The playoffs are finally here. After a 26-race regular season, NASCAR‘s 10-race, 16-car dash for the Monster Energy Cup series championship promises plenty of drama, a few bruised feelings, and a fair bit of math to determine which 12 drivers will reach the second round.
Though NASCAR dropped the “Chase for the Championship” branding after last season, the format is the same: After three playoff races, four drivers will be eliminated. After three more races, the playoff field will be cut to eight, then going into the finale there will be four drivers still eligible for the title. Winning still supersedes all else — win a race and you’re automatically in the next round, no advanced math needed.
So, which 12 drivers will be left standing after the first three playoff races, beginning with Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) at Chicagoland Speedway?
Here’s a look:
Martin Truex Jr. (2,053 points): Not only does the regular season champion have four wins this season, tying Kyle Larson for the series lead, but he has a whopping 53 playoff points which he gets to carry over into each new stage. Will he advance: Yes.
Kyle Larson (2,033): His 33 playoff points and four victories — including last week at Richmond — make him one of the hottest drivers in the series. His average finish (11.0) is best. His Chip Ganassi Racing team’s success should carry into the playoffs. Will he advance: Yes.
Kyle Busch (2,029): “Rowdy” has six poles this season, tops in the Cup series, and he is second in the series this season in laps led (1,349), stage wins (11), and average starting position (7.6), trailing only Truex in all three categories. Will he advance: Yes.
Brad Keselowski (2,019): The lone Penske driver to make the playoffs has had an inconsistent summer and five consecutive finishes outside the top 10. His 19 playoff points (thanks to four stage wins and two victories) could be a significant factor. Will he advance: Yes.
Jimmie Johnson (2,017): The seven-time and defending series champion has three victories this season, including the June race at Dover, the site of the third playoff race. Another came at Texas, a 1.5-mile track like Chicagoland. Will he advance: Yes.
Kevin Harvick (2,015): The 2014 series champion has won only once this season, but his 11.4 average finish is topped only by Larson. Only Truex (17) has more top-10 finishes than Harvick (16). That is playoff-worthy consistency. Will he advance: Yes.
Denny Hamlin (2,013): One of his two victories this season came in the July race at Loudon, the site of the second playoff race. His Joe Gibbs Racing team advanced three drivers to the playoffs — not even counting Truex, whose Furniture Row team has a technical affiliation. Will he advance: Yes.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2,010): In his fifth full-time season, Stenhouse has set or tied career bests in top-five finishes (four), top-10s (seven), and laps led (50). Plus it would be fun to see him in the second round of the playoffs at Talladega, where he earned his first Cup win in May. Will he advance: Yes.
Ryan Blaney (2,008): In his second full-time season, Blaney joins Stenhouse as a first-time playoff participant. The Wood Brothers team is running the best it has in years and there is no reason for that not to continue. Will he advance: Yes.
Chase Elliott (2,006): He’s still looking for his first career victory, but the Hendrick Motorsports driver is a contender nearly every week and has 14 top-10 finishes in 2017; only five drivers have more. His breakthrough is just around the corner, perhaps even this weekend. Will he advance: Yes.
Ryan Newman (2,005): The Richard Childress Racing driver has quietly put together four consecutive top-10 finishes, and he leads the playoff field in miles completed (9810.58) and laps completed (7,262), according to racing-reference.info data. Will he advance: Yes.
Kurt Busch (2,005): In what will likely be his final season at Stewart Haas, the elder Busch brother kicked off the season in grand style by winning the Daytona 500, but he has only four top-five finishes and 12 laps led since. Will he advance: No.
Kasey Kahne (2,005): His average finish of 20.0 is the worst among the 16 playoff drivers. His four top-10 finishes are the fewest, along with Austin Dillon. His final year at Hendrick Motorsports isn’t going to end in glory. Will he advance: No.
Austin Dillon (2,005): Along with Kahne, he has the fewest top-10 finishes of any playoff driver and has led just 11 laps all season, fewest in the playoff field. A fuel-mileage victory at Charlotte aside, this team just doesn’t look like a title contender. Will he advance: No.
Matt Kenseth (2,005): The veteran, who is still seeking a ride for 2018 after Joe Gibbs Racing announced that it will not retain him, has run well this season at 1.5-mile tracks like Chicagoland. This might not qualify as analytics, but he is due for some good luck, isn’t he? Will he advance: Yes.
Jamie McMurray (2,003): This is a tough call. His 13 top-10 finishes and average run of 13.4 say he should last at least one round in the playoffs. His three playoff points, two top-five finishes (both fewest in the field), and 16 laps led all season say he won’t. Will he advance: No.