At a glance: 2017 NASCAR playoffs

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JOLIET, Ill. – The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are here! Get pumped.

But wait—what about this whole “stage racing” thing? And what do these “playoff points” actually mean? Is the format the same as last season? Who are the favorites to win it all?

Luckily for you, I have all those answers (and more) coming at you. Let’s preview the upcoming stretch that will crown a champion in Homestead.


THE FIELD

These sixteen, and only these sixteen drivers are eligible for the championship. In order:

  • Martin Truex Jr., No. 78 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing (Leader): The Mayetta, NJ native enters the playoffs with the most playoff points (53) in his fifth postseason appearance. He has four wins (Las Vegas, Kansas, Kentucky and Watkins Glen).
  • Kyle Larson, No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing (-20): The Elk Grove, Calif. native enters the playoffs with 33 playoff points in his second appearance in the postseason. He has three wins this season (Michigan twice and Richmond).
  • Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (-24): The Las Vegas, Nev. native enters his 10th postseason as the No. 3 seed with 29 playoff points. He has amassed two victories (Pocono and Bristol).
  • Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Ford for Team Penske (-34): The Rochester Hills, Mich. native enters his sixth postseason with 19 playoff points on the heels of two victories at Atlanta and Martinsville.
  • Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports (-36): The El Cajon, Calif. native and seven-time champion enters his 14th postseason appearance with 17 playoff points. He has three victories this season, coming at Texas, Bristol and Dover.
  • Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing (-38): The Bakersfield, Calif. native enters his 11th postseason with 15 playoff points and one lone victory, coming at Sonoma in July.
  • Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (-40): The Chesterfield, Va. native enters his 11th postseason with 13 playoff points. He has found Victory Lane twice this season, at New Hampshire and Darlington (encumbered).
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing (-43): The Olive Branch, Miss. native enters his first career playoffs with 10 playoff points. His two wins came on restrictor plate tracks of Talladega and Daytona this summer.
  • Ryan Blaney, No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing (-45): The Hartford, Oh. native enters his first career playoffs with eight playoff points. He has one win this season, coming at Pocono earlier this summer.
  • Chase Elliott, No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports (-47): The Dawsonville, Ga. native enters his second career playoffs in as many seasons in Cup with six playoff points. He has six top five’s and 13 top 10’s this season.
  • Ryan Newman, No. 31 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing (-48): The South Bend, Ind. native enters his eighth playoffs with five playoff points. He has one victory this season, coming in the second race of the season at Phoenix.
  • Kurt Busch, No. 41 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing (-48): The Las Vegas, Nev. native enters his 11th playoffs with five playoff points, thanks to his season-opening victory in the Daytona 500 in February.
  • Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports (-48): The Enumclaw, Wash. native enters his sixth postseason with five playoff points. His lone victory of the season came at the Brickyard at Indianapolis in July.
  • Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing (-48): The Welcome, N.C. native enters his second playoffs with five playoff points, thanks to his fuel-mileage victory at Charlotte in the 600-mile affair on Memorial Day weekend.
  • Matt Kenseth, No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (-48): The Cambridge, Wisc. native enters his 13th playoffs with five playoff points to his credit. He has amassed seven top five’s and 12 top 10’s this season.
  • Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing (-50): The Joplin, Mo. native enters his third playoffs with three playoff points. The No. 16 seed has amassed two top five’s and 13 top 10’s this season for CGR.

The playoff drivers can be identified on track with a lime green splitter and spoiler. In the past, they have been yellow (title sponsor was Sprint). Now that it’s Monster Energy, it’s lime green.


THE FORMAT

This remains the same as previous years. The field of 16 will be dwindled down to 12, then to eight, then to four, and then a champion will be crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Round of 16: The Round of 16’s three races take place at Chicagoland Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway, where the bottom four will be eliminated. Win a race in that round, and you advance to the Round of 12.

Round of 12: The second round’s races are at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway. Being a superspeedway, Talladega has been labeled as a wild card race that can produce a surprise winner and perhaps knock out some playoff drivers. Win a race in that round, and you’re on to the Round of 8. Four more drivers will be eliminated, too.

Round of 8: Now is where the big boys separate themselves from the rest. Races are held at Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway. I think you get it now—win one of those races, and you’re into the season-finale race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The bottom four drivers will be eliminated after the penultimate race of the season.

Championship Four: Four drivers will be eligible for the championship when the circuit heads to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Championship Four. But everybody else in the field still competes.

The rules are simple: finish the highest out of those four drivers, win the championship. No gimmicks, no more playoff points, no nothing. Just the will to win and a trophy waiting for you.

So, let’s recap: 16 drivers, four rounds, four drivers eliminated each round, win in a round and you advance, one champion. Not too hard, right?

Ah, yes. Those pesky playoff points. Who doesn’t love alliteration?

As a refresher: a driver gets one playoff point for winning a stage and five for winning a race. A driver can use all the playoff points they’ve accumulated throughout the year in every round of the playoffs. This is a change from last season, where bonus points from wins only carried into the first round—then everyone else was back equal. Confused? Let me try to help.

Martin Truex Jr. has earned 53 playoff points this season, the most in the series. He will start the playoffs with 53 points on top of the 2,000 that every driver starts with. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., for example, has won two races and zero stages, so he starts with 10 extra points on top of his 2,000. When each round starts anew, the points that are earned restart. Plus, if a driver earns more playoff points throughout the round, those are also added onto their total.

Basically, what you should know is that the more playoff points a driver has, the better position they’re in. And the more they’re up front, the more playoff points they’ll accumulate.


FAVORITES

Martin Truex Jr. (to nobody’s surprise) is the favorite in Vegas to hoist the inaugural Monster Cup. His odds are listed as 13/4, the best in the field. Close behind the No. 78 is Kyle Busch, who is listed at 7/2. Kyle Larson is 9/2, with Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski each having 8/1 odds. If you’re feeling lucky, put some money down on Kasey Kahne, who is 100/1. But take my word for it when I say you won’t get a great return…


PREDICTIONS

My playoff grid has Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. out in the first round. When the Round of 12 concludes, I have Matt Kenseth, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin failing to advance. And failing to make the Championship Four is Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.

That means my final four is Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson. And I have the No. 78 hoisting the trophy in South Beach when it’s all said and done.

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