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Elite Eight: Breaking down the NASCAR contenders

Jeff Birchfield • Oct 24, 2019 at 11:00 AM

Four races remain in the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season and it’s down to the final eight contenders.

Three drivers represent Joe Gibbs Racing while two are from Team Penske. There is one each from Stewart-Haas Racing, Ganassi Racing and Hendrick Motorsports.

It’s no surprise the top three drivers in the points are from the Gibbs camp. Kyle Busch holds a six-point lead over teammate Martin Truex Jr. heading into Sunday’s First Data 500 at the paper-clip shaped Martinsville, Virginia, short track. Denny Hamlin is nine points behind Busch with Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick rounding out the top five.

Here’s a look at the contenders:

KYLE BUSCH (No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota)

Busch, the 2015 NASCAR champion, leads the series with 24 top-10 finishes over the first 32 races and with 1,375 laps led. He has four wins including the Food City 500 at Bristol and Phoenix earlier this season. Phoenix is the site for the last race in this round. Busch has two wins at Martinsville, where he finished third in March.

He hasn’t won since Pocono in June, but has three top-six finishes in the last five races. Busch has 55 career victories, tied with NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Rusty Wallace for ninth on the all-time list.

MARTIN TRUEX JR. (No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota)

It was an easy transition for Truex and Cole Pearn to come to the Gibbs organization after Furniture Row Racing closed down. They’ve combined for a season-best six wins this season, following their 2017 championship and another big year in 2018.

Truex has been dominant at times this season, including back-to-back wins at Las Vegas and Richmond to start the NASCAR playoffs. He feels Martinsville owes him a win after Joey Logano bumped past him to win last year’s playoff race. Truex has been on a roll the last four years with 22 of his 25 career wins coming over that time.

DENNY HAMLIN (No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota)

Hamlin would like to shed the label of best active driver without a championship and it could be his year to do so. He started the season with a second Daytona 500 victory and added a second win in the Bristol Night Race among his five wins this season.

The Virginia native is always a contender at Martinsville, where he’s a five-time winner. He’s the series’ most recent winner, as his Kansas victory was the 36th of his career. He leads the series with 17 top-five finishes and matches Busch’s average finish of 9.3 over the first 32 races.

JOEY LOGANO (No. 22 Team Penske Ford)

Logano comes back to Martinsville, where his victory propelled him to the next round and ultimately the series championship in 2018. He wasn’t the favorite going into the final race at Homestead with two wins, the same total he has through the first 32 races of this season.

He has struggled of late with one top-10 finish over the last five races. With his season on the line at Kansas, he finished 17th and advanced due to the struggles of teammate Brad Keselowski. Whether the 23-time Cup Series winner can find the same magic as last season remains to be seen.

KEVIN HARVICK (No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford)

The 2014 series champion has shown great speed at times with five pole positions, the best average starting position of anyone in the series and following it up with three wins. He capped off the regular season with his second win in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

He has been the brightest spot on the Stewart-Haas team, which will no doubt put the majority of its efforts behind Harvick since their other drivers are now eliminated from title contention. With 48 career victories, Harvick is just one behind team co-owner Tony Stewart on NASCAR’s all-time list.

CHASE ELLIOTT (No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet)

Elliott raced his way into the final eight with a strong runner-up finish at Kansas. He has been the best of the Chevrolet drivers with three wins and four pole positions. He finished second at the last Martinsville race and has been strong at the short track in recent years.

Voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, an award his father Bill won a record 16 times, Elliott hasn’t been as good at Texas or Phoenix, the other tracks in this round. Still, he can’t be discounted — having recorded six career wins coming over the last two seasons and again looking stronger as the year has progressed.

KYLE LARSON (No. 42 Ganassi Racing Chevrolet)

Overshadowed by teammate Kurt Busch throughout the first half of the season, Larson broke a two-year losing streak at Dover. He had a streak of seven top-10 finishes in eight races from Pocono to Dover and has 15 top-10 finishes over the season.

A six-time Cup Series winner and a frequent winner in sprint car competition, Larson has struggled on the three tracks in this round. He has a career average finish of 23.6 at Martinsville, 20.4 at Texas and 13.5 at Phoenix.

RYAN BLANEY (No. 12 Team Penske Ford)

A solid performer throughout the season, Blaney hasn’t shown the speed of Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Yet, he advanced by edging Ryan Newman by inches at Talladega while Keselowski is on the outside after a poor finish at Kansas.

It would be a surprise if the three-time Cup Series winner advanced to the final round at Homestead, although he did win the pole and finish third earlier this season at Phoenix. He also finished fourth at Martinsville and has pulled off unexpected wins at Pocono and the Charlotte Roval in recent seasons.

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