LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 14: A general overview of the frontstretch grandstands prior to practice for the NASCAR MENCS playoff race on September 14th, 2018, at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Now the real season for the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series gets underway this weekend when NASCAR’s leading drivers take the track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  After the visit to the desert the teams take on the small track pavement at Richmond International before closing out the first round of the playoffs at the new “Roval” at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

From 16 to 12. Who moves on?

The Easy Picks

Kyle Busch

Name any type of track where you seldom see the Toyota Camry running near the top of the field?  You can’t.  Now add the fact that Kyle carries 50 playoff points into this round and you can punch his ticket to the next round.

Kevin Harvick

Harvick has been dominant on the mile and a half tracks this season.  It’d be shocking if he did not run well this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and at the new combination road/oval setup at Charlotte and oh yeah, he’s won three times at Richmond.  Like Kyle Busch, Harvick also has 50 playoff points.  He moves on.

Martin Truex Jr.

Man, this is easy.  Truex, although nowhere near as dominant as he was one season ago when he was crowned champion, is a solid bet to move on.  Running his final season for Furniture Row Racing he’d love nothing more than to go out as a winner.  His 35 playoff points are like money in the bank.

Brad Keselowski

The big three may very well have company.  After back to back wins at Darlington and Indy, Keselowski has caught fire at just the right time.  He might just be ready to join the big three party.

Next Group Advancing

Clint Bowyer

Hard to remember that Bowyer, just two seasons ago was mired running for an underfunded team and often finishing in 30th place or worse.  Since joining Stewart Haas Racing, he’s more often than not running in the top five.  He has 15 playoff points if needed.

Kurt Busch

Certainly Harvick is the leader of the Stewart Haas gang but you could almost put a blanket over the rest of the teams drivers.  You seldom see any of the Stewart Haas cars have off days.  Nearly every week they have top 10 cars.  I don’t see that changing.  The only question for Kurt is the rumor that he may be out of this ride for next season.  14 playoff points afford him a bit of insurance.

Joey Logano

Man there sure are a lot of Fords at the top of my list and for good reason.  They have been the dominant manufacturer this season.  Logano has had a few stinkers this season but his car is strong enough on some of those off days to have decent finishes.  His 14 playoffs points will help if he has one of those stinkers in this round.

Chase Elliott

Well a Chevy finally makes the list.  It’s been an awful season for Hendrick Motor Sports.  Elliott’s lone win at Watkins Glen is the only time a Henrick car has visited victory lane in 2018.  Elliott’s car has been the best of the bunch, and by a mile.  With 8 playoff points and consistent finishes Elliott should move on easily.

Denny Hamlin

Kyle Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate might be the driver to beat in this rounds race at Richmond International Speedway.  A win and you advance might not even be necessary as Hamlin has shown the speed to run with the Fords at times this season.  With only 3 playoff points Hamlin may need a few wins during this years chase to make it to Homestead but he’s safe this round.

Ryan Blaney

Still looking for his first win of the 2018 season, Blaney should be good enough to join his Penske teammates in advancing to the round of 12.  His 7 playoff points will mitigate any poor race in this round.

Should be in

Kyle Larson

There are times Larson looks like he’s found the magic formula to run with the Fords and Gibbs Toyota’s but than there are times he struggles.  One thing for sure, Larson will get everything out of his car.  I’d be shocked if Larson does not move on.  Only 5 playoff points doesn’t offer much comfort.

Erik Jones

I like Jones but this pick is more about his car than him.  He punched his ticket to the Chase with a win in the July race at Daytona.  There’s no such restrictor plate race in this round but his Joe Gibbs Toyota will be good enough to move to the round of 12.  His 5 playoff points don’t give him much of a cushion.

Say goodbye

Jimmie Johnson

Are you kidding me?  Am I really picking against the 7-time champion?  All season long I’ve waited for that Lowes 48 to find the speed its lacked all season.  I thought they finally did a few times this season only to be fooled.  This team’s best finishes now are top 10’s and often struggle to finish in the top 15.  It’s hard to count out Chad Knaus and Johnson.  I’m sure they’ll be taking a ton of risk along the way.  I just don’t think it’ll be enough.

Austin Dillon

What a crazy sport this is, eh?  Dillon’s win at the series very first race at Daytona set his season up as a success.  Anything after that would be icing on the cake.  There will be no more icing for the #3 Chevy this season.

Alex Bowman

No matter how could the driver and his team are, this sport comes down to speed.  Bowman, like his Hendrick Motorsport teammates not named Elliott, just doesn’t have enough speed to run consistently with the Ford’s and Toyota’s.  Chalk this up for young Alex as a learning experience.  He’ll be back.

Aric Almirola

Major strides have been made in this teams performance since Aric replaced Danica Patrick.  Several weeks back I would have never put the #10 Stewart Haas car in this group.  His performance in the latter part of the season has been troublesome.  They’ve seemed to have lost their way.

There you have it.  From 16 to 12 after the next three races.  It’s going to be a wild ride.

Thanks for reading.  Listen to WTBQ radio on Monday and Friday mornings at 845 as I join Frank, Taylor and the Morning Show gang to discuss all the current happenings in NASCAR.  1110AM, 93.5FM, or online at WTBQ.COM.  You can also follow me on twitter @JimLaplante

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