With NASCAR playoffs set, 4 favorites to race for title


By Brendan Marks - The Charlotte Observer



Finally, the initial questions and wondering are through. The 16 drivers who will compete for the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series championship have been decided.

At Richmond, Va., on Saturday, there was one final win-and-you’re-in slot up for grabs, with drivers such as Erik Jones, Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. looking to squeak into the playoffs.

Instead, Kyle Larson — who had already won three races this season — won again, snuffing out any last-minute hopes for bubble drivers. Austin Dillon, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray took the last three playoff spots by virtue of points.

So it’s time to move on from, “Who’s making the playoffs?” to “Who can win the playoffs?”’

Seemingly, that would be a much easier question to answer, but predictions on paper often differ drastically from reality. Look no further than last season, when playoff favorite Martin Truex Jr. failed to make the final eight and Jimmie Johnson surged from behind to win his record-tying seventh Cup Series trophy.

Maybe we can’t say who will win the last race of the season at Homestead, but we can say who should make it into the sport’s final four of title-eligible drivers.

Truex, who bowed out early in last season’s playoffs, has been too good too often this season to not rank among the favorites. The same can be said of Larson, who won four races and finished second six times.

The last two spots are more wild-card picks. For one of them, check out Denny Hamlin. His win at Darlington two weeks ago was encumbered, but he’s still got 11 top-5 finishes this season, tied for the most of any driver.

It would be easy to pick Johnson or Kyle Busch for the fourth spot at Homestead, but instead let’s go with Kevin Harvick. He only won once this season, but he has finished in the top 10 16 times, tied for second-most of all drivers. Plus, he has a championship pedigree, having won the Cup Series title in 2014.

Again, there’s a chance Johnson storms from behind again and wins his record eighth championship. There’s a chance a dark horse, like Chase Elliott, hangs around until the end.

But based on the way the season has gone to this point, those four drivers — Truex, Larson, Hamlin and Harvick — have as good a chance as any to race for a championship at Homestead.

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By Brendan Marks

The Charlotte Observer