The third round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begins on Sunday at Las Vegas. The field will be cut to four after races at Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville and a playoff driver can earn one of the four spots in the winner-take-all title race at Phoenix with a third-round win. Here’s a look at how we think the field stacks up heading into the penultimate round.
Championship odds from BetMGM
1. William Byron, 4,041 points (+350 to win Cup Series)
It’s hard to find a reason why Byron shouldn’t be considered the title favorite. He’s starting the third round with the most points, has the most wins (six) of anyone this season, no driver has more than Byron’s 13 top-five finishes and Byron’s average finish of 11.5 is also the best in the Cup Series. He’s also been stellar in the playoffs. He went first, second and second in the three second-round races and his worst finish of the playoffs so far is 15th. Oh, he also won at Phoenix this spring.
2. Denny Hamlin, 4,032 (+400)
Hamlin had a Roval race to forget after spinning and finishing last and started the playoffs with a 25th-place finish at Darlington when he got caught in a wreck after leading 117 laps. In between, Hamlin has finished second, first, fifth and third and has looked every bit like the perennial title contender he’s been over the past decade. He should be racing for the title in Phoenix.
3. Christopher Bell, 4,016 (+900)
Bell enters the third round in sixth in the points standings but we have him third because these three races line up well for him. He’s the defending winner of the fall race at Martinsville and has shown very good speed at intermediate tracks. Bell should be a threat at both Vegas and Homestead. If there’s a driver who advances to the title race from outside the top four, Bel would be our pick.
4. Martin Truex Jr., 4,036 (+425)
Truex’s great regular season has carried him through the playoffs so far. After winning three races during the regular season and scoring 15 top 10s, Truex hasn’t finished better than 17th in any of the first six playoff races. It’s a slump that’s been a mix of poor performance and flukiness — Truex finished last after cutting a tire less than five laps into the race at Kansas. He’s going to need at least a couple top 10s if he doesn’t get a win in the third round to advance to the title race.
5. Kyle Larson, 4,024 (+425)
It feels strange to have Larson here — just look at how short his title odds are — but someone has to fall out of the top four if Bell jumps in. Larson could easily swap spots with Truex in this ranking, especially given how well he’s done at Martinsville recently. He has three top-five finishes in his last five races and was second to Bell in the fall and won this season’s spring race. But like Truex, Larson got through to the third round largely on the playoff points he earned in the regular season.
6. Chris Buescher, 4,021 (+900)
It’s no surprise Buescher is in the third round. He’s been extremely consistent at every type of track. Buescher was third at Darlington to start the playoffs and finished fourth at Bristol. He needs to improve on his 21st-place finish at Las Vegas and his 14th-place finish at Martinsville earlier in the year to have a chance.
7. Ryan Blaney, 4,014 (+1200)
It’s hard to take anything from a Talladega win. It’s hard to believe that Blaney’s third win at the 2.66-mile track will lead to increased speed at 1.5-mile tracks. But he’s still driving for Team Penske and he’s Penske’s only car in the playoffs. Some extra attention to the car could sure lead to some more speed.
8. Tyler Reddick, 4,016 (+1200)
Reddick is the second-best qualifier in the Cup Series this season behind Bell. However, Bell has lost 2.3 fewer spots than Reddick has over the course of the first 32 races. Reddick’s average start is 10.2 but his average finish is 15.8 — the worst of the eight drivers remaining in the playoffs. If Reddick can do a better job maintaining that good track position, he’ll have a shot to be racing for the title.