It took a day later than scheduled because of weather, but the 16-driver field for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs has been set.
The stock-car postseason opens Sunday in Las Vegas, whittling the contenders over a 10-week period until just four remain for the finale Nov. 18 outside Miami. The highest finisher in that last race gets a big silver trophy and an even bigger check.
This has been a season dominated by three drivers — Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., who between them won 17 of the 26 regular-season events.
The year has been so top-heavy, just five of the 16 playoff drivers feature money line championship odds in triple digits, with everyone else seen as a substantial underdog despite the points being reset for Sunday’s opener.
Translation for NASCAR betting fans? Expect more domination from the handful of drivers who have dominated the season thus far. With that in mind, here are five best bets as the NASCAR postseason revs into gear.
Talk about peaking at the right time: The 2012 series champion claimed the final two races of the regular season, and at a pair of iconic venues where typically only the best win.
Darlington and Indianapolis are two of the most technically taxing layouts on the circuit, because of their corners — the latter narrow and irregular, the former sharp and flat. You win at those places, you’ve earned it.
To take them back-to-back speaks volumes about where Penske’s No. 2 team is in terms of performance. Keselowski also finished sixth or better in spring races at the first three playoff tracks, putting him in strong position to advance out of the opening stage.
Busch has been a model of consistency all season. He’s ripped off not just six victories, but 21 top-10 finishes in the opening 26 races, tying him with Kevin Harvick for most in the series.
Since early May, the 2015 series champion has finished outside of the top 10 just twice. Of the nine playoff tracks the series will visit for a second time, Busch has three victories and two runner-up finishes.
The No. 18 team will have a trove of proven notes to turn to almost every week in the postseason, and a driver who’s hard to beat in a one-race, winner-take-all scenario. Of the heavy favorites, it’s easy to like Busch the most.
Harvick led the series in victories with seven and compiled a ridiculous 19 top-five finishes in the opening 26 events. Harvick has also led more laps than any other driver, and won earlier this year on four track’s he’ll see again in the playoff.
There are absolutely no weaknesses here, and that extends to the pit box, where crew chief Rodney Childers is among the best in the business. Harvick, the 2014 champion, has the kind of mentality that suits an elimination format where everything comes down to one race.
If there’s a nitpick, it’s that the No. 4 team might have hit its peak in the spring, when Harvick won five times in 11 weeks. But given his steady performance, it remains easy to see why oddsmakers like Harvick as the favorite.
The reigning champion won four times in the regular season to put himself in the conversation to repeat.
But the No. 78 team was rocked by the news that it will shut down at the end of the season, meaning this outfit will be racing for a championship while crewmembers are trying to line up jobs for 2019.
At the same time, performance slipped late in the regular season — over the last six races, Truex’s average finish has been 21st. He’s also suffered five DNFs, the most recent due to brake failure at Indy, the highest number among the trio of leading title contenders.
It was amazing that this off-the-grid entity based in Denver could win one title to begin with. Winning another, before it closes its doors for good, would be astounding.
Other than those first four drivers and steady but winless Kyle Larson (+700), every other driver in the field is a longshot. The most interesting flier is Hamlin, the best Cup Series driver without a title, who’s run much better than his 13th-place position in the standings would attest.
The No. 11 car has speed — it’s started inside the top 10 for seven straight weeks, winning three poles in that span. His third-place finish at Indianapolis marked his 14th top-10, equaling Keselowski.
A midsummer slump featuring a pair of crashes kept Hamlin down in the points, but he has a fast car and a lot of playoff experience. And at +2000, why not?
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