Sixteen drivers begin their 10-race quest for the 2019 Monster Energy& NASCAR Cup Series championship beginning with Sunday's South Point 400. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson might be missing from that postseason field but the list still includes plenty of star firepower. Reigning champ Joey Logano will attempt to hold off a bevy of challengers beginning with Sunday's race at the 1.5-mile oval out in Sin City.
One team stands out as the favorite heading into this postseason run. Joe Gibbs Racing has all four of its cars in the playoffs after winning half the regular season races (13 of 26). Kyle Busch, fresh off the regular season championship, has a 15-point edge on the rest of the field. He, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin are 1-2-3 in playoff points and the closest to a 2019 version of the "Big Three."
The fourth JGR entry, Erik Jones, comes in with the pressure off courtesy a 2020 contract extension and Southern 500 win on Labor Day Weekend. Jones, seeded 11th for the first round, could easily make it all the way based on his speed during the summer months. He's a dark-horse candidate that would give JGR a historic sweep of all Championship 4 positions come Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
Three Fords are the best hope to block Toyota's JGR juggernaut. Kevin Harvick, the 2019 Brickyard 400 winner, has won three of the last seven Cup races, easily the hottest driver on the circuit. Stewart-Haas Racing as a whole is having a down year but that could mean total focus on Harvick when it counts. His record of four Championship 4 appearances in five tries (one title) is Johnson-esque when you consider how hard it is to advance under this format.
Team Penske, meanwhile, has all three cars in the title race but only two look like serious contenders. Logano, who's won twice in 2019, has a better average finish (10.3) than when he won his first career Cup title last year. Teammate Brad Keselowski has three 2019 victories of his own and was last year's race winner in the playoff opener.
The other nine playoff participants would be Cinderella stories to win the title in a year where only a select few stand out. Chase Elliott may be the best of the rest, Hendrick Motorsports' top hope with two wins on the year: Talladega and Watkins Glen. The HMS stable also has Alex Bowman, making his second playoff appearance, who's shown some strength on intermediate tracks. Bowman won his first race at Chicagoland Speedway earlier this summer.
Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch have qualified for two-car Chip Ganassi Racing. Both have shown flashes of brilliance, Busch in particular, but appear a step behind the top contenders. It's conceivable Ryan Blaney could ride the coattails of his Penske teammates, Keselowski and Logano, but remains winless during a year filled with bad luck.
The real longshots are first-time playoff driver (and third HMS entry) William Byron, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman. This quartet made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth; simply surviving into the Round of 12 would be impressive for them. Almirola, in particular, comes limping into the postseason without a top-10 finish since Daytona on July 4th weekend. None of them have won a race and they've combined for just 11 top-five finishes on the year.
That still leaves six, maybe seven drivers, evenly matched in the battle for Homestead; picking a Championship 4 is going to be tough. I'm going with Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano but don't be surprised if Keselowski, Jones or Truex sneaks through.
They'll all roll the dice beginning this Sunday in a race where the new handling package takes center stage. The first time NASCAR came here in March was the first race with the new, low-horsepower rules in full effect; racing was inconsistent at best. We're about to roll the dice on the racetrack and see how much these teams have learned in the past six months.
South Point 400
Time: Sunday, 7 p.m. ET
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Las Vegas)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kevin Harvick
It was an impressive Brickyard 400 performance for Harvick, winning from the pole at Indy and leading 118 of 160 laps. He was never seriously challenged down the stretch, notching his second victory in this crown jewel event some 16 years after his first.
Turning 44 years old in December, Harvick remains at peak performance when other drivers his age are considering retirement. That 19-race winless streak to start the year seems like ancient history at this point.
Who's at the Back: Martin Truex Jr.
Truex was an innocent victim in a pit road accident at Indy, damage that relegated him to a 27th-place finish. That was his third straight run outside the top 10, not exactly the way to close out the regular season when you're running for a series title.
But this veteran has also been here before. Last year, with Furniture Row Racing preparing to shut down around him Truex closed the regular season with runs of 30th, 11th and 40th. People thought the No. 78 team was well on their way to a first-round exit.
Ten races later? They were part of the Championship 4 at Homestead.
A surprise retirement announcement from Paul Menard became the biggest 2019 Silly Season domino to fall. Menard, 39, has yet to post a top-five finish this season and missed the playoffs in his second year driving the iconic Wood Brothers No. 21. Menard, whose family's chain of department stores kept him armed with sponsorship money, cited a desire to spend more time with family. His career ends with just one postseason appearance and only one Cup win to date: the 2011 Brickyard 400.
Menard's departure opened the door for Matt DiBenedetto to slide behind the wheel of the No. 21 car beginning in 2020. DiBenedetto had been looking for a ride since Leavine Family Racing announced they'll release him from the No. 95 car at the end of the season. It's a one-year deal that puts this rising talent in arguably the best equipment of his career; the Woods have a strong alliance with 2019 title contender Team Penske.
Other Silly Season contract negotiations should be coming to an end soon. Chris Buescher is still expected to return to JTG Daugherty Racing in 2020; an announcement is expected within the next few weeks. Christopher Bell's move up to Cup with Leavine Family Racing should also be made public by the end of the month.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-10 finishes for Kyle Busch in 26 races to lead the series. He can still break the modern-era record of 30 held by Jeff Gordon (2007) if he goes 10-for-10 in the playoffs.
Teams represented in the 2019 Cup Series playoffs: Joe Gibbs Racing (4), Hendrick Motorsports (3), Stewart-Haas Racing (3), Team Penske (3), Chip Ganassi Racing (2), Roush Fenway Racing (1).
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Expect Team Penske to land the first blow at a racetrack they've dominated in recent years. Brad Keselowski has won three of the last seven Vegas races and came in second earlier this year to Joey Logano. Neither driver has finished outside the top 10 here since 2014. Need I say more?
Kurt Busch may be from Vegas but has never run well at his hometown track. This year's fifth-place finish in March was his best performance out in Sin City since 2005! But Busch is a different driver with Chip Ganassi Racing this year, experiencing a late-career renaissance. Expect him to back up that top-five finish with another one and start the postseason strong.
Alex Bowman hasn't been heard from much since peaking with a Chicagoland win in early summer. But the No. 88 team is at their best on intermediates and Bowman had a career-best 11th-place result at Las Vegas back in March. A shaky track record overall (25.2 career average finish) will leave him lower-priced than most in this category which could pay off in spades for your roster later on.
I think I'm just going to write the words Matt DiBenedetto and leave him here for the rest of the year. He finished 21st here in March, he could do far better and snatch a top-10 placement at Vegas this time around.
What about the man Matty D is replacing next season, Paul Menard? He has three straight top-15 finishes out in Sin City, one of his better tracks on the circuit and ran a respectable 15th back in March.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch leads the way out in Sin City with 9/2 odds. Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick sit at 5/1, followed by Joey Logano at 6/1.
Looking for a longshot? DiBenedetto sits at 100/1.
What I Think
Team Penske strikes the first postseason blow with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano combining for another 1-2 finish.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of @NASCAR)