Breaking down the 16 drivers in the 2018 Cup series playoffs

Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are considered the two playoff favorites, but don't sleep on defending champion Martin Truex Jr. Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

The NASCAR playoffs have a different big three this year -- as in a different three tracks for the first playoff round.

It's no longer Chicagoland-New Hampshire-Dover. It's Las Vegas-Richmond-Charlotte road course.

And while that is a new twist, plenty of familiar faces are in the 2018 playoffs. There are five drivers -- Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola and Alex Bowman -- who didn't make the playoffs last year. They replace Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman. But all of the eight drivers who made the semifinal round (the third round) a year ago are back. So here's a look at how they stack up:

The big three

Kyle Busch

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota
Crew chief: Adam Stevens
2018 regular season points finish: 1st
2018 wins: 6
2018 playoff points: 50 (T-1st)
Previous playoff appearances: 10
Championships: 1 (2015)
Westgate odds: 9-4

Why he will win: He has 14 top-3 finishes this year. That's the type of performance one needs to get to the finals (not to mention his 15 playoff points). He knows what it takes at Homestead, and nearly pulled off the championship last year. He has won at Richmond and Texas this year, both playoff tracks.
Why he won't: Harvick is going to be tough to beat.
Busch says: "Thankfully with our season and our success that we've had with the 18 team, we've got that point cushion."

Kevin Harvick

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford
Crew chief: Rodney Childers
2018 regular-season points finish: 2nd
2018 wins: 7
2018 playoff points: 50 (T-1st)
Previous playoff appearances: 11
Championships: 1 (2014)
Westgate odds: 9-4

Why he will win: His seven wins this year are not because of anything except great race cars and execution. He has won at four tracks this year that are in the playoffs -- Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dover and Kansas. He has led laps in 18 races this year, the most of any driver. Leading laps and winning races often makes the difference.
Why he won't: Homestead is not this team's best track.
Harvick says: "I don't think it's a bad spot. I think we did a good job in the first 26 and now you've just got to do it again in 10 more."

Martin Truex Jr.

Team: Furniture Row Racing No. 78 Toyota
Crew chief: Cole Pearn
2018 regular-season points finish: 3rd
2018 wins: 4
2018 playoff points: 35 (3rd)
Previous playoff appearances: 5
Championships: 1 (2017)
Westgate odds: 9-2

Why he will win: He won it last year and this team is on a mission since it is closing its doors after 2018.
Why he won't: The performance hasn't been there compared to the dominance of last year and sometimes the emotional saga -- this one of being a team that is closing shop -- can be too much of a weight, too much of a drain.
Truex says: "You got to be fast every week and you got to execute. If you look at our average finish in the playoffs last year, it was just ridiculous."

Best Bets To Be No. 4

Kyle Larson

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet
Crew chief: Chad Johnston
2018 regular-season points finish: 8th
2018 wins: 0
2018 playoff points: 5 (T-10th)
Previous playoff appearances: 2
Championships: 0
Westgate odds: 10-1

Why he will win: He has finished in second in five races this year. Of any driver to challenge the top three, he has done it the most consistently. Plus, he's great at Homestead.
Why he won't: He has been too inconsistent and this team might have to shake some of its past bad-luck playoff demons.
Larson says: "We have some good tracks for us in the playoffs, so hopefully we can catch some good luck and be able to give a run for the championship."

Brad Keselowski

Team: Team Penske No. 2 Ford
Crew chief: Paul Wolfe
2018 regular-season points finish: 6th
2018 wins: 2
2018 playoff points: 19 (T-4th)
Previous playoff appearances: 6
Championships: 1 (2012)
Westgate odds: 12-1

Why he will win: Keselowski made it to the championship round last year without being dominant, so he knows how to work the system.
Why he won't: It takes speed, and his team just hasn't had it this year even in the past two winning weeks.
Keselowski says: "We're excited and ready to go, but there's a big challenge in front of us but also an incredible opportunity."

