Harvick, Hamlin … and everyone else

The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs start Sunday at Darlington with 16 drivers competing for a title

Denny Hamlin (11) and Kevin Harvick (4) are the favorites heading into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. (Mark Humphrey / AP Photo)

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs get underway Sunday at Darlington with 16 drivers — including six former champions — vying to be the last man standing at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 8.

The field of established veterans and emerging stars is led by favorites Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, who combined to win half of the circuit’s 26 regular-season races.

Seven race teams have drivers in the playoffs, led by Stewart-Haas Racing with all four of its cars in the running. Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske all have three drivers in the playoffs. Here’s a look at the 16 drivers.

Kurt Busch

1 • Kurt Busch

Chip Ganassi Racing • Chevrolet

Path to the title: The 2004 champion finished third at Darlington in the first race back after the coronavirus shutdown, and a good showing there could get the No. 1 team started on the right foot.

Standing in the way: The elder Busch brother hasn’t had much luck since the Cup Series moved to a playoff format and also has not won a race this season.

Brad Keselowski

2 • Brad Keselowski

Team Penske • Ford

Path to the title: The 2012 champion has three wins on the season and his 19 top-10s are second only to Harvick’s 21. He’s completed 6,570 of 6,657 laps so far this season with just two finishes outside the top 20 — both due to crashes.

Standing in the way: In a normal year, Keselowski would be one of the favorites. But despite the No. 2’s solid season, it has not been at the same level as Harvick and Hamlin.

Austin Dillon

3 • Austin Dillon

Richard Childress Racing • Chevrolet

Path to the title: If the Welcome native can claw his way to the Round of 8, the No. 3 team will get to return to the site of its win this season, Texas. Another win there would then get Dillon into the winner-take-all finale at Phoenix.

Standing in the way: Dillon’s seven top-10s so far this season are the second-fewest among the playoff qualifiers, and he is also at the disadvantage of being one of just three drivers with no teammates in the postseason.

Kevin Harvick

4 • Kevin Harvick

Stewart-Haas Racing • Ford

Path to the title: Harvick is the favorite. The 2014 champion’s seven wins, 17 top-fives and 21 top-10s are all tops among Cup drivers this season, and the title will be decided at a track where he has won a career-best nine times in 35 races.

Standing in the way: There’s not much outside of Hamlin, but winning races is the easiest way to advance in the playoffs, and — despite all his success this season — Harvick has won this year at just one of the playoff tracks (Darlington).

Chase Elliott

9 • Chase Elliott

Hendrick Motorsports • Chevrolet

Path to the title: It feels like it will only be a matter of time before Elliott wins a title, so why not this year? The 24-year-old will have a chance to win a fourth straight road course race at Charlotte’s Roval on Oct. 11, and he certainly has a flair for the dramatic that lends itself to a championship hunt.

Standing in the way: It’s been 25 years since someone as young as Elliott won the Cup Series title (Jeff Gordon in 1995), and while Elliott’s time is coming, it may not be here quite yet.

Aric Almirola

10 • Aric Almirola

Stewart-Haas Racing • Ford

Path to the title: Almirola is having arguably his best Cup season despite not getting a win in the regular season and has shown the ability to be consistent with a run of nine-straight top-10s in the middle of the season.

Standing in the way: Almirola is an underdog and his teammate Harvick will likely get most of the attention. Winning a title will probably take multiple playoff wins, and Almirola has just two for his career.

Denny Hamlin

11 • Denny Hamlin

Joe Gibbs Racing • Toyota

Path to the title: Hamlin is arguably the best active driver not to win a championship, and this year feels like his best chance yet. He and Harvick have gone back and forth all season, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be that way right down to the final lap at Phoenix.

Standing in the way: Hamlin’s having a once-in-a-lifetime season and still isn’t the favorite thanks to Harvick. He’s only reached the Championship 4 once, finishing eighth and behind (guess who?) Harvick and Ryan Newman, who finished 1-2.

Ryan Blaney

12 • Ryan Blaney

Team Penske • Ford

Path to the title: The High Point native’s 11 top-10s are on the low side among playoff participants, but eight of those were top-fives. He’s made the Round 8 twice in the last three years, and his two good performances at the CMS Roval (including a win in 2018) could help the No. 12 get that far again.

