NASCAR Playoffs Begin this Weekend!
After 26 regular-season races, an accumulation of Playoff points via the new point system and a plethora of nail-biting finishes, the NASCAR Playoffs have been set, and it all comes down to 16 drivers eligible for the ultimate prize: The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup trophy.
Among them, easily the most impressive this season has been Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex, Jr. With four race wins (and a few more he probably should have won, if we're being honest), 18 stage wins and 37 stage top-fives, Truex is the clear-cut favorite as we head into the first round in Chicagoland this weekend.
But NASCAR is a fickle, fickle sport with so many variables, that you may as well throw conventional wisdom out the window now. There's no telling who among the 16 might go on an unprecedented run of success, who might suffer a streak of bad luck and who might step up to the plate when the heat is really on.
Afterall, of the 16 eligible competitors, six of them are past Cup Series champions who know a thing or two about taking home a trophy. Take seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, for example. He hasn't won since Dover, all the way back in June. But can you ever count out the man tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most titles in the history of the sport?
Other past champions vying for the prize, like Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, have proven that they can perform when the pressure is on - and when it's do or die in pursuit of the ultimate grand prize.
And how about Brad Keselowski? It was like he was shot out of a cannon to begin the 2017 season. After a mediocre finish in Daytona, he won at Atlanta in thrilling fashion and then went on to record four more consecutive top-five finishes, including another victory four weeks later at Martinsville - which just happens to be one of the 10 tracks hosting a playoff race.
And let's not forget past champion Kurt Busch. After winning the season-opening Daytona 500, he seems to have been lying low through the middle portion of the 2017 schedule, but he's recorded three top-fives in a row now and might just be peaking at the perfect time.
Of course, being a former NASCAR Cup Series champion is all well and good, but have you SEEN the crop of young drivers who are challenging the veterans for the title?
Out of nowhere it seems, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. picked up his first two career Cup Series victories in the matter of eight weeks this year and has obviously mastered the art of restrictor-plate racing. Meanwhile, Ryan Blaney notched his own first career Cup Series win at Pocono and has been strong all season.
And speaking of first wins, Austin Dillon got his at Charlotte back in May and might just be a dark horse as the post season begins.
Oh, and let's not forget Kyle Larson. That youngster has not one, not two, but FOUR victories this year and finished second in the regular-season standings after only winning once in 2016. He's right up there with Truex as far as favorites go.
But what about winless drivers like Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray? They're in the playoffs without wins, but consistency has been the key all along. And while that may be enough to get them this far, no winner in the modern era has won a championship without winning a race. Who knows - maybe they're just waiting for the right time to break out of their shells, but they had better do it soon, before the door is slammed shut.
Either way you cut it, there are some intriguing storylines for the next 10 weeks as the 2017 NASCAR Playoffs play out - and even some notable absences from the 16 eligible drivers.
It's just another reminder that anything can happen when there are 40 cars on the track but only one trophy when it's all said and done.