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NASCAR Mailbox: How Intense Will the Battle for the Final Playoff Spot Be?

As we approach the end of the regular season for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the playoff picture is tightening up near the bubble with several drivers. It will be a close battle between these drivers until Indianapolis for the final race of the regular season.

The question is, who will make it in and who will be left on the outside looking in? With as close as the playoff bubble is in between the teams from about 15th – 18th, it’s hard to say who is the favorite right now to make it. However, a few drivers in recent weeks might give us signs as to who will make their way into the playoffs come September.

Since we are halfway through the season, there are going to be drivers and teams we all look at as disappointments. As dominant as the big three have been this season with Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, wins have been hard to come by, which has made it difficult for some drivers to have the success we expected them to have coming into the 2018 season.

There have been some pleasant surprises this year as well, but when we think of disappointments, there are a few drivers and teams that come to mind.  

Q: What do you think of the playoff picture with seven races to go in the regular season? Darren K., Rochester, NY

A: This year’s playoff picture seems to be a little different than we’ve seen in years past. We know the three guys with the most playoff points in Truex, Busch and Harvick are all going to have enough points to move on to at least the third round as long as they have nothing drastic happen.

If we take a look at everyone else though, it is actually pretty intriguing. Clint Bowyer leads the way with his 10 Playoff points, and being top 10 overall, he will add to that total at the end of the regular season as long as he stays there. After that, we have Joey Logano with seven, Austin Dillon with five, and Erik Jones with five, the only three drivers who have won a race this year that have not been Harvick, Busch, Truex or Bowyer. Everybody else has four or less playoff points. It’s interesting when we look at it.

Take a look at all the Hendrick drivers inside the top 16 right now which include Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman. None of them have any playoff points right now. That is going to be huge if they make it into the playoffs. They are going to have their work cut out for them the entire way, no matter how far they make it without any of those valuable points.

Speaking of Bowman, he is currently the bubble driver. Only nine points ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is not a comfortable margin at all and not only that, but he is only 23 points ahead of Paul Menard, who quietly has put together a solid season so far. I would be worried if I were Bowman. He has run solid this year for how inconsistent the Chevy teams have been, but when we look at it, the Fords just seem to have more speed on a weekly basis.

I’m going to keep my eye on Menard these last seven races. He has had some pretty bad luck this year with some fast cars. He put together a solid race at Kentucky and came home with a good finish. More of those races and gathering up those stage points and solid finishes and he can find himself in the top 16.

Bowman will need to pick it up if he is going to make it in. He seems to hang around 10th – 15th most races which has put him in the position he’s in. However, he is going to have to start scoring stage points and turning 15th-place cars into seventh to 10th place finishes. He has done a good job of that in past weeks though, especially at Sonoma, Chicago and Daytona.

Stenhouse is someone I do not think will make it in the playoffs but will hang around the bubble until the end of the regular season. Roush Fenway Racing is making progress with its team, but he’s likely to come up short when it is all said and done.

That’s all assuming nobody has a catastrophe like Bowman had at Kentucky, but let’s say someone does like an Elliott or Johnson, then it could get interesting around the bubble with even more drivers.

If I had to predict, I would say Menard will sneak in over Bowman, but it will not be by much at all. With the road course at Watkins Glen coming up too, we may see a wildcard winner. However, based on the last few years with the exception of 2014, we will have one of the top teams win.

No matter what, it will be an interesting battle coming down the stretch for sure.

Q: What driver and team would you say is the biggest disappointment so far this season? Sean P., Houston, TX

A: There have been several drivers and teams that have disappointed me and many others this season.

The first place we have to start is an obvious one. Team Chevy overall. Going into this season, many of us said Chevy would be the strongest manufacturer with the new Camaro ZL1 bodies. 19 races in and they have a total of 1 win, and it was in the season-opening Daytona 500.

If we want to get specific, Hendrick Motorsports is the first team that comes to mind. None of its drivers have won this year, and none have really had that raw, race-winning speed to win like we have seen out of Harvick or Busch. They have had several top-five finishes, but they really did not have the speed to run in the top two and lead some laps.

I know we have mentioned HMS a ton this season but it is difficult to not talk about how disappointing its season has been. Going into the year, they had a new driver lineup, with the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the release of Kasey Kahne. Bringing in Bowman and rookie William Byron was going to be an adjustment for the team, leaving Johnson as the veteran of the team.

Sophomore driver Elliott was due for a huge season in his third full year in the Cup Series. He has been close this year again, but he still has yet to break through and get that first career win. Byron has been improving all season, and Bowman is on the bubble to make the playoffs. Johnson has yet to win and is only three spots to the good on making the postseason. It’s crazy to think when we talk about a seven-time champion.

Chip Ganassi Racing has shown the most promise for Chevrolet as Kyle Larson has the most speed of all of the Chevy teams and has been extremely close this year to winning. His teammate, Jamie McMurray, can also be viewed as a disappointment though. McMurray had arguably one of his most solid seasons in the Cup Series last season, making it to the second round of the playoffs. This season, he sits 21st in the points standings and is probably going to have to win to make it into the championship battle.

Another one I’m going to throw out there is Joe Gibbs Racing outside of Kyle Busch and probably Erik Jones now. Jones broke through with that win at Daytona as we know and has been on a string of four straight top-10 finishes now. Busch has five wins and is an easy championship favorite. But let’s look at the other two drivers from the organization in Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez.

Hamlin has yet to score a win this season and only has two playoff points. I may be jumping the gun a little bit because New Hampshire was where he scored his first win of the season last year, and that’s where the series is headed this weekend, but Hamlin has just not been the driver we are all used to seeing. He has been consistent and sits ninth in the points standings, but he really has not been in contention to win many races at all. With as good as the No. 18 team has been, it’s hard to believe the No. 11 team have not scored that win yet.

Meanwhile, Suarez has had a disappointing sophomore season. He currently sits 20th in the points standings with a best finish of third at Dover. With only four top-10 finishes, the No. 19 team is severely underperforming. I expected big things from this team this year. I do think they will get on a streak of good finishes starting soon, but right now, they just don’t have the speed they need to score a win. His last top-10 finish was that third at Dover in May and since then, it has been a struggle. While he guaranteed that his team will make the playoffs, they have a lot of work to do if they are going to do that. 

The series is only 19 races in, and there is still time for these teams to improve before they get to the playoffs. However, it is going to have to happen very quickly for these teams. Seven races is not that long, and with the way this season has gone, it may be difficult to break through.

 

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About Brandon Hauff

Brandon Hauff
Brandon is a 22-year-old from NY and has been a passionate follower of motorsports for 14 years now. He recently graduated from Molloy College on Long Island with a BA in Communications. Working within NASCAR has been a dream for Brandon for a while, and he hopes to be able to live out the dream in the very near future.

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