With the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs beginning this weekend at Darlington Raceway, driver turned broadcaster Dale Earnhardt Jr. offered up some predictions for how the final 10 races of the 2020 season will go.
Although Earnhardt didn’t break the playoffs down race by race with predictions, he and those on his weekly podcast, the Dale Jr. Download, weighed in on other scenarios like possible dark-horse championship candidates and the first four drivers knocked out.
The 16-driver Cup Series playoffs are divided into four rounds. The first three rounds consist of three races, and four drivers are eliminated after the final event in each round. After the Round of 8, the final Championship 4 drivers will compete at Phoenix Raceway in the title race.
So ahead of Sunday’s Southern 500 to kick off the playoffs’ Round of 16, Earnhardt shared his playoff predictions on the Dale Jr. Download.
Who are the four drivers that don’t advance to the Round of 12?
Before answering this one, Earnhardt paused to recall exactly how drivers feel about this hypothetical discussion.
“I remember this [from] when I was a driver,” Dale Jr. said. “These drivers take such offense to this when you’re like, ‘Oh, first round!’”
But then he gave an actual answer: “Who’s not making it through the first round? Austin Dillon, Cole Custer, and Kurt Busch and Clint [Bowyer].”
Who wins the 2020 NASCAR championship?
As Earnhardt, podcast co-host Mike Davis and the others on the episode mentioned, even before the playoffs begin, the race for the championship is basically between Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Both at the top of the driver standings, they’ve accumulated a massive lead in points going into the playoffs, so it’s challenging not to pick one of those two drivers to win it all.
Earnhardt explained his response on the Dale Jr. Download:
“I think Harvick edges out Hamlin. For some reason — and I know this has been sort of Denny’s, by far, been Denny’s best year ever, and I think he comes very close. I just don’t know if it happens for him for some reason.
“I have this weird feeling that Harvick’s gonna [win] because Harvick’s tied Kyle [Busch] in wins, more than likely going to finish this season ahead of Kyle in wins, and I think that he gets his second title. This has kind of been Harvick quietly asserting himself as one of the greatest.”
Harvick has won a series-leading seven races so far this season, so “quietly” might not be the best descriptor. But he is now tied with Kyle Busch at No. 10 on the all-time wins list with 56, and it feels like a second championship is his to lose.
While Davis picked Joey Logano to win the championship, Earnhardt also explained he can’t ignore Harvick’s success at the Phoenix track. Harvick is the all-time winningest driver at the miler with nine checkered flags, and barring some massive multi-race meltdown, the No. 4 Ford team shouldn’t have too much trouble getting to the Championship 4.
Who’s a dark-horse championship contender?
Davis joked that the answer is anyone not named Harvick or Hamlin, which is fair. But Earnhardt also clarified that although Kyle Busch doesn’t have a win yet this season, he’s not an outside shot.
“He doesn’t qualify as a dark horse for me because he’s the defending champ,” Dale Jr. said.
“I think Ryan Blaney may be the dark horse for me. The guy’s got a legitimate, you know, shot at it. … I think Blaney’s got a pretty reasonable track record at Phoenix.”
Although Blaney’s average start at Phoenix is 6.1, his average finish in nine starts is 16.8. He did, however, finish third in both 2019 races.
Which top driver is most vulnerable in not advancing out of the Round of 16?
After posing this question, Earnhardt and co. clarified the scenario to just be the top-7 drivers in the standings currently. So this discussion is really over Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney.
At first, Earnhardt said Keselowski, and although he said he’s sticking with his answer, he also regretted it.
“I shouldn’t have said Brad,” Earnhardt said. “He could go win Darlington.”
The first race of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN).