NASCAR playoffs picks, predictions, title odds: Former champs in the running

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are upon us, with the first race in the Round of 16 beginning Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. From there, drivers will race for positioning as the field narrows to 12 on Oct. 1 at Dover, then eight at Kansas on Oct. 22 and eventually the Championship 4 after the Nov. 12 Phoenix race for a shot at Homestead on Nov. 19.

With stage racing now a factor in the NASCAR playoffs, the race for the Cup is poised to be as exciting as ever. The question now is, who will take home the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup? Will Jimmie Johnson get his eighth title or will Martin Truex Jr. continue his dominance en route to his first championship?

Here are our predictions for each round:

Round of 12 (begins at Charlotte, Oct. 8)

ADVANCED

  1. Martin Truex Jr.
  2. Kyle Busch
  3. Kyle Larson
  4. Brad Keselowski
  5. Kevin Harvick
  6. Jimmie Johnson
  7. Denny Hamlin
  8. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
  9. Matt Kenseth
  10. Chase Elliott
  11. Ryan Newman
  12. Kurt Busch

ELIMINATED

  • Ryan Blaney
  • Kasey Kahne
  • Austin Dillon
  • Jamie McMurray

Why: Truex Jr. has been dominant this season in stage racing, which is why he won the regular-season title. His 18 stage wins, four race victories and 53 playoff points should be enough to hold off anyone else for the lead. As for the eliminations, McMurray is one of the three drivers in the playoffs without a win this season (with Elliott and Kenseth) and only has two top-five finishes, which is lowest among playoff contenders. As for Dillon, Blaney and Kahne, they only have three top-five finishes. Dillon and Kahne have zero stage wins while Blaney's three came early in the season and he hasn't looked all that impressive since.

Round of 8 (begins at Martinsville, Oct. 29)

ADVANCED

  1. Martin Truex Jr.
  2. Kyle Busch
  3. Kyle Larson
  4. Jimmie Johnson
  5. Brad Keselowski
  6. Kevin Harvick
  7. Denny Hamlin
  8. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

ELIMINATED

  • Ryan Newman
  • Matt Kenseth
  • Chase Elliott
  • Kurt Busch

Why: We think that given Jimmie Johnson's success at Charlotte (eight wins) he will begin his pursuit of an eighth title, kicking off the Round of 8 with a checkered flag. While Ryan Newman will continue his path of consistency (11 top 10s at the start of the playoffs), he will be bumped when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins his third restrictor plate race of the year, taking the season sweep at Talladega. Elliott should remain winless, while Busch and Kenseth could fall victim to strong competition.

Championship 4 (Final, Homestead, Nov. 19)

ADVANCED

  1. Martin Truex Jr.
  2. Jimmie Johnson
  3. Kevin Harvick
  4. Kyle Busch

ELIMINATED

  • Kyle Larson
  • Brad Keselowski
  • Denny Hamlin
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Why: Historically, this part of the schedule favors Jimmie Johnson, which is why he has been so good at winning championships. He has seven career wins at Texas, nine wins at Martinsville and four at Phoenix. We predict he will win on at least one of the three tracks. Kevin Harvick owns Johnson's worst of the three tracks, Phoenix, and has eight wins there. If Harvick can pull off a win there, he will move on. As for Truex and Busch, we believe Truex's advantage coupled with stage racing dominance will be enough to hold his lead while Busch's championship experience should be enough to just barely edge out Larson, who is only in his second playoff. Keselowski could snag a second straight win at Martinsville, busting our predictions while Hamlin has wins there and Texas in his career as well. 

Champion: Kevin Harvick

Our Championship 4 consists of three former Cup champions with Truex being the only one not to win a title in his career. The No. 78 will not have a points carryover into the final race, which means it'll be a level playing field. Truex could make a run at the title if he dominates the stages, but we're looking at average finish here. The 2014 Cup champion, Harvick, has the best average finish at Homestead among our Championship 4 (6.94). We predict he will win in similar fashion to the way he did in 2014, winning the final race to clinch the title. That being said, it's anyone's game given Johnson won this race last year and Busch won it in 2015 to clinch his championship. In a season filled with uncertainty for Stewart-Haas Racing (the Nos. 41 and 10 cars remain unfilled for next season), Harvick will reward co-owner Tony Stewart with another title.

2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff standings

POSITION

DRIVER

CAR #

POINTS

BEHIND

WINS

1.

Martin Truex Jr.

78

2053

LEADER

4

2.

Kyle Larson

42

2033

-20

4

3.

Kyle Busch

18

2029

-24

2

4.

Brad Keselowski

2

2019

-34

2

5.

Jimmie Johnson

48

2017

-36

3

6.

Kevin Harvick

4

2015

-38

1

7.

Denny Hamlin

11

2013

-40

2

8.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

17

2010

-43

2

9.

Ryan Blaney

21

2008

-45

1

10.

Chase Elliott

24

2006

-47

0

11.

Ryan Newman

31

2005

-48

1

12.

Kurt Busch

41

2005

-48

1

13.

Kasey Kahne

5

2005

-48

1

14.

Austin Dillon

3

2005

-48

1

15.

Matt Kenseth

20

2005

-48

0

16.

Jamie McMurray

1

2003

-50

0

Odds to win the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup

  • Martin Truex Jr. 13/4
  • Kyle Busch 7/2
  • Kyle Larson 9/2
  • Kevin Harvick 8/1
  • Jimmie Johnson 8/1
  • Brad Keselowski 8/1
  • Denny Hamlin 10/1
  • Chase Elliott 16/1
  • Matt Kenseth 25/1
  • Ryan Blaney 33/1
  • Kurt Busch 50/1
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 50/1
  • Jamie McMurray 66/1
  • Ryan Newman 80/1
  • Austin Dillon 80/1
  • Kasey Kahne 100/1
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