And just like that, the 2018 season is upon us. Martin Truex Jr.’s quest for a second straight championship starts tomorrow at the Daytona 500, and the rest of the NASCAR Cup Series field will look to steal the crown away from Truex and Furniture Row Racing.
Here are our picks for the 16 playoff drivers for this season heading into tomorrow’s season opener, and we also included who we think will reach the Championship 4 this November at Homestead.
Round of 16
16) Daniel Suarez
Suarez nearly won Rookie of the Year a season ago, but he lost out to teammate Erik Jones. Suarez will earn his first career victory this season and make the playoffs.
15) Aric Almirola
Almirola had a difficult year in 2017 as he suffered a back injury halfway through the year, but we believe the move to Stewart-Haas Racing will be a difference maker for him in 2018. While we don’t think Almirola wins a race this year, he’ll make the playoffs based on points.
14) William Byron
The 20-year-old rookie will be the youngest driver in the Cup Series field this year, but that doesn’t mean Byron will be intimidated by his competition. We aren’t expecting Byron to win his first career race just yet, but he’ll earn enough points to make the playoffs and win Rookie of the Year for the second straight season.
13) Kurt Busch
Busch signed a one-year deal to return to Stewart-Haas Racing, and while he might not be at the top of his game, he’s still capable of being a playoff contender. Expect to see the No. 41 back in the postseason — but we aren’t calling for him to win any races this year.
Round of 12
12) Alex Bowman
Bowman has the difficult challenge of replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr., but he is capable of having a huge year in the No. 88. Bowman earns his first career victory this season en route to a Round of 12 berth.
11) Erik Jones
Jones flashed his potential last season as he won Rookie of the Year, and we think he earns his first career Cup Series victory during his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing.
10) Ryan Blaney
Blaney had a breakout season in 2017 as he earned his first career victory, and we expect to see him back in the playoffs as he joins Team Penske. We think Blaney wins another race this year, though he just misses out on returning to the Round of 8.
9) Brad Keselowski
Keselowski is always a safe bet to make the playoffs, and his success at restrictor plate races — especially Talladega — gives him a chance to advance in the postseason. We’re giving Kes another win at Talladega in the regular season, but we think this might be a bit of a down year for him. But the 2019 season might be a different story once he’s driving the new Ford.
8) Jimmie Johnson
The second half of Johnson’s season in 2017 didn’t give us much reason for optimism heading into the 2018, but he’s still one of the greatest drivers of all time and will figure out a way to sneak into the Round of 8 again. We’re predicting one win for Johnson this year.
7) Kevin Harvick
You have to go back all the way to 2009 to find the last season Harvick didn’t win a race, but we’re going out on a limb and predicting Harvick goes winless this season. He’ll still make the playoffs thanks to accumulating points throughout the year.
6) Joey Logano
We’re expecting a bounce back year from Logano after missing the playoffs a season ago. Logano earns two wins this season, including a win to start the season at Daytona.
5) Martin Truex Jr.
The defending champion comes up just short in 2018. Truex wins two races this year, but he misses out on qualifying for another Championship 4 appearance.
We’ll get to our championship pick later, but we think these will be the four drivers competing for the championship this November at Homestead.
Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin.
Will Busch win his second championship, or will NASCAR crown another first time champion this year? Stay tuned.