018 NASCAR Playoffs and a prediction of where they will finish.

Kyle Busch seems to be the favorite for the NASCAR Championship. (World Copyright: Nigel Kinrade, NKP)

Kyle Busch

Playoff points: 45
2018 standings: 4
Career best finish: 1 (2016)

Entering the NASCAR Playoffs, not only is Kyle Busch the leader of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas but is the leader among all drivers. He has scored the most top-10 finishes of all drivers, 21, tied for second with the most top-5 finishes, 13, and has led the the most laps, 1,166.

Busch has had a superb regular season. Now come the NASCAR playoffs where he will likely have to fend off teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. for his second title.

Prediction: Busch wins the 2019 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series Championship. (This stays in line with my prediction from before the season.)

Is this the year Denny Hamlin wins it all? (World Copyright: Gavin Baker NKP)

Denny Hamlin

Playoff points: 30
2018 standings: 11
Career best finish: 2 (2010)

Is this the year Denny Hamlin finally wins the championship? Entering the NASCAR playoffs as the second best driver, on the best team in NASCAR right now, gives Hamlin more than a fighting chance.

He has four wins this season, tied for the series-high with teammates Busch and Truex Jr. Those wins have come on four completely different tracks. That means something, given the fact that all different styles of tracks are represented in the NASCAR playoffs.

Prediction: Hamlin reaches the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Martin Truex Jr. enters the NASCAR Playoffs a little bit under the radar. (World Copyright: John Harrelson, NKP)

Martin Truex Jr.

Playoff points: 29
2018 standings: 2
Career best finish: 1 (2017)

Martin Truex Jr.’s first year with Joe Gibbs Racing has been pretty successful. Four wins, third in the points entering the NASCAR Playoffs and the fourth best average finish. Some of that might have been expected, given Truex Jr.’s performance with Furniture Row Racing.

What wouldn’t be expected for Truex Jr. this season would be going winless since June at Sonoma Raceway, the sight of his last victory this season, after such a strong start to the season. It should be noted though, that Busch hasn’t won sine the June race at Pocono Raceway.

Prediction: Martin Truex Jr. reaches the Round of 8 but comes up one position shy of the Championship 4.

Can Harvick score his second championship? (World Copyright: Logan Whitton, NKP)

Kevin Harvick

Playoff points: 28
2018 standings: 3
Career best finish: 1 (2014)

Kevin Harvick will be the top driver to watch from Stewart-Haas Racing in the NASCAR Playoffs. Entering the playoffs he has the most poles, 5, and is tied for the second most top-10 finishes of all playoff drivers. Not to mention he has won three of the last seven races.

Heading into the playoffs, Harvick and his team have some momentum but he wouldn’t say those those wins have helped send a message to the rest of the field.

“I don’t think (the Indianapolis) race sends a message to anybody other than we are doing a good job over the last few months,” said Harvick in his pre-race team release.

“On the days when we have cars that are capable of winning, we’ve been getting good finishes out of them and been to victory lane a few times over the last three months.”

Prediction: Harvick reaches the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Joey Logano has his sights set on back-to-back championships. (World Copyright: John Harrelson, NKP)

Joey Logano

Playoff points: 28
2018 standings: 1
Career best finish: 1 (2018)

If it is possible for the defending champion to enter the NASCAR playoffs under the radar, then that is exactly what Joey Logano is doing. He has quietly amassed the fifth most playoff points and is tied for the second most top-5 finishes, 10, of all drivers.

Logano’s last win is all the way back at Michigan in June. However, entering last year’s playoffs after missing out completely in 2017, Logano was an afterthought and not on many radars.

Prediction: The defending champion returns to the Round of 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Will Brad Keselowski emerge as the top Ford driver? (World Copyright: Matthew Thackler, NKP)

Brad Keselowski

Playoff points: 24
2018 standings: 8
Career best finish:  1 (2012)

The summer wasn’t all that kind to Brad Keselowski with finishes up and down the leaderboard. He has led the second most laps of all drivers, but 466 of those happened at Martinsville. Similar to his teammate Logano, Keselowski last win came earlier this season in the 12th race at Kansas Speedway.

A potential dark horse contender, Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe are no stranger to the NASCAR playoffs. The No. 2 Team Penske Ford usually finds a way to advance and find themselves in position to win due to crafty strategy.

Prediction: Keselowski reaches the Round of 8 but comes up shy of the Round of 4.

Chase Elliott represents Hendrick Motorsports best chance at a title. (World Copyright: Logan Whitton, NKP)

Chase Elliott

Playoff points: 18
2018 standings: 6
Career best finish: 5 (2017)

Chase Elliott picked up two more wins during the regular season this year, with the most recent one coming at Watkins Glen where he won for a second straight year. However, the momentum and buzz around this team seem low in comparison to this time in 2018.

Hendrick Motorsports as a whole is improved compared to last year with two of their four drivers winning during the regular season. It should be noted though that seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is the only HMS driver missing from the NASCAR playoffs this year.

Elliott scored two wins during the playoffs last year when many thought it would be the Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing show. Elliott can steal a win and if he does, he could advance further than predicted.

Prediction: Elliott reaches the Round of 12 and is first driver to miss the Round of 8.

Kurt Busch, in his first year with Chip Ganassi Racing, is in the NASCAR Playoffs. (World Copyright: Rusty Jarrett, NKP)

Kurt Busch

Playoff points: 11
2018 standings: 7
Career best finish: 1 (2004)

What a difference a year makes for this Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevrolet. A year ago with Jamie McMurray this team was on the outside looking in at the NASCAR Playoffs. Now with Kurt Busch behind the wheel, they have one victory already under the belt and serious thoughts about advancing deep in the playoffs.

Busch has continued to impress and showcase his driving ability this year and that should stay the same in the playoffs. Despite scoring just five top-5 finishes during the regular season, Busch has positioned himself within the top-half of the playoff field and should continue to challenge those drivers in the final ten races.

Prediction: Busch reaches the Round of 8 but comes up short of the final round.

Alex Bowman hopes to make more noise in the playoffs this year. (World Copyright: Matthew Thackler, NKP)

Alex Bowman

Playoff points: 5
2018 standings: 16
Career best finish: 16 (2018)

Alex Bowman scored his first NASCAR Cup Series win in 2019 at Chicagoland Speedway and that earned him a spot in the NASCAR Playoffs. Bowman would have made the playoffs on points alone but that victory sealed the deal that Bowman behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet is the read deal.

This will be the second year in a row for Bowman in the playoffs and the expectations might be higher than last year. But, given the performance of the other cars Bowman will have to compete with, it doesn’t look like those expectations will be met.

Prediction: Bowman doesn’t make it past the Round of 16.

Erik Jones is hoping to be a dark horse contender. (World Copyright: NKP)

Erik Jones

Playoff points: 5
2018 standings: 15
Career best finish: 15 (2018)

Similar to Bowman, Erik Jones was going to make the NASCAR playoffs with our without a win. The win at Darlington Raceway though, proved that Jones belongs behind the wheel of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry. At least, for another season or two.

Jones shouldn’t be expected to contend for the championship finale like all three of his JGR teammates. But since he is driving the same equipment, those comparisons will be there.

Prediction: Jones reaches the Round of 12 but doesn’t have enough consistency to make the Round of 8.

Will Kyle Larson have better luck in the NASCAR Playoffs this year? (World Copyright: Russell LaBounty, NKP)

Kyle Larson

Playoff points: 5
2018 standings: 9
Career best finish: 8 (2017)

Probably the biggest enigma of all the NASCAR playoff drivers is Kyle Larson. When Larson is good, he is really good. When Larson is bad, it’s bad. Take teammate Kurt Busch for example. Larson has one more top-5 finish and only two top-10 finishes less but a 3.4 difference in average finish.

We all know if Larson makes it to the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway he will be the favorite to win it all. It should be noted that next season the finale will be at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

So if Larson can scratch and claw his way to the season finale with a chance, this might be his best opportunity to win it all.

Prediction: Larson reaches the Round of 12 but misses out on the final spot in the Round of 8.

Ryan Blaney looks to make noise in the NASCAR Playoffs this year. (World Copyright: Nigel Kinrade, NKP)

Ryan Blaney

Playoff points: 4
2018 standings: 10
Career best finish: 9 (2017)

The 2019 regular season for Ryan Blaney didn’t produce the win many were hoping for. He finished the regular season with the ninth most top-5 finishes but enters the standings buried down in 12th. That is kind of how the season has played out for this team.

Blaney has been competitive in many races this season but the knock has been the ability to close out a race with a win. The NASCAR Playoffs provides a chance at a few different race tracks for the No. 12 to capitalize on and find victory lane.

Blaney has been the third best Team Penske Ford for most of the season and with all the other drivers bringing their best stuff to the final ten races, Blaney’s chances of reaching the finale are a little slim.

Prediction: Blaney reaches the Round of 8 but is overmatched.

Could William Byron surprise? (World Copyright: Matthew Thackler, NKP)

William Byron

Playoff point: 1
2018 standings: 23
Career best finish: 23 (2018)

When the summer months hit, William Byron began to get on a roll. Crew chief Chad Knaus ensured Byron was in position to rack up as many stage points as possible during the past few months. That ultimately contributed to Byron’s first NASCAR Playoffs appearance.

The expectations for many will be for Byron to have an early round exit while others believe Knaus will be able to carry over the strategy from the regular season to prolong their championship chances.

There’s no doubting this team’s ability to compete but with all the NASCAR Playoff drivers expected to step it up a notch now, it seems this team will be overmatched too quickly.

Prediction: Byron doesn’t make it past the Round of 16.

Can Aric Almirola perform as well as last season? (World Copyright: John Harrelson, NKP)

Aric Almirola

Playoff point: 1
2018 standings: 8
Career best finish: 5 (2018)

Compared to a year ago, Aric Almirola is entering the NASCAR Playoffs a little bit under the radar. The regular season has been OK for Almriola and he is tied for the fewest top-5 finishes of the playoff drivers. The other driver is Ryan Newman.

Despite all of that, Almriola is prepared for the intensity to ramp up over the course of the next 10 races.

“It’s really intense. Everyone takes their level of competition and ratchets it up a notch,” said Almriola in his pre-race team release.

“It seems like everybody gets that much better. You have to be perfect in every aspect. You have to be perfect in practice, qualifying, pit stops and your focus has to ramp up. If it’s not perfect, you have to be ready to recover.”

Almirola will be one of three Stewart-Haas Racing Fords in the NASCAR playoffs but he has consistently been the third best SHR Ford amongst his teammates.

Prediction: Almirola doesn’t make it past the Round of 16.

Clint Bowyer is a sneaky pick to make some noise in the NASCAR Playoffs. (World Copyright: Rusty Jarrett, NKP)

Clint Bowyer

Playoff points: 0
2018 standings: 12
Career best finish: 2 (2012)

Clint Bowyer enters the playoffs knowing that he and his team can do more. Bowyer is the last of the Stewart-Haas Racing cars to make the field. Compared to last year when all four cars made the playoffs and all but Bowyer made the Round of 8.

“It was super close to getting all four in,” Bowyer said in his pre-race team release. “We have to keep building, man. We are working hard and digging and trying to get better.

“We are by no means the fastest group right now and we know that but we looked pretty damn fast at Indy. Aric has had a great season and Daniel just barely missed.”

Prediction: Bowyer does just enough to reach the Round of 12 but that’s it.

Ryan Newman earned the final spot in the NASCAR Playoffs. (World Copyright: Matthew Thackler, NKP)

Ryan Newman

Playoff points: 0
2018 standings: 17
Career best finish: 2 (2014)

Ryan Newman did it again. Somehow, someway, he pointed himself into the NASCAR Playoffs. Considering where this team was a year ago, Newman has accomplished the best case scenario for this team.

Now, how far can he go? I don’t view this season as a year where he will be able to make it all the way the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a chance to win the championship. I don’t see Newman making it out of the first round.

However, if he stays out of trouble, which he is known to do, he could watch other drivers make mistakes and escape a first round exit.

Prediction: Newman doesn’t make it past the Round of 16.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattlovisa.