Who is Cup playoff dark horse? Depends on who you ask

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The favorites to win the Cup championship are clear. That’s Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.

But who could be the surprise to challenge for the title?

Playoff drivers were asked who their Cup playoff dark horse is. More chose Aric Almirola than any other driver. He is seeded 12th in the 16-driver playoff field.

“I am excited about the playoffs,” said Almirola, who recently signed a contract extension. “I do feel like we have a lot of potential. We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender. I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”

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Almirola is an intriguing pick. He had a five-race streak of top-five finishes. Those finishes were a part his nine-race streak of top-10 results.

“They’ve been consistently fast at a lot of these tracks,” William Byron said of Almirola as his Cup playoff dark horse. “The only thing with that is I feel like a lot of the tracks are going to be much different in the playoffs than the ones we ran in the summertime.

Said Kyle Busch of Almirola: “He’s one that could pop up anytime being with the SHR guys and being as fast as they’ve been each week.”

But Almirola also had poor finishes at some playoff tracks. He was 29th at Bristol after he was involved in an accident on a restart while running seventh. Battery issues led to a 33rd-place finish at Martinsville, a race he led early. He was 21st at Las Vegas.

Almirola was 12th at the first Darlington Raceway event and seventh in the second race. The playoffs begin Sunday with the Southern 500 at that track (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

They’ve had issues,” said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing of Almirola’s team. “Pit crews, restarts, speeding on pit road – things of that nature that have made him go to the back and have to race to the front. If we can clean all of those things up and not make any mistakes, I think he’ll have a good opportunity.”


William Byron and Kyle Busch each were mentioned by multiple playoff drivers as their dark horse pick.

Byron is coming off his first career Cup points win last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. The win secured his playoff spot. Byron is the ninth seed.

“Momentum is something,” Clint Bowyer said of picking Byron as his dark horse. “Confidence is something. Winning your first race is worth something. Having a crew chief like Chad Knaus is worth something.”

Said Alex Bowman about his Hendrick Motorsports teammate: “I think William Byron, just coming off of a win, could be really strong. I feel like as a team, everybody at HMS has picked up lately.”

Maybe the underdog role will fit Busch. He missed the first 11 races of the 2015 Cup season when he was injured in the Xfinity season opener in Daytona. Busch came back to win the Cup title that season. Last year, he was viewed as the underdog going into the championship race. He won his second title.

Although Busch is winless this season and seeded 14th, maybe he’s in the right spot.

“Everyone is waiting on Kyle Busch to knock down that wall,” Harvick said. “We all know that he could win on any given week and know that he’s had a lot of bad luck this year.”


Among the interesting picks for dark horse was Denny Hamlin’s selection of Ryan Blaney. The Team Penske driver is the seventh seed.

“I think he shows the most speed when he’s on speed, he’s really on,” Hamlin said of Blaney. “I think of like Texas where I thought he was significantly faster than just everybody. … He’s just a guy that I look at as, he has the ability to make it through each round.

“I don’t know how many final four brackets he might be in. I would say, if I had to guess, everyone that fills one out, he’s probably in five percent of them maybe. Legitimately, I think he has a much better shot at that of making it through.”