NASCAR playoff picture: Breaking down the championship chase heading into Daytona –

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are getting closer with 16 of the 26 regular-season races in the books. When the circuit heads to Chicagoland Speedway in September, 16 drivers will be competing for a championship.

Here is a look at where things stand heading into this weekend’s fast-track race at Daytona International Speedway:

Locked in

Kyle Larson: The No. 42 driver clinched a spot in the playoffs in March when he won at Fontana. His win at Michigan was icing on the cake for the regular season points leader who had a lackluster 26th place finish at Sonoma after qualifying on the pole.

Martin Truex Jr.: If you’ve followed any of the races this season, you should be familiar with Truex Jr. by now. Not only does he have two wins under his belt, but the No. 78 also owns 11 mid-race stage victories. No other driver has more than four this season.

Brad Keselowski: The No. 2 secured its spot in the playoffs when it went to Victory Lane at Atlanta. Keselowski also took the checkered at Martinsville and has 10 top-10 finishes on his resume in 2017.

Jimmie Johnson: It’s no surprise that the seven-time NASCAR champion is a lock already. Johnson’s three wins at Texas, Bristol and Dover are more than any driver this season. The No. 48 also reeled in its first stage victory of the season Sunday at Sonoma.

Ryan Blaney: An exciting first-career win at Pocono locked the descendant of Dave and Lou Blaney into the playoffs this year as he currently sits 13th in the regular season standings.

Kurt Busch: A Daytona 500 victory can go a long way. The Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 hasn’t been back to Victory Lane since, but has eight top-10 finishes this season and currently sits 14th in the regular-season points.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Like Busch, Stenhouse Jr. secured his spot at one of NASCAR’s biggest tracks in May when he took home the checkered flag at Talladega. The No. 17 will need to avoid avoid race-ending collisions like his one with girlfriend Danica Patrick at Sonoma in the playoffs.

Ryan Newman: A win at Phoenix early locked Newman into the NASCAR playoffs, as he currently sits behind Kurt Busch at 15th in the regular season standings.

Austin Dillon: You may recall Dillon taking the No. 3 car back to Victory Lane at his hometown track, Charlotte. Like Newman, Dillon hasn’t been all that impressive in stage racing, but either way, he will have a chance to compete for a championship.

Kevin Harvick: Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 finally clinched a playoff spot with a win at Sonoma on Sunday. Harvick also saw a bump up to third in the regular season points, passing Kyle Busch who has yet to win.

In (for now)

Kyle Busch: Believe it or not, the No. 18 has yet to make a trip to Victory Lane yet this season other than the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race. Busch is sitting pretty at fourth in the points but hasn’t won a race this the 2016 Brickyard 400.

Chase Elliott: The No. 24 posted another top-10 finish at Sonoma this past weekend and has run well all season. At fifth in points, Elliott remains winless but has five top-5 finishes to show for it.

Jamie McMurray: Here is one of those drivers that hasn’t accumulated any playoff points or wins but has been solid all year. McMurray has been Mr. Consistent, adding another top-10 finish at Sonoma after qualifying on the pole.

Denny Hamlin: The 2016 Daytona 500 winner was the first rookie to qualify for the Chase back in 2006 and is no stranger to NASCAR’s playoffs, but without a win yet this season Hamlin finds himself closer and closer to missing out.

Joey Logano: Wait a minute, didn’t he win at Richmond? Well, yes, but it doesn’t count toward the playoffs because it was an “encumbered” victory. Logano could lock himself in this week at Daytona, where he won the 500 in 2015.

Clint Bowyer: A second-place finish at Sonoma was good enough to bring Bowyer back into the playoff picture, bumping Matt Kenseth. Bowyer will need to be better than his average 14.2 finish at Daytona this week if he wants to stay in the hunt.

Down, but not out (yet)

Matt Kenseth: A 20th place finish at Sonoma bumped Kenseth out of the playoff picture but the two-time Daytona 500 winner will have probably his best shot at clinching this weekend.

Erik Jones: The rookie has been impressive in his series debut as he currently sits 16th in the regular-season points, but like Kenseth, Jones will most likely need a win to lock himself in.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: While there are a variety of drivers ahead of Junior in points, you can never count out an Earnhardt, especially with Daytona on the horizon. Earnhardt has had an up-and-down season, but has gathered some momentum lately with a sixth place finish at Daytona heading into arguably his best track.


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