Roundtable: Predicting the final four for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks

Our team of experts debate some of the biggest topics in NASCAR this week.

Roundtable: Predicting the final four for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Ryan Blaney, Wood Brothers Racing Ford
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Daniel Suarez, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Matt DiBenedetto, GO FAS Racing Ford
Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Race winner Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Erik Jones, Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Daniel Suarez, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Elliott Sadler, JR Motorsports Chevrolet
Elliott Sadler, JR Motorsports Chevrolet
William Byron, JR Motorsports Chevrolet and Elliott Sadler, JR Motorsports Chevrolet
William Byron, JR Motorsports Chevrolet
Justin Allgaier, JR Motorsports Chevrolet and William Byron, JR Motorsports Chevrolet
Daniel Hemric, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Matt Crafton, ThorSport Racing Toyota
Johnny Sauter, GMS Racing Chevrolet
Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota
John Hunter Nemechek, SWM-NEMCO Motorsports Chevrolet
Austin Cindric, Brad Keselowski Racing Ford

Three of the four places in the Championship 4 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are set heading into Phoenix this weekend. Who do you think will fill the final spot?

Jim: I think Brad Keselowski is in the best position to earn the fourth and final spot at Homestead. But something tells me there could be a surprise winner at Phoenix, and if there is, I'm betting on Chase Elliott. He led the second-most laps in the spring Phoenix race and it seems just when you want to count him out during these playoffs, he comes roaring back.

Lee: With a 19-point advantage over fifth-place Denny Hamlin, I like Brad Keselowski’s chances. Although the No. 2 Team Penske crew has never advanced to the Championship 4, they showed a lot of fight on Sunday, coming from 39th after a run-in with Kyle Busch on the opening lap to finish fifth. Had Keselowski not been derailed by that first-lap incident at Texas, he would likely have a much great cushion entering Phoenix. In 16 starts, Keselowski has five top fives and eight top 10s at the one-mile track. He finished fifth in the spring.

Nick: Brad Keselowski is the obvious choice, but do not underestimate that No. 48 team when their backs are against the wall. Yes, Keselowski has a points cushion, but that means nothing if any of those behind him take the checkered flag on Sunday.

Tim: My thoughts are Brad Keselowski will be the fourth driver to advance. Although he looks like the strongest to make it to the next round based on recent performance, and points position it wouldn’t be a shock to the system to see Chase Elliott or Denny Hamlin win the race to advance. While I think it could come down to one of those three drivers, I must admit, I’m shocked at the recent struggles of Jimmie Johnson. I feel he’ll be a long shot to make it – but never count him out.

Which driver outside of the 16 who made the MENCS playoffs has impressed you the most this season?

Jim: I would say the rookies, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones, have both had impressive first seasons in the Cup series. Jones' progressed a little more quickly into a driver who could end up in Victory Lane and he had a decent shot to qualify for the playoffs. Suarez faced numerous obstacles this season but has been running stronger as the season comes to a close - just what you would want to see from a rookie.

Lee: Erik Jones has really impressed me in his rookie season. The 21-year-old Byron, Michigan, native won the pole for the Bristol Night race and finished second. Jones has four top-five finishes—as many as Jimmie Johnson this season— and posted his 13th top-10 finish on Sunday. Although he’s 19th in the standings, his 310 laps led exceed the stats of more than half of the competitors ahead of him in the standings, including former champions Johnson and Kurt Busch. Jones has plenty of speed, a trait that can’t be taught. Once the rookie stripe comes off at the end of the season, he must learn to funnel that speed into consistent finishes.

Nick: Daniel Suarez has been solid, consistent and fairly quiet -- I'd call that a successful rookie season. Considering the circumstances he was thrown into the Cup Series, I'm impressed with how he's done behind the wheel and that's why he'd be my choice.

Tim: I must agree with Lee on Erik Jones. I think this young rookie is on the verge of breaking out and while he didn’t make the playoffs this season. I feel he will be in the mix for a playoff berth for years to come. I would also pick Daniel Suarez a close second. In every division he’s competed in for NASCAR he’s always shown improvement as he gains experience on tracks and I think we’ll see him in Victory Lane next season.

After he made it official over the weekend that he's taking some time off from NASCAR racing, what are your thoughts on the career and future for Matt Kenseth?

Jim: Matt Kenseth has been one of the nicest, straightforward and accommodating drivers to cover during my career. I especially like his snarky, sarcastic whit (it reminds me of someone I know). It was great to see Kenseth's late-career move to Joe Gibbs Racing because it really provided him the opportunity to showcase his full potential. He is a true wheelman and one of the best drivers at using the entire race to get the most out of his car. His ability to show up in contention at the end of races is one of reasons I've often referred to him as "Stealth Kenseth." His lone black mark is the incident with Joey Logano at Martinsville, but it will not overshadow what has been a stellar career.

