There are two clear favorites for the NASCAR Cup Series title as the 10-week playoffs begin Sunday at Darlington Raceway.
Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin headed to the South Carolina track with a combined 13 regular-season victories — including one apiece at Darlington in May, when racing resumed after a 10-week shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic — and they've accumulated enough playoff points to practically coast into November's season finale, when the 16-man field will have been whittled to four contenders.
That theoretically leaves the 14 other drivers racing for just two spots in the winner-take-all event Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway.
"I met with my team, and I told them at the end of this 10 weeks someone will be holding the championship trophy. Why not us?" said Team Penske's Brad Keselowski, whose three wins this season rank behind Harvick's seven for Stewart-Haas Racing and Hamlin's six for Joe Gibbs Racing. "We can do it just as well as anybody, and I'm ready for that challenge."
The playoff field consists of six former champions, including JGR's Kyle Busch, the current holder of the Bill France Cup. Busch also won the 2015 title but has had a terrible year by his standards and is still seeking his first win of the season.
"Certainly we're not a title front-runner, we're not a favorite," Busch said. "We are on the bottom of the spectrum and we're on the outside looking in."
At stake is a winning streak of at least one victory a year since his 2005 rookie season, with that run a source of pride for Busch and one he and his team don't want to end.
"It's a 16-year investment that we've placed on being able to win a race in 16 consecutive seasons, so hopefully we can keep that going," Busch said. "This year has definitely been one of the biggest tests I feel like I've been through. It's been nothing but something else that's in the back of your mind, like, what's going to happen next? What's the next thing that's going to test your patience?
"Just seems like we can't shake this monkey off our back. Wherever he is, whatever he looks like, somebody tell me and we're going to go for a few roll-arounds here and get him off my back in order go out here and have a solid, successful, productive final 10 weeks."
The other former champions in the field are Harvick (2014), Keselowski (2012), Penske's Joey Logano (2018), JGR's Martin Truex Jr. (2017) and Chip Ganassi Racing's Kurt Busch (2004). Hendrick Motorsports veteran Jimmie Johnson will not have a chance to add a record-breaking eighth title in the No. 48 Chevrolet, having missed out on the playoffs in his final full Cup Series season.
The field is a mixed lot when it comes to experience, with SHR's Cole Custer the only rookie to make the playoffs but 29-year-old Matt DiBenedetto of Wood Brothers Racing making his first appearance. Since returning, NASCAR's COVID-19 protocol has eliminated practice and qualifying, which puts younger drivers and smaller teams at a disadvantage.
Custer, for example, is 22 and has raced the tricky Darlington track just five times before — only twice in a Cup Series car and both in May. Harvick, conversely, has 25 career starts on the top circuit at Darlington and a pair of wins.
"I think I would definitely like some practice," Custer said. "Even though we've been to tracks like Darlington before, some of these guys have been there for 10 or 15 years. There's stuff as a rookie that we'd just like to try in our car to see if it was better or worse, but we don't really have that opportunity, so we make our best educated guess."
The playoffs are split into three rounds of three races each, with four drivers eliminated after each round. A victory in any round earns an automatic advancement into the next round, with it all setting up the four-man shootout at Phoenix.
Busch joins his older brother Kurt, DiBenedetto and SHR's Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer as playoff qualifiers without a win this year. Keselowski is the only driver who has come close to keeping pace with Harvick and Hamlin, while Logano and Hendrick's Chase Elliott have two wins apiece — Logano won twice in the first four weeks of the season and Elliott scored his two wins after racing resumed.
Custer, Truex, Hendrick teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron, Penske's Ryan Blaney and Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon each has won once in 2020.
Truex, though, has only finished lower than fourth one time in the past 10 races and might be the overlooked contender. Others have been labeled dark horses, but Truex has very quietly made himself a strong challenger to Harvick and Hamlin, who was the Cup Series runner-up in 2010 and has finished in the top four three other times.
"I feel like we are right there on the cusp of it. You look at what we've done the last 10 races," Truex said. "We've had opportunities to win slip away. I look forward to seeing if we can take those seconds, thirds and fourths and turn them into wins. That's ultimately what it takes to win the championship."