NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch 5: Ranking the Cup Title Favorites

For maybe the first time in 2019, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title picture is beginning to come into focus. Several drivers had hot streaks throughout the season, but with just three races remaining, the best have slowly but surely emerged. Of the eight drivers left, who’s the most likely to win the title? There’s a lot to take into account to answer that: recent performance, past performance at the remaining tracks plus the intangibles like momentum and mindset. Even this close to the final race, everything can change in an instant, and momentum can swing. But right now, here’s how it’s shaking out.

1. Martin Truex Jr.

2019 wins: 7

Top 5:14

Top 10: 20

Average Finish: 10.2

Truex leads all Cup drivers easily with seven wins. He falls just short of his teammates in top fives and 10s as well as average finish, but has a 20-point advantage over second-place Denny Hamlin after Martinsville Speedway. Some wondered if he’d play second or even third fiddle at Joe Gibbs Racing this season, but that hasn’t been the case. Truex has been formidable at just about every type of track the series visits, too.

But the reason he’s the top pick right now isn’t just the momentum he carries with his win at Martinsville or even the ticket to Homestead-Miami Speedway it gives him. Truex is the favorite because nothing gets to him. His mindset is reminiscent of Terry Labonte, a driver nicknamed “The Iceman” for his cool, unflappable demeanor. Truex doesn’t get into postrace scuffles with other drivers or snipe at media after an undesirable performance. He’s not his own worst enemy, and he hasn’t made any other enemies, either. This is an intangible compared to the numbers, but it’s no small detail.

His numbers at Texas Motor Speedway and ISM Raceway aren’t stellar, but that doesn’t matter for anything except for maintaining momentum and morale. He’s strong at Homestead, and that’s where he’ll have to shine. So where’s the weakness? He has two teammates in equipment just as good as his. Any loss of momentum could swing the pendulum the other way.

2. Denny Hamlin

2019 wins: 5

Top 5: 18

Top 10: 22

Average Finish: 9.2

Hamlin is in the middle of a standout year at 38. With five wins, he’s a little short of his 2010 run, when he finished the year a career-best second in points.  But he’s already set a career-high in top fives and one more top 10 will give him a career-best in that category as well.

More importantly, he has not faltered. His greatest pressure comes mostly from his own teammates, and he’s matched them every step of the way this year.  He kicked it off with a win in the Daytona 500, but he’s backed that up with four more victories, including two weeks ago at Kansas Speedway. He followed that up with a top five at Martinsville, and he has wins at all three remaining tracks on the schedule, including two at Homestead.

Hamlin’s weakness? Himself. He couldn’t close the deal in 2010 despite entering Homestead with a 15-point advantage. He finished 14th 0in the final race, losing the title to Jimmie Johnson by 39 markers. He’s only had one shot at the title since, making the Championship 4 in 2014 and finishing third.  He’s the only driver currently in the top four without a title. His wins already put Hamlin in Hall of Fame territory, but can he close when the heat is really on? That remains to be seen after 14 seasons.

3. Kyle Busch

2019 wins: 4

Top 5: 15

Top 10: 24

Average Finish: 9.5

After a torrid early season, Busch was on pace for a 30 top-10 season, a feat not easily attained in any era of the sport. He could still easily score a whopping 27 in that stat line, and he’s won almost everywhere the Cup Series goes, with the lone exception of the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. He’s capable of winning anytime, anywhere, and a look at the standings shows just what kind of equipment he’s getting. The 2015 champion is a formidable competitor always and has set the gold standard in the Cup Series for the last five years with no less than four wins in a season in that span. He led the points as recently as a week ago after Kansas.

But. He’s third on this list because he’s been in a slow downward spiral since summer. In the playoffs, for every top-10 run, there’s been one of 19th or worse. Busch has struggled with the aerodynamic package this year, and those struggles have seemingly increased as other teams have improved. He’s had to rely more heavily on playoff points to move through the rounds than his teammates, and with a 17-point advantage with two races to go, he can’t afford a really bad day.

One other thing: Martinsville. Frustrated with being rooted out of the way first by Hamlin’s faster car and then Aric Almirola, Busch took those frustrations out on Almirola, putting him into the wall and ending his day. Almirola has nothing to lose, and he vowed publicly to make the next three weeks difficult on Busch. That doesn’t mean he’s going to go out and wreck Busch the first chance he gets, but he can become a thorn in the side of the No. 18 at a time when that can mean a title or not.

Busch could very, very easily win Sunday in Texas and back that up with a great run at Phoenix and a title the week after that. But he could just as easily let it slip away, most likely to one of his teammates, and that’s not characteristic for a driver who doesn’t make many mistakes. He seems to be in his own head right now, and that could well be his downfall.

4. Kevin Harvick

2019 wins: 3

Top 5: 12

Top 10: 23

Average Finish: 10.6

Yes, Harvick is currently 14 points below the cut line. Yes, Joey Logano has the points advantage now. But Harvick has the best overall numbers at Texas of all the veteran contenders (Chase Elliott has the best average but considerably fewer races to prove himself in). And he’s an absolute beast at Phoenix, with more wins there than any driver in NASCAR history by a lot.

Overall, despite his current points deficit to Logano, Harvick has had a stronger season overall and easily a stronger playoff run. He’s a better pick to win at Texas or Phoenix, which could put either Logano or Busch out in the cold in two weeks.

The problem? The cut line. Right now, Harvick’s on the wrong side of it, and all Busch and Logano have to do is run with him to keep him there. That might be difficult, but it’s certainly doable, and then this conversation is out the window.

5. Joey Logano

2019 wins: 2

Top 5: 10

Top 10: 18

Average Finish: 11.8

Logano gets a little bump down here mainly because, despite his aggressive style and the fact that he’s been running at the end of every race this year, he had a much better first half than second. He has just two top 10s in the playoffs and no finish better than eighth in that stretch. He is currently in fourth place with a 14-point cushion over Harvick, but Harvick has been stronger at Texas historically and he’s on his own planet in Phoenix.

Logano’s advantage is his aggressive driving style and willingness to do what it takes to get a good finish. That doesn’t make him many friends, though, and he won’t get help from anyone other than maybe teammates Brad Keselowski and Paul Menard.

If Logano can run with Harvick the next two weeks, he can keep that point advantage and earn a chance to repeat as champion.  By comparison to the other title favorites, he’s not quite the threat he was last year. But last year still took a little luck at Homestead, so he’s still on the game.

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