Although the season already started, I thought it would be good to lay down some predictions for the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. Some of these predictions are no-brainers, meaning they are almost certain locks to earn a berth into the NASCAR playoffs, but there are a few surprises in my list too.
Kurt Busch won last Sunday’s Daytona 500, so lets just get him on the list right away. He’s a driver that I think would have made the playoffs regardless. He won Pocono last May, and had a solid performance last season, with 21 top-10 finishes.
Jimmie Johnson is the defending series champion and led the series with 5 race victories. He’s a lock to make the playoffs and I shouldn’t have to explain this pick.
Clint Bowyer is enjoying new speed with Stewart-Haas Racing after spending a year with HScott Motorsports. Boywer enters the #14 car formerly driving by Tony Stewart and already the change in performance is noticeable. I predict he will get a win one of the intermediate tracks, like Kansas or Kentucky.
Joey Logono and Brad Keselowski and their Penske Racing teams have been a dominate force in the last few seasons. Joey Logono looked poised to claim his first Cup Series championship last November, as he was within striking distance in the final 10 laps at Homestead. It’s possible he’ll get the playoff earning race win before I even finish typing this article. (He’s THAT good!) His teammate Brad Keselowski is a consistent front runner and an excellent restrictor plate racer. At least one of their handful of wins will come at Talladega later this year.
Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth and the dominate Joe Gibbs Racing teams have the experience necessary to win a race this season to clinch their playoff berth, but it’s one thing I think puts their teammate Daniel Suarez at a disadvantage. The Toyotas are fast as usual and I expect they will lead the series all year long. Throw Martin Truex into that category too. The bottom line is that the Toyotas will be hard to beat.
Kevin Harvick isn’t going to be held out of victory lane for very long either. His teammate just won the biggest race of the season and the Fords look as fast as they ever have. His attitude and demeanor shows a confidence unlike anybody else on the track. Once he and his team find victory lane, look out! They will be hard to stop once they start clicking off the wins.
Now for the surprises. I think rookie Erik Jones has what it takes to find victory lane this season. He was a lock for the open Carl Edwards seat if he hadn’t left Joe Gibbs Racing for Furniture Row Racing. That being said, I sort of look to FRR as an extension of JGR. With the support from Toyota, I think the Furniture Row Racing cars will be just as fast as the Gibbs cars. I think he’ll have a few close calls, and he’ll let a few slip through his fingers, but inevitable the youngster will find victory lane this season.
Speaking of close calls and slipping through his fingers, Kyle Larson probably could have won a few more races than he actually did last season. His Chip Ganassi team hasn’t been as strong as it was earlier this decade, but they’re still always within striking distance when it counts. I think Larson can catch a break, whether on fuel mileage or domination, to secure a spot in the playoffs.
I’m not sure if Ryan Blaney will get in with a victory, but I think the performance of his Wood Brothers Racing team can get them in by the skin of their teeth at the very least. He finished second in the Daytona 500 and they had a few good runs last season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pull off a win at Bristol, where he has had success in the lower series of NASCAR. It would also be cool to see that classic red and white number 21 win a throwback race like Darlington.
Chase Elliott is another driver who has had a few chances that have slipped through his fingers. He almost won the Daytona 500 this season. He finished 10th in the standings in his rookie season last year, and I think he has just enough experience to finally get his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory. I think he’s another one that can click off quite a few wins once he figures out how to do it once.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is finally back after spending much of last season on injured reserve. His fill in driver Alex Bowman led a ton of laps and had a few chances to pull out a win, but I think the inexperience got the best of him. Now that the primary driver is back in that car, I think Junior Nation is about to have a season worth remembering. He said he would consider retiring if he won the championship this year, and I think it’s quite possible that this could be his year.
Speaking of this year being their year, I think this is finally the year that Danica Patrick and the Stewart-Haas Racing team gets their first win and clinches a spot in the playoffs. Despite that fact that she did not score a single top-10 finish last season, I think that even a blind squirrel finds a nut eventually. It would make for a great story and it would undoubtedly explode the internet. Consider this my hail mary, or my tie breaker pick.
As for the championship, I predict that Denny Hamlin will finally claim his first championship. The Toyotas will be hard to beat this year and I think it will be a shootout between Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing for the title. Look for another close call heartbreak for Joey Logono. He’ll get his championship some day, but for now the glory belongs to Denny Hamlin.