Monster Energy Cup Series heads into playoffs

Can Truex win his first title, or will Johnson become series’ first eight-time champ

Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota heads through turn one during the Coca-Cola 600 on May 28 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Sunday, May 28, 2017. Truex is one of the favorites heading in to NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series playoffs. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

It’s playoff time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, with the 10-race postseason kicking off Sunday at 3 p.m. with the Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. Martin Truex Jr., who tied Kyle Larson for the most wins in the series with four, is the favorite after a dominating 26-race regular season that saw him finish in the top 10 a series-best 17 times.

Lurking are Kyle Busch — the 2015 Cup champion who Truex topped for the 2004 Busch Series title, the first of Truex’s consecutive championships in what is now called the Xfinity Series — and Jimmie Johnson, who is tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most Cup titles with seven and looking for his record-breaking eighth.


It’s also the goodbye tour for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will retire a month after his 43rd birthday following the season finale Nov. 19 at Homestead.

Sixteen drivers will compete in the two-month-long playoffs — previously called the Chase for the Cup — in three, three-race stages, with a race win guaranteeing advancement to the next stage and four drivers being eliminated at the end of each stage. The four remaining drivers after the third stage will compete at the Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the highest finisher winning the title.

Here’s a look at the 16 playoff qualifiers, their postseason history and what to look for when the playoffs get underway Sunday in Chicago.

Jamie McMurray
No. 1  |  Chip Ganassi Racing

McMurray has had trouble reaching the winner’s circle (no points wins since 2013), but this is the third-straight year he’s made the playoffs. McMurray’s 13 top-10s were tied for eighth most in the series, and four of his seven career Cup wins have come at playoff tracks in Charlotte and Talladega.

Brad Keselowski
No. 2  |  Team Penske

Keselowski is in the postseason for the fourth straight year and sixth time in his career, which includes his 2012 title. His five DNF’s match a career high (2010), but his two wins early in the season (Atlanta on March 5; Martinsville on April 2) secured him a spot in the playoffs.

Austin Dillon
No. 3  |  Richard Childress Racing

Dillon, Richard Childress’ grandson, returned the famed No. 3 to victory lane this season with a win in Charlotte at the Coca-Cola 600, the first of his career. However it was one of only four finishes in the top 10 for Dillon —but two of them have come in the last four races.

Kevin Harvick
No. 4  |  Stewart-Haas Racing

Harvick, the 2014 champion, got his lone win on the road course at Sonoma, but he won two postseason races last year and is tied with retired Tony Stewart for second all-time in playoff wins with 11. Harvick has won at least one postseason race in each of the past five seasons.

Kasey Kahne
No. 5  |  Hendrick Motorsports

Kahne is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2014, thanks to his win at the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis in July — his first victory in more than 100 races. Kahne has two playoff wins in his career, but as of right now has no ride next season with William Byron taking his seat at Hendrick.

Denny Hamlin
No. 11  |  Joe Gibbs Racing

Hamlin has been a factor nearly every week since mid-June with two wins and 10 total top 5’s in the past 15 races. His winning car was deemed illegal after the Darlington race, so crew chief Mike Wheeler won’t be available at Chicagoland as he completes his two-race suspension.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
No. 17  |  Roush Fenway Racing

Roush’s two titles came in the last year of the old points format (2003, Matt Kenseth) and the first year of the playoff (2004, Kurt Busch). But Roush Fenway missed the playoffs each of the last two years, so for Stenhouse — who got in with superspeedway wins at Talladega and Daytona — making it is a step forward.

Kyle Busch
No. 18  |  Joe Gibbs Racing

Busch, the 2015 champion and racing’s biggest villain, has come on strong down the stretch with wins at Pocono (July 30) and Bristol (Aug. 19) along with a second-place finish at Darlington two weeks ago. But in nine previous playoff appearances, Busch has totaled just two race wins.

Matt Kenseth
No. 20  |  Joe Gibbs Racing

Kenseth has missed the postseason just once in its 14 years (2009) but has never won a championship under the playoff format, having earned his title in 2003 in the last year of the old points system. Twice a playoff runner-up (2006, 2013), Kenseth — without a ride for next year — is looking for title No. 2.

Ryan Blaney
No. 21  |  Wood Brothers Racing

Blaney made his first Chase courtesy his win at Pocono on June 11, also the first time the Wood Brothers have earned a spot in the playoffs. Blaney is scheduled to move to Team Penske next season, but he is guaranteed a top-16 finish in the standings — the Woods Brothers’ best since the mid-1990s.

Chase Elliott
No. 24  |  Hendrick Motorsports

Just 21 and in his second full Cup season, Elliott has made the postseason again after crashing the playoff party as a rookie. Driving the Hendrick car made famous by Jeff Gordon, Elliott is looking to emerge from father Bill’s shadow. The younger Elliott will man Bill’s old No. 9 next year.

Ryan Newman
No. 31  |  Richard Childress Racing

This will mark the eighth time Newman has made the postseason, returning courtesy of a win at Phoenix, after missing the playoffs last year. Newman finished second in 2014, losing out to Kevin Harvick on a side-by-side, green-white-checkered finish at the Homestead finale.

Kurt Busch
No. 41  |  Stewart-Haas Racing

The elder Busch won it all in 2004, the first year of the playoff format, but is still searching for his second title in what will be his 11th season in the playoffs. He has one win this season — at the season-opening Daytona 500 — but has not won a postseason race since joining Stewart-Haas in 2014.

Kyle Larson
No. 42  |  Chip Ganassi Racing

Larson’s season started on a low note when he ran out of gas on the final lap while leading the Daytona 500, but he won four other times, including the regular season finale at Richmond and a month ago at Michigan. It’s Larson’s second crack at the playoffs, and he’s looking to give Ganassi its first title.

Jimmie Johnson
No. 48  |  Hendrick Motorsports

No one is going to underestimate the seven-time champion. Johnson has made the playoffs in all 14 years since NASCAR implemented it, and the reigning champion — who notched three wins this season — is looking to surpass Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most titles ever.

Martin Truex Jr.
No. 78  |  Furniture Row Racing

Truex won four races for the second straight year, but added even more consistency in 2017. Could Truex become the fourth first-time champion (Brad Keselowski, 2012; Kevin Harvick, 2014; Kyle Busch, 2015) in the past seven seasons? Don’t bet against Furniture Row.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff schedule

Sept. 17

Tales of the Turtles 400

Chicagoland Speedway

Joliet, Ill.

3 p.m. | NBCSN

Sept. 24

ISM Connect 300

New Hampshire Speedway

Loudon, N.H.

2 p.m. | NBCSN

Oct. 1

Apache Warrior 400

Dover International Speedway

Dover, Del.

2 p.m. | NBCSN

Oct. 8

Bank of America 500

Charlotte Motor Speedway

Concord, N.C.

2 p.m. | NBC

Oct. 15

Alabama 500

Talladega Superspeedway

Lincoln, Ala.

2 p.m. | NBC

Oct. 22

Hollywood Casino 400

Kansas Speedway

Kansas City, Kan.

3 p.m. | NBCSN

Oct. 29

First Data 500

Martinsville Speedway

Ridgeway, Va.

3 p.m. | NBCSN

Nov. 5

AAA Texas 500

Texas Motor Speedway

Fort Worth, Texas

2 p.m. | NBCSN

Nov. 12

Can-Am 500

Phoenix Raceway

Avondale, Ariz. 

2:30 p.m. | NBC

Nov. 19

Ford Ecoboost 400

Homestead-Miami Speedway

Homestead, Fla.

2:30 p.m. | NBC