If my Magic 8-ball didn't keep coming up "Reply Hazy" and "Ask Again Later," I'm convinced it would agree "Outlook Good" to the following scenario: With the sun having gone down Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Martin Truex Jr. speeds to the checkered flag, half a lap ahead of Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson, to clinch his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.
With the field set for the playoffs that begin with Sunday's race at Chicagoland Speedway, here are my odds on the 16 drivers and what I see — through the haze — as their chances. Each group of drivers is listed under the predicted round in which they'll end the playoffs.
Martin Truex Jr. (5-1): This team can't get complacent just because of its huge points advantage.
Jimmie Johnson (7-1): He hasn't had a dazzling regular season, but it's tough to beat experience and the No. 48 team peaks in the fall.
Kyle Larson (10-1): Behind Truex, he has been the top driver this year — and now he has proven he can win on short tracks, too.
Denny Hamlin (12-1): The No. 11 car has been getting better each week, and it's been there before.
Round of 8
Kyle Busch (13-1): He may have the most talent, but luck hasn't been kind to him lately. Look for a Talladega Superspeedway calamity to scuttle his chances.
Brad Keselowski (15-1): He's quietly consistent and has some tracks ahead where he has been good in the past. He may be the real sleeper in the field.
Kevin Harvick (15-1): There's another win waiting for him somewhere out there. There's always Phoenix International Raceway — where he has eight wins — looming right before the last race of the year.
Kurt Busch (25-1): He's been on a tear lately, but it's hard to picture a win that advances him to being one of the final four drivers.
Round of 12
Matt Kenseth (40-1): With no team for next season, he is a lame-duck driver desperately in need of a win and starting off near the bottom in points.
Chase Elliott (50-1): We all keep expecting that first career win. If it happens, the playoffs will really get interesting.
Ryan Newman (50-1): Four straight top-10 finishes give him momentum, but his low points standing will eventually catch up to him.
Kasey Kahne (100-1): He's another lame-duck driver, and his win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the rare high point in a season in which his average finish was 20th.
Round of 16
Jamie McMurray (125-1): Winning is essential in the playoffs — and he hasn't won since fall 2013.
Ryan Blaney (150-1): Things have gone downhill since his June win at Pocono Raceway, and this team doesn't have that much ammunition.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (200-1): You'd have gotten 200-1 odds in January that Stenhouse would be a two-time winner by now. But he hasn't cracked the top 10 since July.
Austin Dillon (200-1): Slim. None.
On to this week's wrapup.
Last race: Kyle Larson won the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway, the first short-track win of his Cup Series career.
Next race: Tales of the Turtles 400, Chicagoland Speedway, 3 p.m. Sunday, NBC Sports Network. (Come on, NASCAR — cartoon turtles as a sponsor as you begin your playoffs and have a chance at mainstream exposure?)
Pick to win: Brad Keselowski, who has two wins, four top-five finishes and six top-10 showings in his past six races here.
Pit notes: As expected, Danica Patrick will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018. There's nothing definitive on her NASCAR driving future yet, but you can bet TV networks are lining up to talk. ... Meanwhile, SHR has landed sponsorship from Smithfield Foods, which had been with Richard Petty Motorsports. Petty said a "handshake deal" had been made to continue with Smithfield, which the company CEO called "patently false." The CEO also disparaged the team's on-track performance. ... Aric Almirola will not drive the No. 43 car next year, Petty announced. So does RPM opt for a (cheaper) youth movement, adding a name like Cole Custer or Bubba Wallace, or grab an experienced driver like Matt Kenseth or Kasey Kahne, hoping their talent could elevate a mediocre team? (I believe a mediocre team would drag them down instead.)
Fast 5: 1. Hamlin, 2. Larson, 3. Truex, 4. Kyle Busch, 5. Erik Jones.
What they're saying: "Right now, my focus is on the remainder of the 2017 season and finishing the year strong. I have the utmost faith in myself and those around me and feel confident about my future." — Patrick in a released statement concerning her impending departure from SHR.
Contact Mark McCarter at firstname.lastname@example.org.