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NASCAR set to kick off playoff opener at Chicagoland
The Chase drivers (top row) Chase Elliott, from left, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, (bottom row) Kyle Larson, from left, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Blaney, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Jimmie Johnson pose for a photo following the Federated Auto Parts 400. - photo by Associated Press

JOLIET, Ill.  — Jimmie Johnson has NASCAR history in sight. Martin Truex Jr. wants to become more than a mere footnote as the regular season champion. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch each hope to add a second championship trophy to the collection.

Some drivers would just be happy advancing to the second round.

The Chase is out.

The playoffs are in.

Whatever NASCAR decides to call the final 10 races of the season, the final format remains the same: The last four drivers standing after three rounds will race for the best finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19 to be crowned the 2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series champion.

Up first, the opener Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. Let's look at the contenders:

No. 1: Martin Truex Jr.

Why He'll Win: Truex won the regular season title with four wins, 10 top-five finishes and had 18 stage wins for 53 playoff points that he can keep through the first three playoff rounds. Truex has eight wins over the last two seasons and has dominated at times for Furniture Row Racing.

Why He Won't: He's had some bad luck and a case could be made he should have at least four more wins. Will a late caution come back to bite him when it matters most?

No. 2: Kyle Larson

Why He'll Win: Larson has two wins over the last four races and is the hottest driver in NASCAR. Larson proved he was worth the hype that followed him into the sport as one of the top young drivers of a generation and won four times. He's one of many drivers facing sponsor woes — Target is leaving at the end of the season — but a championship could make him attractive to a Fortune 500 company.

Why He Won't: Larson knows how easily a strong season can slip away early in the playoffs. He suffered tire and mechanical woes in the first two Chase races last season and was never a factor.

No. 3: Kyle Busch

Why He'll Win: Count out Busch? No thanks. Busch was in the final four last season and the 2015 series champion won twice and rolls into Chicagoland with six straight top-10 finishes.

Why He Won't: Joe Gibbs Racing was solid but hardly spectacular and Toyota' magic horsepower was found instead in Truex's car.

No. 4: Brad Keselowski

Why He'll Win: The 2012 series champion won twice, secured a new contract with team owner Roger Penske and is always a threat.

Why He Won't: The Fords haven't shown the reliable speed needed to win a championship and Keselowski stumbles into Chicagoland without a finish better than 11th in his last five races.

No. 5: Jimmie Johnson

Why He'll Win: Because he's Jimmie Johnson. Johnson won three times in a bit of a down year for Hendrick Motorsports. But no driver dominated the Chase era like Johnson. With an eighth championship, he would snap a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most in NASCAR history.

Why He Won't: You can't win 'em all.

No. 6 Kevin Harvick

Why He'll Win: Stewart-Haas Racing is facing lineup upheaval in 2018 with Danica Patrick out the door and maybe even Kurt Busch. But Harvick just keeps rolling along as the star at SHR and the 2014 champ is one of the sport's best Game 7 racers. He won at Homestead in '14 to clinch the title.

Why He Won't: Harvick has just one win and his SHR team has been hit-or-miss for most of the season.

No. 7 Denny Hamlin

Why He'll Win: Hamlin has two wins and says he's as mentally tough as he's ever been after a series of near-misses in his bid for his first Cup championship. The 2016 Daytona 500 winner should have at least one or two championships by now and is running out of time at JGR to get one.

Why He Won't: Hamlin is tight with Michael Jordan. But in crunch time at Homestead, Hamlin has been more like Jordan with the Washington Wizards than the Chicago Bulls.

No. 8: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Why He'll Win: Stenhouse posted his first two career Cup victories. He gave team owner Jack Roush the lift the team had needed for years and could be a threat to advance a couple of rounds.

Why He Won't: Hasn't finished better than 14th in his last nine races.


No. 9 Ryan Blaney (one win); No. 10 Chase Elliott; No. 11 Ryan Newman (one win); No. 12 Kurt Busch (Daytona 500 winner; 2004 series champ); No. 13 Kasey Kahne (one win); No. 14 Austin Dillon (one win); No. 15 Matt Kenseth (2003 champ); No. 16 Jamie McMurray.

Kenseth and Kahne have yet to land rides for 2018. Busch still needs to lock up sponsorship for a guaranteed return to Stewart-Haas. Elliott could match his dad, Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott, as a NASCAR champion.

Everyone loves an underdog — heck, Newman once made it to NASCAR's final four with a winless season — but it's hard to imagine a champion emerging out of the bottom of the playoff pack.