Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – The 16-driver Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field was set Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the same kind of drama and storyline fans can expect of the highly-anticipated 10-race Playoff that begins this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick won his second Brickyard 400 trophy at Indy – his third win in the last seven races – to take some good momentum into the Playoff opener, Sunday’s South Point Casino 400 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“This is a constant progression,’’ the 2014 Monster Energy Series champion Harvick said of his Playoff expectations. “Last year we got off and had the best cars from a downforce standing and were able to capitalize with eight wins and All-Star Race (win}. .. but they [seasons] never go the same.
“But winning this close to the Playoffs on really different styles of race tracks is definitely a good thing. Definitely would rather have the wins than not, that’s for sure, and it’s good timing.’’
The season’s fellow high achievers include Joe Gibbs Racing’s four-time winners Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Denny Hamlin. They will mix it up with Harvick, who appears to be peaking at just the right time in the schedule. Busch clinched his second consecutive regular season championship a week ago and that turned out to be fortuitous considering his regular season finale ended early Sunday on Indianapolis’ pit road – a 37th place finish – because of a mechanical issue.
Third-year driver Erik Jones gives Joe Gibbs Racing a perfect Playoff four-for-four with the 23-year-old joining JGR teammates Busch, Truex and Hamlin. He won the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway two weeks ago to punch his automatic ticket into the postseason.
Team Penske will again put all three of its cars into championship contention. That title-contending team includes three-time 2019 race winner Brad Keselowski, popular young driver Ryan Blaney and their teammate, defending series champion Joey Logano, who is looking to become the first back-to-back season champ since Jimmie Johnson won five consecutively from 2006-2010. They bring a fine Vegas resume into the Playoff opener, Keselowski winning last year’s September Playoff race and Logano earning the race victory this March at the track.
“It is the best part of the year,’’ a smiling Logano said of starting the Playoff stretch. “This to me is maybe the most stressful, yes, but I always say that the pressure is what brings the best out of you. You are able to find things in yourself that you didn’t know were there. This is the time of year as a driver and a person that I grow more than any other time of the year.’’
Three of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers will be among the championship mix, including two-time 2019 race winner and perennial fan favorite Chase Elliott, first-time Cup race winner (Chicago) Alex Bowman and Playoff newcomer, 21-year old William Byron.
For the first time since the Playoffs were introduced in 2004, their veteran teammate Johnson will not be a part of the postseason drama as an accident midway through the Indy race derailed his late season push for a title chance.
Harvick will have a pair of Stewart-Haas Racing teammates vying for the title down the stretch, including Aric Almirola, who finished a career-best fifth in the 2018 standings. And Clint Bowyer – the 2012 championship runner-up – raced his way into the Playoffs at Indy.
Chip Ganassi Racing will have both drivers, Bristol Speedway race winner veteran Kurt Busch and talented young driver Kyle Larson, in the championship hunt.
The Playoff field will be rounded out by veteran Ryan Newman, who like Bowyer secured his Playoff position at Indianapolis. He will be making his title run in his first season driving for the iconic Roush Fenway Racing team.
“If you look at our roster there are more people on our team together for the first time than all the other teams put together and I am proud that we were able to take that and use our collective experience of our knowledge from places and things we have done and turn that into a Playoff position,’’ Newman said.
“Now we just have to do something with it.’’