Cup playoffs get underway Sunday at Las Vegas

Seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson didn’t make the cut, but there are plenty of familiar faces — and some new ones — chasing a title

Kyle Busch (18) is one of the favorites entering the NASCAR Cup playoffs, but Charlotte native William Byron (24) is among the young drivers trying to break through. (John Munson / AP Photo)

The 2019 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs field is set after Roush Fenway Racing’s Ryan Newman grabbed the 16th and final spot Sunday at Indianapolis. It’s a group with plenty of championship experience — there are six former Cup Series title holders among the qualified drivers, though seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson missed the postseason for the first time in his career.

Here’s a look at all 16 drivers who qualified for the playoffs, which start Sunday at Las Vegas and include a stop in North Carolina on Sept. 29 for the second “roval” race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The 10-race battle for the Cup will end Nov. 17 at Homestead.

The Favorites


18 — Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing

The 2018 champion enters the postseason atop the point standings for the second straight year. One of three drivers with four wins so far this season, Busch led the Cup Series with 10 stage wins, 21 top-10s and tied for the most top-fives with 13. He starts the playoffs with 45 points already banked, and “Rowdy” has one win (2009) in 16 Cup races at Las Vegas.

11 — Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing

If you’re trying to find a driver who could win his first title this season, Hamlin is the one to bet on. The 38-year-old was one of the three drivers with four wins and also tied Busch with 13 top-fives. He’ll start the postseason with 30 points but is still looking for his first win at Las Vegas where’s he’s struggled to just two top-fives and seven top-10s in 15 visits.

19 — Martin Truex Jr., Joe Gibbs Racing

You might be noticing a theme by now: the Gibbs team is the one to beat. Truex is in his first year with the team after winning the title in 2017 and finishing second a year ago with the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing. He won four races as well and banked 29 postseason points, but he was out of the top 10 in each of the regular season’s final three races.

22 — Joey Logano, Team Penske

You never count out the defending champ. Logano’s 2019 (two wins, nine top-fives) wasn’t dominant by any measure, but neither was his resume entering last year’s playoffs. That didn’t keep “Sliced Bread” — who starts with 28 points —from winning his first title. Last year he toppled two eight-race winners, and this year he’ll have to overcome the three-headed Gibbs monster.

Former Champs

4 — Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing

The 2014 champion finished third last season despite matching Busch with eight wins, and Harvick’s finished third or better in the final standings seven of the last nine seasons. He’s tied with Logano with 28 points to start the playoffs, but could make a dent in Busch’s lead with a win at Las Vegas — he’s won there twice before, including last year’s spring race.

6 — Brad Keselowski, Team Penske

The 2012 champ won three times this season and has 24 points entering the playoffs. His 966 laps led were second only to Busch, and he has three wins in 12 career Cup races at Las Vegas and finished second there in the spring. That should give him the perfect opportunity to advance to the next round — like he did last year with a win in the Las Vegas playoff race.

1 — Kurt Busch, Chip Ganassi Racing

Busch had just five top-fives this season and hasn’t been close to winning a second championship in the last decade. That said, the 2004 Cup winner — who won at Kentucky this year and has 11 points entering the playoffs — ranked sixth in average finishing spot this season (11.8) and is hoping to have better postseason luck in his first season with Ganassi.

Young Guns

9 — Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports

The 23-year-old son of racing royalty has already made a name for himself with five career wins  — one on a superspeedway, one on a short track, another on a 1.5-miler and two road course victories. He’ll need to exhibit that versatility to enter the Cup Series’ upper echelon. His 18 points put him seventh to start the playoffs, so he should have a cushion in the first round of races.

88 — Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports

Even with Johnson’s decline, Hendrick has a stable of drivers on the rise with Elliott, William Byron and the 26-year-old Bowman. Bowman got his first career win this season at Chicagoland, but he’s had a rough go since then with a 10th-place finish at Michigan his best showing in the last nine races following his victory.

20 — Erik Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing

Jones is “the other guy” in Gibbs stable, but the 23-year-old is likely the future of the Cup Series’ current top team. Jones got his first win of the year — and second of his career — two weeks ago at Darlington and enters the playoffs with five points. He’s never led a lap at any of the first four playoff tracks, so he’ll need to find some magic to move on.

12 — Ryan Blaney, Team Penske

The High Point native is yet to reach Victory Lane this season after winning one race in each of the previous two years, but Blaney’s seven top-fives are already just one shy of the career-high eight he had last season and starts with four playoff points. He won the inaugural Charlotte “roval” race last year, and that is the third stop on the playoff schedule this season.

24 — William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports

The 21-year-old from Charlotte reached the playoffs in just his second Cup season and is, along with Blaney, one of North Carolina’s two championship hopefuls. Byron is still looking for his first win in NASCAR’s top series, but he registered three top-fives this season and has already more than doubled his top-10s from his rookie campaign. He has one playoff point entering the Las Vegas race.

In The Mix

42 — Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing

Larson has now gone two seasons without a win after winning four back in 2017. But he had eight top-10s in the final 11 races of the regular season, including runner-up finishes at Chicagoland and Darlington. It will take more of that — and likely a win or two along the way — for Larson, who enters the playoffs with five points, to make noise.

10 — Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing

The veteran driver had the best season of his career last year, finishing fifth, and he was nearly as good in 2019. While Almirola didn’t get a win this season and enters the postseason with one playoff point, he averaged a 14.8-place finish (the second-best of his career behind last year’s 12.8). Both his career wins have come on superspeedways, and the series visits Talladega in the fifth postseason race.

14 — Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing

Bowyer reached the postseason despite having six DNFs — tied for the most with Ryan Preece in the series — but finished the regular season with a seventh at Bristol, sixth at Darlington and fifth at Indianapolis. The 2012 championship runner-up has won just twice in the last seven seasons (both last year) but was third at the CMS “roval” last year.

6 — Ryan Newman, Roush Fenway Racing

In his first season with Roush, the 41-year-old got the team into the postseason with an eighth-place finish at Indianapolis last weekend. He’s no stranger to the playoffs — Newman finished second in 2014 — but he’s facing an uphill climb with no playoff points banked and only one top-five all season. Any kind of run will need to start at Las Vegas, where he has nine top-10s in 20 races there.