When Clint Bowyer won two weeks ago in Michigan, part of the post-race conversation centered around whether he had turned the ‘Big 3’ into the ‘Big 4.’ Was Bowyer the guy to be considered the fourth title favorite alongside Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr.?
It was a typical conversation around a winning team, especially since Bowyer had won for the second time, becoming only the fourth driver with multiple wins this season. But while typical, it also felt a bit forced and overplayed, considering that week earlier some were putting Kyle Larson in that fourth slot.
However, with Bowyer’s third-place run at Sonoma Raceway – finishing behind Truex and Harvick and two spots ahead of Busch – he did indeed seal his place in the conversation.
Such a run showed Bowyer and the No. 14 group can contend with the other favorites, and do so anywhere. In the case of Sonoma, a road course. His two wins came on completely different layouts: a short track and a high-speed intermediate.
Take this bunch seriously. After a year of adjusting at Stewart-Haas Racing, Bowyer and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz are now hitting on all cylinders, and Bowyer looks like a legitimate title contender for just the second time in his Cup Series career. The first was in 2012 at Michael Waltrip Racing, when he had career-highs in every category and finished as the championship runner-up.
Bowyer could do with some stage wins to keep better pace in playoff points. But when comparing him across the board to the other three, he is not far behind. That also goes for his laps led and average finish: he actually owns an average finish slightly better than Truex (10.2 to 10.8).
The point is, Bowyer is right there and is just as good as the three drivers who are already being penciled in for Homestead-Miami.
Still, the playoffs are going to consist of 16 drivers once September rolls around. So, here’s how the playoff grid looks with 10 races left in the regular season:
Kevin Harvick (5 wins; 26 playoff points) The best Ford and SHR driver. Can win in bunches and will probably do so again. Also continues to rack up laps led and stage wins.
Kyle Busch (4 wins; 25 playoff points) The best Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing driver. Can also win in bunches and lead a ton of laps. Even when he’s not in the picture, Busch is finishing races, which reflect in his series-best average finish of 7.2.
Martin Truex Jr. (3 wins; 18 playoff points) In just a good a spot now as he was a year ago despite not having all the stage wins and playoff points. Has more wins and poles this time around, and the defending champs feel good about their outlook.
Clint Bowyer (2 wins; 10 playoff points) Playing with house money. Bowyer and company have the confidence and speed to keep trending upward.
Joey Logano (1 win; 7 playoff points) Officially locked into the playoffs, unlike last year. Quiet and steady for Logano, with the second-best average finish in the series (8.8) and a couple of stage wins.
Austin Dillon (1 win; 5 playoff points) Won the Daytona 500 and hasn’t been relevant since. The No. 3 team again needs to find speed and consistency to go deep into the postseason.
Brad Keselowski (+208 points above cutoff; 4 playoff points) Off to a solid start, but must be frustrated not having yet been to victory lane. The upside is that Keselowski is gobbling up stage points and stage wins to help him stay high in the standings.
Kurt Busch (+178 points above cutoff; 2 playoff points) Much improved from last year when it comes to earning stage points. Busch is about a fifth to 10th-place competitor each week.
Denny Hamlin (+159 points above cutoff; 2 playoff points) Has two stage wins, but still fighting to get over the hump of consistently contending for race wins.
Kyle Larson (+126 points above cutoff; 0 playoff points) Continues to be the best of the Chevrolet camp. However, also hot or cold on any given weekend with nine top-10 finishes and then seven finishes of 14th or worse.
Aric Almirola (+125 points above cutoff; 0 playoff points) Certainly not at the level of teammates Harvick and Bowyer, but I expect things to get better during the second half of the season as they continue to add to their notebook.
Ryan Blaney (+120 points above cutoff; 4 playoff points) Has the fourth-most stage points in the series and a forgotten about – until you look – 444 laps led. Also has three DNFs.
Jimmie Johnson (+73 points above cutoff; 0 playoff points) Still in whatever funk the team caught midway through last year, and working with the new Camaro body hasn’t helped. Hard to think of Johnson missing the postseason, but not hard to envision him continuing to go winless.
Chase Elliott (+65 points above cutoff; 0 playoff points) Speaking of wins, they also still elude Elliott. The No. 24 team is doing a fine job of points racing, though. In Sonoma, they maximized the day with points in both stages and then finishing in the top five.
Erik Jones (+30 points above cutoff; 0 playoff points) Hungry to make the playoffs after missing out last year when he made a push late in the summer. The No. 20 team is also among those who need more speed and consistency.
Alex Bowman (+17 points above cutoff; 0 playoff points) Managing to put himself in playoff contention as his group works on their chemistry and car balance. Unless they can squeak out a win, he’ll be on the hot seat until the field is officially set in Indianapolis.