Kyle Larson the favorite heading into Cup Series Playoffs

The Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 is in the driver’s seat with the postseason starting this weekend

Kyle Larson, left, has been the driver to beat in this year's Cup Series, but defending champion Chase Elliott, center, and Denny Hamlin, right, will both be looking to come out on top when the 10-race playoffs begin Sunday at Darlington. (Chris Szagola / AP Photo)

The green flag drops on the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs at Darlington on Sunday. The 16 drivers who qualified for the postseason will be trimmed by four after three, six and nine races, with the four cars left standing to race for the championship at Phoenix on Nov. 7.

Every Cup Series champion since 2012 other than the retired Jimmie Johnson is in the field, including 2020’s winner, Chase Elliott.

1 • Kurt Busch

Chip Ganassi Racing • Chevrolet

Path to the title: Busch will jump to 23XI Racing next year, taking sponsor Monster Energy with him. Maybe he and Chip Ganassi — who is on his way out of NASCAR — have one last run in them.

Standing in the way: Busch’s late-season win at Atlanta earned him a spot, but he had just four top-five finishes and nine top-10s in 26 races in the regular season.

2 • Brad Keselowski

Team Penske • Ford

Path to the title: The 2012 champion is in his final 10 races at Penske before he takes part ownership at Roush Fenway Racing. He has just one win this season, but it’s at the site of the postseason’s fourth race, Talladega.

Standing in the way: Moving the championship race to Phoenix didn’t do Keselowski any favors. In 24 career Cup races at the track, Keselowski has no wins and has been outside the top 10 in half his trips to the desert.

4 • Kevin Harvick

Stewart-Haas Racing • Ford

Path to the title: Harvick doesn’t have a win this season, but the No. 4 was in Victory Lane nine times a year ago and had 21 victories from 2018-20. He knows how to win, even if it hasn’t happened in 2021.

Standing in the way: Could the tread be worn off Harvick’s career? He led just 109 laps all year and, unless he heats up, his six top-10s look like there’ll be his fewest since he had just five in 2012.

5 • Kyle Larson

Hendrick Motorsports • Chevrolet

Path to the title: It’s fitting Larson’s first championship could come in a title race at Phoenix. The 29-year-old, who was fired by Ganassi for using a racial slur during an iRacing event during the pandemic, has risen from the ashes and has been this season’s top driver.

Standing in the way: Everyone’s been gunning for Larson all season, but the stakes will get even higher in the playoffs. He’ll also need to find a way to win at the postseason tracks — his only career Cup wins at the 10 playoff sites were once each at Richmond and Las Vegas.

8 • Tyler Reddick

Richard Childress Racing • Chevrolet

Path to the title: Although he’s still looking for his first win at NASCAR’s top level, Reddick did reach the postseason for the first time in his three-year Cup career. He does have a few Xfinity wins at postseason tracks.

Standing in the way: This will be a learning experience for Reddick, who has just two career top-fives at the 10 playoff tracks. That said, he could make the first cut and, with some breaks, a little noise.

9 • Chase Elliott

Hendrick Motorsports • Chevrolet

Path to the title: The defending champ has taken a back seat to teammate Larson this year, but Elliott finished in the top eight in six of the last seven races and is the favorite at any road course.

Standing in the way: Last year felt like a coronation for NASCAR’s next big star, but Elliott learned this year that the talent pool is deep in the Cup Series. He might need three postseason wins again to hold onto his crown.

10 • Aric Almirola

Stewart-Haas Racing • Ford

Path to the title: If Almirola can get to the title race at Phoenix, it’s arguably his best track — his 14.6 average finish there is his best at any Cup track he’s raced at more than once. He finished fifth in the 2018 postseason, just missing a spot in the championship race.

Standing in the way: No driver in the postseason has fewer top-10s than Almirola’s three, and his average finish this season is 21st — worst among the playoff cars.

11 • Denny Hamlin

Joe Gibbs Racing • Toyota

Path to the title: Hamlin somehow didn’t win a race this season, but he was second in top-fives (13), top-10s (17) and laps led (821). He led the Cup Series with an average finish of 9.1.

Standing in the way: Well, Larson. But Hamlin will also need to end a Victory Lane drought that dates back to last season’s playoff race at Talladega. Matt Kenseth (2003) is the last driver to win a title without winning a race, and that predates the win-friendly playoff format.

12 • Ryan Blaney

Team Penske • Ford

Path to the title: No one’s hotter entering the postseason. Blaney won the last two races and was runner-up in the stop before that. At 27, Blaney is hitting his prime and his time may be now.

Standing in the way: Blaney’s won at only two of the 10 playoff tracks during his Cup career — Charlotte’s Roval and Talladega. He also has just one career top-five at the first three playoff tracks (fourth at Bristol in April 2019).

18 • Kyle Busch

Joe Gibbs Racing • Toyota

Path to the title: After a disappointing 2020, Busch won twice this season and again looked like a title contender. No one competes harder than the man piloting the No. 18 — even if it means leaving carnage in his wake.

Standing in the way: Despite running near the front most of the year, Busch led just 247 laps through 26 races. For a driver that has led more than a thousand laps in a season 10 times — including 2,023 in 2017 — there has to be some concern that, at 36, he’s slipping.

19 • Martin Truex Jr.

Joe Gibbs Racing • Toyota

Path to the title: Truex tied for second in the Cup Series with three wins and has shown throughout his career he can win at any kind of track. Don’t rule him out.

Standing in the way: Truex finished outside the top 10 in six of the last 10 races and picked up his three wins in the first 12 weeks. Does the No. 19 have a second wind?

20 • Christopher Bell

Joe Gibbs Racing • Toyota

Path to the title: Bell earned his spot early with the Week 2 win on Daytona’s road course and then had four straight top-10s — including two seconds — in July and early August.

Standing in the way: Bell crashed out of two of the final three races. If you can’t get to Victory Lane in the playoffs, you can’t afford DNFs.

22 • Joey Logano

Team Penske • Ford

Path to the title: The 2018 champion has multiple victories at half of the playoff tracks and is seemingly always in contention for the title without putting up gaudy win totals. He’s reached the championship race in three of the last five years and made the final eight in seven of the last eight.

Standing in the way: Logano had just two top-fives in the final dozen regular season races, and his only win of the season came on the dirt at Bristol. It just hasn’t felt like 2021 is the No. 22’s year.

24 • William Byron

Hendrick Motorsports • Chevrolet

Path to the title: Byron matched his career total of top fives with nine through 26 races this season and, at 23, is starting to come into his own in his fourth Cup season.

Standing in the way: Byron is probably still fourth in the pecking order at Hendrick, but getting the stable’s youngest driver more experience is probably the top priority for the team.

34 • Michael McDowell

Front Row Motorsports • Ford

Path to the title: McDowell shocked the world with his season-opening win at Daytona and had three straight top-10s to start the season. Maybe he can get hot again at the right time?

Standing in the way: The No. 34 spent half of the season finishing outside the top 20 and had just two more top-10s after his hot start.

48 • Alex Bowman

Hendrick Motorsports • Chevrolet

Path to the title: Bowman had a sneaky good season, winning three times and banking 13 top-10s. He’s been one of the better drivers at the Charlotte Roval, one of the playoff stops.

Standing in the way: Like Keselowski, Phoenix has been unkind to Bowman. In 12 trips to the site of the championship race, Bowman has just one top 10 — a sixth back in 2016.