Give a driver not among your favorites who will be one to watch during the playoffs.
Dale Jarrett: I have to put Kurt Busch in that. He wasn’t someone until the last month that I was paying attention to, but they have seemed to have found something. Even though I still don’t put him really among the favorites to win the championship, they’ve run well enough to get high on my radar and to think with his experience, how he runs well at pretty much any type of track, that maybe they found something that other Fords haven’t been able to right now.
Steve Letarte: I think Ryan Blaney in the 21 is the sleeper pick for the playoffs. I know this is cold when I say this, but the fact is that Joey Logano missing the playoffs has increased the opportunities for Blaney and Brad Keselowski to go farther. I think it allows Penske to not distribute the effort and the manpower and divide it by three but now they get to divide it by two. I think that helps Ryan Blaney. While I don’t know if he has the firepower to go out and win in some of these rounds, but I do expect him to go past round one with just being consistent and crew chief Jeremy Bullins making good calls on top of the pit box.
Nate Ryan: Kurt Busch. He suddenly seems to have found another gear the past few weeks, and he has much to stay motivated about during the playoffs. Whether it’s his 2018 contract status, the future of crew chief Tony Gibson (who might be on his last hurrah) or the pride of proving the Daytona 500 victory wasn’t an anomaly, it’ll be easy to tap into a driving force over the final 10 races.
Dustin Long: Matt Kenseth. He’s in a Toyota, which is faster than the other manufacturers. He’s scored top-10 finishes in six of the last eight races. Don’t get hung up in that he hasn’t won yet this season. His time could be coming.
Which playoff driver is trending down for you entering the playoffs?
Dale Jarrett: I’m staying way from saying Jimmie Johnson because every time I do that he comes back and wins the next race and moves on to another round. As much as I talked about one Ford on the upswing with Kurt Busch, I think another is Ryan Blaney that is headed downward. I think the Fords, with what Brad Keselowski says, I don’t know that they’re at a disadvantage, but they’re just behind. It’s going to make it difficult for someone other than a Kevin Harvick or Kurt Busch type, and maybe Brad can work his way through there, but I think they’re going to have a difficult time of what I’ve seen recently of keeping up and accumulating enough points to move anywhere past two rounds.
Steve Letarte: Brad Keselowski has been trending a little down in playoff performance. I think he’s still a lock to make it past round one, but I’m waiting to see how much effort was being put into Joey Logano’s team to make the playoffs. I think that it definitely hurt the No. 2 in the last two or three weeks. I’m waiting to see if there is an instant uptick. I believe there will be, so I don’t have concern, but so far what I’ve seen on the race track I’d have to say Brad Keselowski is trending down.
Nate Ryan: Jamie McMurray. He still is enjoying one of the best and most consistent seasons of his career, but he seems slightly off the pace of teammate Kyle Larson and less of a weekly top-five threat as he was early in the season. The results were worthy of a playoff berth but might not be enough to reach the second round.
Dustin Long: Jimmie Johnson. The stretch just before the playoffs typically isn’t his best part of the season. He’s following form again this year. Even so, I just don’t see him as one of the four racing for the championship in Miami even though there are many good tracks for him. I expect him to be better in the playoffs than what he’s run lately, but I don’t know if he goes beyond the second round.
NASCAR has seen a decline in debris cautions this summer. After NASCAR called cautions too quickly in some cases at Richmond, how likely is it that officials will be more deliberate in calling cautions in the playoffs and how could that impact races and strategy?
Dale Jarrett: As much as competitors want it to be in their hands and we want it to be that, NASCAR can’t put them in a bad situation if there is a possibility of debris. The other night, that last caution there, there was nothing up there, nobody was going to get up in that and create a situation. That was just an overreaction. I would not go off of that as being the norm as to what’s going to happen here.
Steve Letarte: I think NASCAR will be more deliberate, and I think NASCAR must be more deliberate. The playoffs are high pressure for everyone involved. Drivers, crew chiefs, pit crews, sanctioning body, officials, broadcast partners and myself in the booth should and must feel the pressure of the playoffs to deliver the fan the experience they deserve. NASCAR has created a format where the champion will be crowned over a 10-week stretch. I love the format, but you must deliver top-notch performance within that format no matter what part of the NASCAR family you are a part of.
Nate Ryan: With debris yellows still at a 17-year low through 26 races, NASCAR will be more committed to letting races naturally unfold. Crew chiefs will be calling strategy accordingly.
Dustin Long: There still will be cautions, so how strong a car is on a restart will still be priority. Short pitting, though, could come into play at some tracks during long green-flag runs and that could alter who wins and advances in the playoffs.
Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte join Krista Voda on NASCAR America from 5-6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN.