The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin Sunday evening at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the same place Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin traded wins when the sport resumed racing in May.
Harvick and Hamlin have continued to trade shots all year, combining to win 13 of 26 races. They also led the series in laps led and stage wins, which they tied at seven each. Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers claimed the regular-season title, while Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart were second.
Consistent domination translated to early headlines of Harvick and Hamlin being the championship favorites. That hasn’t changed now that the postseason is here with Harvick holding 57 playoff points in his pocket and Hamlin 47.
Both seemingly have an easy path to the title race at Phoenix.
“It means everybody else is racing for two spots and not four,” said Stewart-Haas Racing vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli. “I think those two guys are going to go and run head-to-head and win races in the next 10 (races) and move on. I wouldn’t expect anything to change amongst those two guys.
“The curious thing is, which team driver will step up in the next 10 weeks and match what they’ve done?”
Brad Keselowski enters the postseason as the third seed. Keselowski and his No. 2 Team Penske group earned three race wins and 29 playoff points during the regular season. Those numbers are the closest any other driver came to what Harvick and Hamlin accomplished, however, Keselowski has the second-most top-10 finishes (19) in the series behind Harvick (21).
Playoff points will be an advantage; Keselowski doesn’t deny that fact. But with how the postseason schedule lays out, Keselowski doesn’t believe any driver can just sail through each round.
“They’ve got a lot of bonus points, there ain’t no doubt about that,” said Keselowski. “That’s going to serve them really, really well as they go through the rounds, but I tell you, I don’t know if there are enough bonus points in the world to get you through that second round. That second round is hairy. Talladega is going to be hairy. The Roval is going to be hairy. You’re going to want to go to Vegas and win.”
Las Vegas hosts the first race in the Round of 12. Talladega, the final superspeedway race of the year, is always considered unpredictable, and the Charlotte road course as an elimination race has produced memorable moments in its two races. Think Chase Elliott driving into the Turn 1 tire barrier last year, or Keselowski leading the field into a big crash in that same corner in year one, and even Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. spinning from the top two spots in the final chicane on the last lap.
“The way the format is set up, it is intentionally designed not to allow somebody to just coast through no matter how good your regular season is,” continued Keselowski. “So, I suspect that at least one of those two guys will find themselves in a spot at some point in time that they didn’t want to be.”
Elliott doesn’t necessarily believe the field is racing for two spots instead of four at Phoenix. Elliott, who starts the playoffs as the fifth seed with two wins and 20 playoff points, also points to the unknown that can arise over the next few weeks.
“Those guys have certainly had a phenomenal year for sure, they’re very deserving of their bonus points and all the things they’ve acquired,” Elliott said. “But we race for a reason, and heck, who knows? There are so many variables and things that can happen. They have an abundance of points, for sure.
“Are they likely to go to Phoenix? Absolutely. Do I think they deserve to be in the final four? Yes, I do. But the way this points deal is, you can have a bad couple of races or a bad few stages, and the next thing you know, guys have made up 30 or 40 points on you pretty quick. So, it can certainly shift gears in a hurry.”
Sixth-seed Martin Truex Jr. knows plenty about the importance of playoff points. Truex tore through the series in 2017 when the bonus points debuted, and used them to his advantage to advance to the championship race. That year, Truex started with 53 playoff points. But he goes into this year with 14 bonus points and one win.
“I still think there are probably at least three (spots) open,” said Truex. “There are no guarantees. Yeah, those guys are running good, they have a lot of playoff points, and I’ve been in that position before, and you still understand there’s opportunity that you couldn’t make it. It would be a huge disappointment; it would be a huge surprise if those two didn’t make it for sure, but there’s always outside opportunities.
“There’s a chance you are only racing for two spots, but again, you never know. I think for us, we go into the playoffs and feel like, if we win a race every round, then we are set. That’s kind of our mindset.”
Of the 26 races in the regular season, Harvick finished outside the top 10 five times. Hamlin did so nine times.