Sunday’s wreckfest at the Brickyard 400 served as the regular season finale for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and the final opportunity to make the 16-man playoff field.
Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman grabbed the last two spots up for grabs. Now, the playoffs will start this Sunday at Las Vegas.
Let’s take a look at each member of the 16-driver postseason class of 2019:
Analysis: Busch won the regular-season championship and has four wins this season, but it’s been over three months since his last trip to victory lane at Pocono in June. A 37th-place engine failure at Indy did little to bolster his momentum into the playoffs, but he still has to be considered a near-lock for the four-man championship race.
Best playoff track: Dover, where he has three wins and a 9.6 average finish across 29 races.
Analysis: If there is to be a first-time Cup champion in 2019, you’re probably looking at him. Hamlin has rebounded from a winless 2018 to secure victories in the Daytona 500 and at Texas, Pocono and Bristol this season. He seems like a more-focused driver this year, finishing races strongly and minimizing mistakes that have plagued him in the past.
Best playoff track: The Virginia man loves Martinsville, where he has won five times and posted an average finish of 9.6 in 27 starts.
MARTIN TRUEX JR.
Analysis: The 2017 Cup champion hit his stride earlier in the year with four wins in an eight-race stretch from Richmond to Sonoma, but he has hit the proverbial brick wall ever since. He has three straight finishes of 13th or worse, including a dismal 27th-place effort at Indianapolis after a multi-car collision on pit road ruined his day.
Best playoff track: Truex has more wins (three) and top 10 finishes (15) at Dover than anywhere else.
Analysis: Sunday’s Brickyard 400 winner is the hottest driver in the series right now, with all three of his wins having come in the past seven races. He’s been significantly stronger than any of his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates this year. And speaking of momentum, he has it all after a dominant performance at Indianapolis where he led 118 laps.
Best playoff track: It’s the one you want — Harvick has a win and a 6.6 average finish at Homestead-Miami, the site of the championship race.
Analysis: Last year’s Cup champion has a good shot at repeating after parlaying a pair of wins into this season’s playoff berth. One of those came at Las Vegas earlier in the year, so an encore performance would propel him into the second round. There are no guarantees when it comes to this 10-race postseason, but he’s another title favorite.
Best playoff track: While his average finish at Richmond (11.1) is better, Logano has three Talladega wins.
Analysis: Keselowski won three times in the first 12 races at Atlanta, Martinsville and Kansas, but his fortunes turned in the second half of the regular season. He has six finishes of 18th or worse in that span, including a 38th-place finish in the Brickyard 400 on Sunday after a crash triggered by contact with Erik Jones.
Best playoff track: Keselowski has five wins at Talladega, including the 2014 and 2017 playoff races.
Analysis: Elliott already has followed up last year’s multi-win season with another one this year after wins at Talladega and Watkins Glen. An early-summer slump seems to be in the rearview mirror with a win and four top 10 finishes in the last four races. He’s the clear leader of the Hendrick Motorsports effort at this point in his career.
Best playoff track: Elliott has been stellar at Dover with a win, six top fives and a 4.4 average finish in seven races.
Analysis: A win at Kentucky earlier this season extended Busch’s victory streak to six straight seasons. He has, by far, been the more consistent half of the Chip Ganassi Racing duo this season. With 13 playoff berths in his career, the veteran has the experience to carry his team deeper in the playoffs than might be expected.
Best playoff track: Although he only has one win there, back in 2005, Phoenix has produced 19 top 10 finishes for Busch.
Analysis: His first career win at Chicagoland over the summer already has made this season a success, but now Bowman gets his second straight shot at the playoffs after finishing shotgun on the 16-driver field a season ago. He’s upped his average finish nearly three spots, but still isn’t consistent enough to win it all.
Best playoff track: Three top 10 finishes at Kansas is tied for Bowman’s career-high.
Analysis: Jones proved himself with his second career win two weeks ago at Darlington, but promptly showed again why there were questions in the first place after sparking a massive crash with Keselowski at Indianapolis. Jones is a distant fourth on the Joe Gibbs Racing totem pole, making his title prospects tough.
Best playoff track: Jones has three top fives and four top 10s in his first six Texas starts.
Analysis: Larson has been the picture of inconsistency, posting the same amount of top fives (six) as DNFs this year. His winless streak slogs on, as it’s now been over two calendar years since he last won a points-paying Cup race. The bright spot this year has been a victory in the All-Star Race at Charlotte in May.
Best playoff track: He has a win at Richmond, but Larson is very solid at Dover with eight top 10s and an 8.0 average finish.
Analysis: Blaney has been a distant third in the Team Penske camp again this year, going winless so far after benefitting from late-race craziness to claim a playoff win at the Charlotte Roval last fall. He hasn’t had a strong shot at winning since the spring Bristol race, which was over five months ago.
Best playoff track: Lucky Roval win notwithstanding, Blaney’s four top 10s and 10.7 average finish in six races make Vegas his best.
Analysis: Byron still is searching for his first career Cup victory, but he has been one of the series’ most improved drivers this season. He has posted his first three top fives, shown speed with his first four career poles and a new career-high nine top 10s. Byron still shows inconsistency that will hinder him, however.
Best playoff track: The sample size is very limited, but Byron has two top 10s in three Texas starts.
Analysis: For as good as Almirola looked in his first season at Stewart-Haas Racing last year, he has been equally invisible for the most part in 2019. He has just one top five finish to his name this season, and is well off-pace from his career-high 17 top 10s from 2018. His average finish has dropped two spots.
Best playoff track: Talladega, the site of his playoff win last October.
Analysis: A two-win career rebirth last season seems so far away now after Bowyer struggled mightily just to get into the playoffs this year. His numbers are down in every major statistical category, he hasn’t won and Bowyer has failed to finish six times. Those struggles aren’t likely to reverse in the playoffs.
Best playoff track: Bowyer is tied for career-highs in wins (two) and top 10s (15) at Richmond.
Analysis: The last driver to squeeze in the field, Newman has offered consistency and veteran prowess to Roush Fenway Racing, which was left out of the postseason a year ago. Still, he only has one top five and 16 laps led this season, making him a poor bet to carry the team far in the playoffs.
Best playoff track: Newman has a career-high three wins and 849 laps led at Dover.
Justin Epley is a sports writer for The News Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com or 828-432-8943.