The NASCAR regular season is long and grinding, constantly shooting fans and drivers to the farthest corners of the United States.
It also — thankfully — is almost over.
Thankfully not because we’re glad the racing season is dwindling, but because of what else that signifies:
The start of the Cup Series playoffs and the hunt for a NASCAR championship.
Sixteen drivers will advance to the postseason, with only one able to walk away with the title in November. But before we get into playoff cutdowns and elimination races, there’s the issues of, you know, actually making the playoffs.
Currently, nine drivers have qualified by virtue of winning a race. That means no matter what happens these last six weekends of the regular season, those lucky nine — Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman — are safe.
That means seven spots are still up for grabs though, and there are a number of drivers vying for them in an ultra-competitive points standings. The gap between Kyle Larson in 12th and Daniel Suarez in 18th is a measly 31 points. That can easily swing in the course of six races, although the time for massive leaderboard jumps is also fast-escaping.
And while some drivers will be able to hang to their points cushions and slide into the playoffs that way (looking at you, William Byron), there’s only one surefire way to earn your golden ticket:
Starting with Pocono this week, there are winnable tracks still out there over the next two months. Watkins Glen, Bristol and Darlington all lend themselves well to close racing, meaning the 10 or so drivers competing for the last seven playoff spots will truly have to earn their way into the postseason.
Still, some have a better shot at winning than others. Specifically, it wouldn’t be a shock if any of these three drivers made their way to Victory Lane before the end of the regular season:
1. William Byron
Still just 21, it’s fairly remarkable what Byron has been able to accomplish in just his second Cup season. Having Chad Knaus as his crew chief this year — Knaus previously won seven championships with Byron’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson — definitely has made that possible. His second-place finish at Daytona is somewhat misleading because the race was called early for rain, but he’s improving without a doubt. Byron may still be a year away from victory at NASCAR’s highest level, but strictly based off the cars HMS can provide, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see him steal a win in 2019.
2. Ryan Blaney
Blaney is more than just the forgotten man at Team Penske, although he certainly has to be frustrated with his relative lack of success compared to teammates Keselowski and Logano. He was more of a contender early this year when he rolled off four Top 5s in the span of five weeks, but he’s also been a consistent fixture in the Top 10 since June began. Blaney is a near-lock for the playoffs on points alone, but it would be nice to see him visit Victory Lane beforehand and mount a run in the postseason.
3. Ryan Newman
Surprised to see Newman on this list? Don’t be. He’s finished in the Top 10 five of the last six races, which is especially impressive considering his Roush-Fenway teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has just two such finishes all season. Newman may not be flashy or a sexy name, but he’s a rock-solid NASCAR driver with boatloads of experience. He might not still be the legit championship contender he once was, but he’s peaking at a good time and will continue contending as the playoffs approach.
This week’s NASCAR race at Pocono: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Gander RV 400.
Distance: 160 laps, or 400 miles.
Where: Pocono Raceway, a 2,5-mile asphalt triangle in Long Pond, Pa.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday.
Last year’s winner: Kyle Busch.
Also this week: U.S. Cellular 250, Xfinity Series, Iowa Speedway, 5 p.m., Saturday, NBCSN.
Worth mentioning: Next year, both Cup Series races at Pocono will be the same weekend on consecutive days.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Kevin Harvick: It was starting to feel like Harvick might not win this season, so getting back to Victory Lane — and clinching a playoff berth — should be a huge relief.
Erik Jones: Another third-place finish has him back into the playoffs, which would be quite the feat for Joe Gibbs Racing to see all four drivers in the postseason.
Denny Hamlin: A runner-up finish is nothing to be upset about, but considering his shot to win New Hampshire, Hamlin has to be disappointed.
Kyle Larson: Not finishing last week’s race cuts into his points cushion, and suddenly he’s back on the playoff bubble after seemingly finding safety weeks ago.