NASCAR Playoffs predictions: Who will be the last driver into the Championship 4?
See who we have tabbed as the final driver into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series finale
Three drivers -- Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick -- have clinched spots in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Championship 4. The final driver will be decided this weekend when the series heads to Phoenix for the cutoff race in the Round of 8.
The rules are simple: win and you're in. Brad Keselowski is currently the fourth driver into the title race and could clinch if a non-playoff driver wins Sunday, but that has yet to happen this season. Behind him are Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson (7 titles) and Keselowski (1 title) are former champions looking to add to their already impressive resume. As for Blaney and Elliott, they're looking to shake their reputations as the future of NASCAR and make their marks now. That being said, here's the case for each of these drivers to make it to Homestead.
The 2012 champ has never won at Phoenix, but doesn't necessarily need to in order to win. Keselowski will enter Sunday's cutoff race 19 points ahead of fifth-place Hamlin. That means if the No. 2 team can run well in both stages, finish in the top 10 and get some help with a non-playoff winner, they'd move on to the Championship 4.
After finishing in the top five at both Round of 8 contests,into Phoenix. Keselowski has run decently at the track over the course of his career. In 16 races, he owns four top fives, eight top 10s and an average finish of 14.00.
, you can argue that Hamlin has all the momentum in the world. In that Martinsville race, the No. 11 team almost punched its ticket to Homestead before wrecking in the final laps. One week later at Texas, Hamlin finished third and led 65 laps.
To clinch on merit alone, Hamlin would need a miserable showing from Keselowski and would also need to outshine the other drivers. Unlike Keselowski, Hamlin does have a win at Phoenix back in 2012 but has never won a championship. After 31 career wins and a Daytona 500 triumph, you'd imagine Hamlin is itching to add that first career title to his resume.
In addition to the win at Phoenix, Hamlin has 10 top fives, 14 top 10s and an average finish of 10.83 in 24 starts. Expect him to rely on help from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch,, on Sunday.
The 23-year-old has held his own in his first career NASCAR Playoffs,. While it seemed that the No. 21 team fizzled out before the start of the playoffs, they seemed to have found their stride lately. Blaney has two straight top 10s in the Round of 8 and will most likely need a win to clinch his first Championship 4.
In three career starts at the track, Blaney has been up and down. He finished 23rd there in March, however had two straight top 10s in 2016. Blaney has yet to lead a lap at Phoenix but only needs to lead one to win.
Nicknamed "The People's Champion" after being wrecked by Hamlin, Elliott has been on the cusp of his first win so many times. The No. 24 driver has three second-place finishes in the playoffs and was well onto his way to winning the race, or at least charging up the points before the heartbreaking 27th-place finish two weeks ago.
the following week despite failing to run a qualifying lap. His team has battled adversity all season, making that first career win -- when it comes -- sure to be a special one.
As far as Phoenix goes, Elliott has run well there as well. In three career starts he has an average finish of 9.67, which is higher than Keselowski, Blaney and Hamlin. While getting ready to make the move to his father Bill Elliott's famous No. 9 next season, you best believe Elliott wants to pass the Jeff Gordon No. 24 legacy over to William Byron with a championship in hand.
It's hard to believe the seven-time NASCAR champion hasn't won a raceand even more surprising that he hasn't yet clinched a shot at defending his 2016 title. That being said, Johnson has a knack for surprising people in the playoffs.
The No. 48 had a miserable go of things at Texas, finishing 27th multiple laps down. Johnson will enter the cutoff race last in the points in an absolute must-win situation. Luckily for his team, they've got it done there before.
In 28 career starts at Phoenix, Johnson has made four trips to Victory Lane with the last one coming in 2009. Johnson's 8.96 average finish is the highest among his competitors. If he wants to earn that record-breaking eighth Cup Series championship, he will have to have his best start of the season Sunday.
Prediction: Chase Elliott advances
Sports have a unique way of creating storylines and this entire NASCAR season has been building up to the 21-year-old Elliott's first career win. From heartbreaking runner-up finishes, to getting wrecked in the final laps, Elliott has seen more action in his second full-time season than most drivers would see in a career.
His composure after the Martinsville defeat and resiliency to go out at Texas and place inside the top 10 is proof that Elliott has what it takes to win a championship. The stakes and the temperature at Phoenix will certainly be high Sunday, but we believe Elliott will get it done in the spotlight.
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