Who will be the first four drivers eliminated from the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series title hunt? The playoffs begin this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Now with the championship field set, who are the four drivers you expect to be out after the first round of the playoffs?
Jim Utter: The first round is probably the most diverse in the playoffs and I think will yield some surprises. Right now, I think the following drivers will fail to advance to the second round - Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola. I think Jimmie Johnson is right - his experience may be what gets him through the first round.
Kenny Bruce: Austin Dillon, Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman. And all for pretty much the same reason, the inability to run up front consistently and contend for wins. The opening three races at Las Vegas, Richmond and Charlotte don’t particularly favor those four (although anything can happen on the CMS “road course”) in terms of a win and on the points scale they’ve already proven to be the weakest of the lot.
Nick DeGroot: Contrary to popular belief, I believe Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team will survive the first round. However, I agree that Alex Bowman and Austin Dillon are out. I pick Erik Jones and Aric Almirola as the other two drivers to be eliminated in the first round.
Tim Southers: I think it will be Alex Bowman, Jimmie Johnson, Austin Dillon and Aric Almirola. While Almirola has shown speed at times I feel he’ll join three Chevrolet drivers out after the first round. While Brad Keselowski has shown improvement over the past two weeks, I feel these four will not find any speed or luck over the first round to be able to advance.
Should Martin Truex Jr. fans be worried with the recent news and performance from his team over recent races?
Jim: Not at all. The problems that have plagued Truex of late really have nothing to do with whether his Furniture Row Racing team still has what it takes to compete for the title, which is race-winning speed and talent. They have plenty of both and also enhanced motivation knowing they will not longer exist as a team after this season. I fully expect Truex to be in contention for the championship to the end.
Kenny: Yes. The team’s performance has been off, but it has proven it can go out and contend and win races on a regular basis. Under normal conditions. But these are anything but normal for the team these days. With a shutdown looming, personnel will be departing early for other jobs, others won’t be focused on the task at hand and it’s one big distraction for everyone involved. And that’s not good.
Nick: As for their results, they've encountered a lot of bad luck, but they still had the speed at both Darlington and Indianapolis. I have no concerns over their ability to perform in the playoffs, but the fact that the team is shutting down is absolutely a distraction. Whether it has an impact on their mission to defend their 2017 title remains to be seen.
Tim: I don’t think it will matter during the first round of the playoffs. However, if Truex Jr. advances later in the playoffs, it will be interesting to see if he loses any crew members who know they will have to find a job for next year. Also, and more importantly, will he and the team be able to block out all of the distractions.
Brad Keselowski has now one two races in a row heading into the playoffs. Has he entered the 'Big 3' territory now?
Jim: He may have entered "Big 3.5" territory now. Even after two consecutive wins at two "crown jewel" races, Keselowski and Team Penske have still not shown they can go head-to-head with Truex, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch in leading laps and contending for wins. That's not to say Keselowski hasn't made vast gains, he has. If Team Penske can continue to make gains in the playoffs then he may crack the "Big 3" by season's end, or simply make it the "Big 4."
Kenny: Anyone that is able to peak heading into the playoffs is in a good spot. Keselowski had been “around” Big 3 territory for weeks. Two wins definitely puts him among those most likely to get to Homestead and compete for the title. His team isn’t the best right now, but it has certainly closed the gap tremendously.
Nick: Not quite. Keselowski didn't dominate either of these races that he just won. He ran strong and was in a position to capitalize, but he wasn't wiping the floor with the competition like we've seen the true 'Big 3' do in 2018.
Tim: We’ve seen this numerous times in sports where a team or athlete ‘peaks’ at the right time and it appears Keselowski is definitely become a driver to watch entering the playoffs. I know we have written about the ‘Big 3’ all season long, but now we might be talking about the ‘Big 4’ if he wins again this weekend in Las Vegas.
The Xfinity Series regular season finale is Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Do you expect any major surprises with the championship field?
Jim: Unfortunately, no. The biggest surprise will be if someone other than Justin Allgaier or Christopher Bell ends up winning this Saturday's race at Las Vegas. Those two teams have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the field and I'm not sure it's possible for anyone else to put together the speed and performances necessary to compete with them for the championship. It my well be a two-man show to the finish.
Kenny: I’d be surprised if there is a surprise. Does that make sense? It would take a win by an outsider (not in the top 12) to gain a playoff berth and I just don’t see that happening. Not even by those closest to the cutoff. That the race is in Las Vegas also doesn’t allow for anything too out of the ordinary to happen. I expect a race that maybe shakes up the standings among those in the Playoffs a bit but not much else.
Nick: I do not. Much like the Cup grid, what we see now will likely be what we get for the 12-driver field after LVMS. But should their be a late caution, you never know who is willing to gamble (they are in Vegas after all) and put it all on the line for a surprise win.
Tim: I don’t see anything happening this weekend to take our eyes off of the contenders who have established themselves as favorites for the title. I think it will eventually come down to a two-man race between Justin Allgaier and Christopher Bell. These two drivers have set themselves apart I feel from the rest of the eventual playoff contenders.