Lee: It’s hard to believe that one of the original Young Guns—Matt Kenseth—is being supplanted by the new crop of 20-somethings. But he has enjoyed a tremendous career along the way. Kenseth holds the distinction of being a NASCAR Cup champion during the most competitive era in NASCAR. He’s won 38 races and improved his qualifying efforts considerably during his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing by raising his career poles to 20. After beating Dale Earnhardt Jr., for the 1999 Rookie-of-the-Year title, it’s almost fitting that the two friends exit the Cup Series together. There’s been talk that Kenseth will run select late model races, but if he ever needs a challenge, he could return to the Xfinity Series — then maybe trucks and attempt to be the first three-time champion in NASCAR’s top tours. Either way, Kenseth is a future Hall of Famer.

Nick: NASCAR will lose something with him gone, that's for sure. He is a wryly veteran driver you can count on and his sardonic humor is always great entertainment. He's also not afraid to stand his grond when things get heated on the track. I feel he is one of the most underestimated champions as well. With nearly 40 wins, he has a future as a NASCAR HOFer.

Tim: Although he’s not getting to go out of the sport on ‘his terms,’ Matt Kenseth is a perfect example of what a driver should be in the NASCAR Cup Series. Except for his moment at Martinsville Speedway with Joey Logano he enjoyed a drama-free career and just went out and did his job. He was a pioneer for the sport as I feel his championship season brought about all the future versions of the Chase and now playoffs in NASCAR. He proved consistency and always taking care of your equipment can win you a championship, many wins and a future spot at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Who do think will be the final four for the Xfinity Series after Phoenix? Who is the long shot to make it to the final four?

Jim: The trio of JR Motorsports drivers - Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier and William Byron - have pretty much filled the Homestead Championship 4. For the final spot, I'm going with Cole Custer. Of the drivers in the best position to take the final spot by points, he is in a difficult position but in my opinion he has shown the biggest improvement as the playoffs have progressed. I expect another strong run from him at Phoenix this weekend.

Lee: The three JR Motorsports drivers—Elliott Sadler, William Byron and Justin Allgaier—are locks. The fourth of the Championship 4 drivers is a tricky proposition. With just 18 points separating the top three drivers below the cut line, Phoenix is a toss-up. From fourth-place Brennan Poole to seventh-place Daniel Hemric, there’s little to distinguish the drivers. Hemric’s seventh-place finish at Phoenix in the spring was the best of the bottom five drivers in the Round of 8. Eighth-place Ryan Reed is the only bottom-five driver with a win, but his average finish of 17.9, 16 laps led and seven top 10s are far from remarkable. Only five points separate Poole from Matt Tifft. But Poole has two top-10 finishes in four starts at Phoenix, so the Chip Ganassi racer has the edge. But my long shot is Cole Custer, who at 15 won the pole in the K&N Pro Series West finale and led all but the last lap of the race before being dumped by Gray Gaulding. Custer made up for that disappointment the following year by winning from the pole.

Nick: Hate to sound like a broken record, but yes, the JR Motorsports trio will all advance. If any of them don't, I will certainly be surprised. But that final spot is where it gets interesting. Personally, I think Brennan Poole will hang onto it but I could see it going several directions ... it'll be interesting to watch!

Tim: While it’s a pretty-much given that Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier and William Byron are moving on, I’m going to go with Daniel Hemric. Hemric is still learning in the series, but I think he’s the closest version to an old-school racer we have now in the series among the contenders to make it to Homestead and I think he’ll ‘will’ his way into the final four.

Who do think will be the final four for the Camping World Truck Series after Phoenix? 

Jim: Johnny Sauter has already won his way in, Christopher Bell is all-but locked in by points and Matt Crafton looks to be in pretty strong position to make it to the Championship 4. My surprise final entry I think will be Austin Cindric. Much like, Custer in the Xfinity Series, I think Cindric and his team have really gotten better in the playoffs. He had another strong run at Texas and I think he will be in the mix at Phoenix this weekend.

Lee: While Johnny Sauter has clinched a spot with his win at Texas, Christopher Bell and Matt Crafton are right behind him. I’d love to think John Hunter Nemechek can throw a Hail Mary at Phoenix, but his team has failed to support him sufficiently in his last two starts, and nothing short of a win will advance him to Homestead. Although Austin Cindric has a five-point advantage over Ben Rhodes, he hasn’t finished better than 14th in his last two starts at Phoenix. With an additional season of truck competition under his belt, Rhodes has the advantage. 

Nick: Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton and Christopher Bell are easy picks. But I am going for John Hunter Nemechek to emerge from this must-win situation and capture the checkered flag at Phoenix. However, that all depends on if his equipment can stay together.

Tim: While I would like to see Austin Cindric make it to the final four and help give his team a chance at a title in their final race before Brad Keselowski Racing shuts its doors, I think it will be a long shot for him to make it. I think Ben Rhodes will once again find a way to grab that fourth spot heading to Homestead. I feel his experience gives him a slight edge over Cindric as Rhodes will join Johnny Sauter, Christopher Bell and Matt Crafton in the final four.

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