Standing in the way: The biggest black mark on Blaney season has been the number of bad finishes: five races finishing 31st or worse. One result like that can derail a playoff run, and Blaney hasn’t yet shown he’s capable of winning his way through the postseason.

Clint Bowyer

14 • Clint Bowyer

Stewart-Haas Racing • Ford

Path to the title: The 41-year-old is in his 15th season and should benefit from playoff races at short tracks in Richmond and Bristol in the Round of 16, and he has also fared well and the Charlotte Roval and Talladega — both in the Round 12.

Standing in the way: Bowyer has won just twice in the last eight seasons — both in 2018 — and outside of his dismal 2016 season with HScott Motorsports, this year has been arguably the worst of his career.

Kyle Busch

18 • Kyle Busch

Joe Gibbs Racing • Toyota

Path to the title: No one is going to rule out the defending champion regardless of how his current season has gone. Despite not having a win, the younger Busch has 11 top-fives — tied for the third most among playoff drivers.

Standing in the way: It’s been a feast-or-famine season for Busch, who has finished 26th or worse eight times this year. Busch has never gone a full season without winning, so he should have at least one in him — but is there more?

Martin Truex Jr.

19 • Martin Truex Jr.

Joe Gibbs Racing • Toyota

Path to the title: In Truex’s last 10 races, he has three seconds, five thirds, a fourth and a 29th. While there’s no wins in that list — and only one overall this season — a string of 10 more races like that will give the 2017 champ a shot at his second title.

Standing in the way: The 2017 champion continues to be one of the Cup Series’ top drivers, but this year he’s been in the second tier of contenders behind Harvick and Hamlin. Of the 11 Cup Series tracks Truex has not won at, five are among the 10 playoff races — including the new Championship 4 track, Phoenix.

Matt DiBenedetto

21. • Matt DiBenedetto

Wood Brothers Racing • Ford

Path to the title: Everyone loves to root for a Cinderella, and DiBenedetto is that. No team has more experience than the Wood Brothers, and not many penciled them in for the playoffs at the start of the season.

Standing in the way: Honestly, it’s hard to see a scenario where DiBenedetto wins the title. He has just five top-fives in 202 career races and is still in search of his first win.

Joey Logano

22 • Joey Logano

Team Penske • Ford

Path to the title: Logano, like Keselowski, has been overshadowed by the Big Two this season, but the No. 22 is certainly among the championship favorites. Logano has won at all but two of the playoff tracks, and he’s proven he can win in the playoffs before.

Standing in the way: The 2018 champion has had a good season, but it hasn’t been as good as he’s used to — his six top-fives this season are on pace for his fewest since 2012.

William Byron

24 • William Byron

Hendrick Motorsports • Chevrolet

Path to the title: The Charlotte native had big shoes to fill in the No. 24, but Hendrick Motorsports might be getting rewarded for its patience. Byron got his first win last week at Daytona and is riding a wave of momentum.

Standing in the way: Byron’s win Saturday night was incredibly encouraging, but it’s unrealistic to expect a 22-year-old to make a legitimate push for the title in his second playoff berth.

Cole Custer

41 • Cole Custer

Stewart-Haas Racing • Ford

Path to the title: The lone rookie in the playoff field, Custer pulled off arguably the move of the season with his four-wide pass to win at Kentucky. The 22-year-old has the talent to pull off the miraculous, so why not a stunning Cup title?

Standing in the way: Realistically, Custer just isn’t consistent enough of a contender to come out on top during a 10-race championship battle. He hovered around 20th in the points most of the season and is not yet ready to compete with the experienced field.

Alex Bowman

88 • Alex Bowman

Hendrick Motorsports • Chevrolet

Path to the title: This will be Bowman’s third straight year in the playoffs, and he enters this year’s postseason with back-to-back top-10s. Both Kansas and the Charlotte Roval have been kind to Bowman.

Standing in the way: Despite good runs the past two weeks, the No. 88 has been outside the top 20 five times in the last 11 races. Neither of Bowman’s two career Cup wins — Fontana this year and Chicago last year — came at playoff tracks.