While trio of drivers at top of 2018 Cup series standings has thrived, NASCAR seeks a fourth contender to emerge for final four

NASCAR


One look at the NASCAR Cup Series playoff standings would let anyone know which three drivers have dominated this season.

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick sit atop the standings with 2,050 points apiece and 13 victories (of the 26 races) between them. Martin Truex, in third, has 2,035 points and four wins.

Those three drivers have finished in the top 5 at least 15 times each this year — no other driver has more than eight. They have led a combined 42.31 percent of all laps led this year.

But the question would be who is No. 4, especially when trying to project which four drivers will have a shot at the championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 18. The rest of the drivers are separated by 19 points (from 2,000 to 2,019) and none have more than two wins.

Some would go all the way down the list to No. 12, Kyle Larson, who sits with just 2,005 points. He has led more laps — 9.26 percent of all laps — of any driver outside the top three.

Two weeks ago, he nearly won at Darlington as he led 284 laps. And he’s awesome at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the site of the championship race.

After Darlington, a third-place finish that had followed a second-place at Bristol, Larson was asked if he had solidified himself as the No. 4.

“You guys are trying so hard to find a No. 4, it seems like it changes every week,” Larson said with a chuckle to reporters. “I don’t know. There’s a lot of guys who are close. … I don’t know if I’m the fourth-best, but I feel pretty good after [Darlington].”

The problem in thinking Larson is the best of the rest is that he hasn’t won this year. A driver often doesn’t just go from not winning to winning back-to-back races.

Oh, hello, Brad Keselowski.

Keselowski won the past two races of the regular season, capturing victories at Darlington and Indianapolis.

“You’ve seen it the last two weeks, I guess — the guy who has been able to maximize his opportunities,” Busch said about Keselowski being the No. 4. “I wouldn’t say that they’ve been stellar fast or passing people outright, but they’ve had better tires [late in the race], track position and winning the race off pit road.

“They’re winning the races, and that’s all that matters.”

Those two wins vaulted Keselowski to fourth in the standings when the points were reset. He now has 2,019 points.

“I’d love to be the first,” Keselowski said about whether he’s No. 4. “There’s no guarantee in any of these things. That [championship race] is a long ways from now, and I think you get to looking too far ahead, that’s how you get yourself in trouble.

“You’ve got to go one week at a time. And I know that sounds like the old football coach cliché, but that’s really the reality here, because you can dig a big hole so fast when you get to looking too far ahead.”

Last year, Larson had eight second-place finishes and four wins, so he knows he can put the wins together.

“We’ve just got to keep bringing good cars,” Larson said. “Eventually, you put yourself in position enough times, the wins will start coming.

“It’s kind of been the story of my career a little bit. … Last year, we proved if you put yourself in enough situations, you’re going to win.”

Larson wasn’t the only driver to think he had the best car in recent races. Denny Hamlin was on pace to win at Indianapolis before a late caution.

Like Larson, Hamlin is winless this year and he starts the playoffs in a hole with just 2,003 points.

“I don’t know, it’s just one race, but I certainly thought we had good speed, better speed than what we’ve had most of the season,” Hamlin said. “This was a big step in the right direction.

“We need to do this on a more consistent basis. If [Indy] is any indication of where we’re going to be in the playoffs, then I’m definitely encouraged by that.”

No one would totally count out past Cup champions Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson. Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, is seventh in the standings with 2,014 points, while seven-time Cup champion Johnson has struggled this year and sits winless in 15th and with 2,000 points.

There could be a dark horse in the bunch — the only driver besides Kyle Busch, Harvick, Truex and Keselowski who has won twice this year. Clint Bowyer, Harvick’s teammate, is fifth in the standings with 2,015 points. But Bowyer has just two top-10s in his past nine starts.

“We’re capable of doing [better],” Bowyer said. “We can’t make mistakes. Mistakes have wiped us out. … The last month and a half, it’s been one mistake after another that has put us back there.

“If we can smooth those out, we’ll march our butts right up to where we belong.”



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