The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs begin at Darlington Raceway on Sunday as 16 drivers are set to compete for a championship. There are four rounds in the sport's postseason as the field narrows from 16 to 12 to 8 and eventually the Championship 4.
The first three races at Darlington, Richmond and Bristol make up the Round of 16 followed by the Round of 12 taking place at Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. Kansas, Texas and Martinsville will host the Round of 8 with the championship race taking place at Phoenix.
Eligible drivers can advance to the next round by winning a race or accumulating enough points to stay above the cutoff line. A win at Phoenix by a Championship 4 driver would clinch the title as well. The title race had previously been held at Homestead, where the past six race winners have also claimed the Bill France Cup.
Here's a look at the playoff field and points situation entering the Round of 16. Note, Ryan Blaney was originally 7th, but has fallen to 14th in the points after being penalized for an improperly mounted ballast in pre-race inspection at Darlington. His crew chief, Todd Gordon, was ejected for the playoff opener and Blaney, originally slated to start 7th, will move to the rear.
- Kevin Harvick, 2057
- Denny Hamlin, 2047
- Brad Keselowski, 2029
- Joey Logano, 2022
- Chase Elliott, 2020
- Martin Truex Jr, 2014
- Alex Bowman, 2009
- William Byron, 2007
- Austin Dillon, 2005
- Cole Custer 2005
- Aric Almirola, 2005
- Clint Bowyer, 2004
- Kyle Busch, 2003
- Ryan Blaney, 2003
- Kurt Busch, 2001
- Matt DiBenedetto, 2000
One driver not in the playoffs is Jimmie Johnson, who did not qualify for a chance to win a record-eighth title in his final season. However, he can still race for a win before retiring. While Johnson's quest for win No. 84 is a non-playoff storyline, here's what to follow in this year's playoffs.
Can anyone challenge Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin?
These two drivers have stood out against the rest as the best in the field this season. Harvick, the regular season champion seeking his second championship, leads the series with seven race wins and a whopping 57 playoff points. Those playoff points will carry over through each round and likely punch his ticket to Phoenix assuming he doesn't finish last in every race.
"To have it all come together like it has says a lot already about our organization and the things we've been able to accomplish in extreme circumstances," Harvick said. "Winning a championship in this particular year would say a lot about the people, but being able to be competitive week in and week out and win races says a lot about the people already."
Hamlin, who is right behind Harvick with six regular season wins and 47 playoff points, appears destined for Phoenix as well. Hamlin is still searching for his first championship. He made it to Homestead last season and was looking like he was going to win until his car overheated due to a pit road tape gaffe.
"I did what I felt like, all I could do to win the championship and it just didn't work out," Hamlin said when reflecting on last season. "It didn't take me any time to get over it."
The drivers with the third and fourth-most amount of playoff points come from Team Penske in Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Both drivers are former champions and have combined for five race wins this season. Other champions in the playoff field include Martin Truex Jr, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch.
Kyle Busch considered 'a dark horse' to win second straight title
It's strange to think that the defending champion could be an underdog, but that's exactly the situation Busch has found himself in entering the playoffs. Busch, winless on the season, typically benefits from practice and improving his car throughout the weekend, but due to COVID-19, his team has been forced to make adjustments during the race.
"It's frustrating, it's aggravating, it's kind of a letdown," Busch said when reflecting on his emotions this season. "It's just crazy the way this year's gone for us."
Busch enters the playoffs with just three points, which gives him the third-fewest in the field. Still, being in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota coupled with his driving ability makes him a threat to win each and every week. Back in 2011, Tony Stewart ran the table and won his way to a third-career title. Busch hopes to do the same in 2020.
"You just never know," said Busch when categorizing himself as a dark horse. Certainly, we're not a title frontrunner, we're not a favorite. We're on the bottom of the spectrum. We're on the outside looking in."
Nine different drivers seeking first career championship
We mentioned Hamlin as one driver looking to win his first career title. The other eight drivers include Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Austin Dillon, Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer and rookie Cole Custer.
Elliott, the sport's most popular driver, has been considered the third-best option to win the title as his speed has rivaled Harvick and Hamlin inconsistently throughout the season. A first career championship for Elliott at 24-years-old in his fifth career playoffs would certainly be a way to usher in the next generation of NASCAR champions.
"I think we need to be more consistent across the board," Elliott said when asked about his confidence heading into the playoffs. "I'm encouraged by the fact that when I feel like we have things going, we can compete for wins at a lot of different styles of race tracks."
Blaney is also a strong threat to win the title in his fourth trip to the playoffs. He has rolled off the hauler with no practice and a ton of speed each and every week. It's only led to one race win, but his 586 laps led this season are amongst the best in the sport.
"He shows the most speed when he's on," Hamlin said of Blaney's odds to win the title. "He's just a guy that I look at as he has the ability to make it through each round."
During playoff media availability drivers were asked who they considered to be a dark horse. Hamlin said Blaney was his pick while a few of the drivers went out of their way to say watch out for Aric Almirola. The No. 10 team is winless this season, but has put up five top fives and 14 top 10s this season, making him the highest-ranked winless playoff driver.
Last year, we correctly pegged Kyle Busch to win the title. This year, we have Busch winning at least one race in the playoffs, but failing to make it to Phoenix due to lack of points.
One surprise winner we're predicting is Austin Dillon, who we expect to show more speed being the only Richard Childress Racing driver in the playoffs. Dillon is a legit threat to win at Richmond, Las Vegas, Texas and Martinsville.
Don't expect many surprises in terms of early exits, as the cream of the crop typically rises to the occasion come playoff time. Expect these drivers to be in the Round of 8: Harvick, Hamlin, Keselowski, Logano, Elliott, Truex and Blaney, with the last spot up for grabs.
Our Championship 4 consists of Harvick, Hamlin, Truex and Keselowski. This prediction assumes that Harvick and Hamlin make it on points, while Truex and Keselowski win in the Round of 8.
We're picking Hamlin to take home his first title, winning the final race at Phoenix in a last-lap shootout with Harvick. It has been a battle between those two drivers all year, and that's how it is destined to end.