In the past years we have looked forward to the NASCAR Playoffs with a fixed eye on which four drivers could rise above the rest and have the chance to compete for a championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It goes without saying that things will be a little different this year in that the four drivers who will vie for a title will do so this year at Phoenix Raceway – the first time since 2002 that a NASCAR championship has not been contested at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
I’ve said this many times, but we have nothing to be ashamed of for not having the championship race, as the move had absolutely nothing to do with the ability of our track or Miami-Dade County to put on an outstanding championship event. It had everything to do with a desire to mix up the schedule a little and create an opportunity for another venue to host one of the biggest weekends in all of motorsports. In fact, it was one of several significant changes to the original 2020 schedule, one of which also included moving the traditional Jul y 4 weekend of racing at Daytona International Speedway to the last weekend of August and the final regular season race.
The span of 18 straight years of hosting the championship marked the longest of its kind in major professional sports, and is a stretch which likely won’t be seen again, even in NASCAR. I’m proud to say I was a part of each and every one of those 18 championships, but over the years there were many people who passed through our doors who had a hand in making it such a special event and desirable location for a championship.
And my hats off to all of you!
Speaking of the final regular season race, last Saturday night was an outstanding show as William Byron secured his way into the 16-driver Playoff field with his first career win. While Byron exulted in his accomplishments, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson was eliminated from playoff contention. I know we all wish Johnson could have had that one final opportunity for a record eighth title, but his accomplishments on and off the track make him a show-in for entry into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible.
Now, we’ll take a look at the top eight seeded drivers as we head into the opening race of the playoffs this Sunday at Darlington Raceway. Next week I will touch on the remaining eight.
Kevin Harvick (7 2020 wins, 1 previous championship) – “The Closer” did just that in 2020 – a total of seven times - earning him the regular season championship. He has been to the Championship 4 on five previous occasions, and was the first champion in this current format, in 2014. With 57 playoff points that will carry all the way through the Championship 4, it would be hard for him not to return to that coveted group.
Denny Hamlin – (6 2020 wins, 0 previous championships) – When he made the Championship 4 last year, I thought that it was his year to finally take home that elusive title. He is without a doubt the best driver never to have won a championship. That moniker could very well change after this year’s Playoffs. And with 47 Playoff points he’s got a clear path to compete for that crown in Phoenix.
Brad Keselowski (3 2020 wins, 1 previous championship) – Leads the trio of Team Penske drivers, all of who qualified for the Playoffs. His first title came in 2012, just his third season as a full-time Cup Series driver. He has made it to the Championship 4 just once (2017). He is one of five drivers who amassed 20 or more Playoff points heading into the postseason.
Joey Logano (2 2020 wins, 1 previous championship) – The 2018 champion will be looking to break back into the Championship 4 to have a shot at multiple titles. Both of his wins this year came over the first four races, so he will be hoping to get some momentum as the playoffs progress.
Chase Elliott (2 2020 wins, 0 previous championships) -- One of the top young talents on the circuit who not only has the pedigree, but no doubt the talent to be a champion like his Hall of Fame father, Bill. He has advanced to the Round of 8 in three of his four previous Cup seasons, and hopes to take that next step this year.
Martin Truex Jr. (1 2020 win, 1 previous championship) – Won the 2017 championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in one of the best feel-good stories for a champion. That came as a member of Furniture Row Racing, and I’m sure he would like nothing more than to give Joe Gibbs Racing two titles in-a-row.
Ryan Blaney (1 2020 win, 0 previous championships) – The third member of Team Penske to win a race this year, making them one of only two teams to have three drivers collect a victory this year, along with Hendrick Motorsports. Like Elliott, Blaney is the son of a former NASCAR driver (Dave) and is regarded as one of the up-and-comers in the Cup Series. He has made it to the Round of 8 the last two years on the strength of playoff wins each of the last two years.
Alex Bowman (1 2020 win, 0 previous championships) – Along with Elliott, part of a young crop of talented drivers at Hendrick Motorsports. Recorded his lone win of the season back in week 3. Has accounted for just three top-10 finishes in the last 11 races, so he will be looking to get off to a quick start in the Playoffs.
This Week’s Racing Schedule – Darlington Raceway
Saturday, Sept. 5 - NASCAR Xfinity Series Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200 12:30 pm (NBC)
Sunday, Sept. 6 - NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series 2:00 pm (FS1)
South Carolina Education Lottery 200
Sunday, Sept. 6 - NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 6:00 pm (NBC)*
All races will air on Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90