Kurt Busch

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Ford
Crew chief: Billy Scott
2018 regular-season points finish: 4th
2018 wins: 1
2018 playoff points: 14 (T-6th)
Previous playoff appearances: 11
Championships: 1 (2004)
Westgate odds: 25-1

Why he will win: Busch has the tenacity and bulldog attitude to get the job done.
Why he won't: That tenacity and attitude occasionally hinders focus. And with Busch leaving after this year, any hiccups could thwart good results.
Busch says: "It's the playoffs and we'll just work our way through and advance through the rounds."

Clint Bowyer

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Ford
Crew chief: Mike Bugarewicz
2018 regular-season points finish: 7th
2018 wins: 2
2018 playoff points: 15 (5th)
Previous playoff appearances: 6
Championships: 0
Westgate odds: 15-1

Why he will win: Bowyer won earlier this year at Martinsville and probably will be a threat there again. If he can make it to the third round and win Martinsville, who knows what will happen?
Why he won't: While this team has won twice this year, Bowyer has just two top-10 finish in his past nine starts.
Bowyer says: "We're capable of doing that. We can't make mistakes. Mistakes have wiped us out [this year]."

Joey Logano

Team: Team Penske No. 22 Ford
Crew chief: Todd Gordon
2018 regular-season points finish: 5th
2018 wins: 1
2018 playoff points: 14 (T-6th)
Previous playoff appearances: 4
Championships: 0
Westgate odds: 20-1

Why he will win: If any driver can "sneak" his way in, Logano could be that guy. He was in the top four in points for the first 21 weeks of the season, so he knows how to stay out of trouble and get the most out of his car.
Why he won't: He has just seven top-five finishes and just three of those came at tracks that are in the playoffs. Battling to get into that championship race will be tough.
Logano says: "We just have to get going, that's all. The playoffs are about to start and hopefully we'll do better."

Veterans With Something To Prove

Jimmie Johnson

Team: Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet
Crew chief: Chad Knaus
2018 regular-season points finish: 14th
2018 wins: 0
2018 playoff points: 0 (T-15th)
Previous playoff appearances: 14
Championships: 7 (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2016)
Westgate odds: 60-1

Why he will win: He's won seven titles, so it's not like he cracks under pressure.
Why he won't: He has led just 29 laps this year and didn't clinch a playoff spot until the last regular-season race. This isn't the 48 team of 2006-2010, nor even that of 2016.
Johnson says: "I'm just proud that I've made every playoff since NASCAR started them, so that's a big honor for me. Now we just need to go the rounds and get hot at the right time."

Denny Hamlin

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota
Crew chief: Mike Wheeler
2018 regular-season points finish: 10th
2018 wins: 0
2018 playoff points: 3 (13th)
Previous playoff appearances: 11
Championships: 0
Westgate odds: 20-1

Why he will win: If not now, when? Hamlin has had better seasons than this one and hasn't won a title. But you can't count him out each week, and he isn't going to lack confidence.
Why he won't: Hamlin hasn't made the final four since 2014, the first year of this format. And in the past three years, he has won seven races. This year just seems like one where the results just aren't there.
Hamlin says: "[Indy] was a big step in the right direction. We have to be more consistent."

Time To Make Noise

Aric Almirola

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 Ford
Crew chief: John Klausmeier
2018 regular-season points finish: 13th
2018 wins: 0
2018 playoff points: 1 (14th)
Previous playoff appearances: 1
Championships: 0
Westgate odds: 50-1

Why he will win: Almirola has speed. If he and his team can put together some solid, full races, he could find his way into the championship race, where anything can happen.
Why he won't: He hasn't won this year. He has just one win in his whole career. A driver needs to win to have a realistic shot. At the least, a driver must lead laps. And he has led just 115 laps this year.
Almirola says: "I feel like we've got fast race cars and we've got a chance to go up there and compete to win races and go far into the playoffs."

Chase Elliott

Team: Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet
Crew chief: Alan Gustafson
2018 regular-season points finish: 11th
2018 wins: 1
2018 playoff points: 8 (8th)
Previous playoff appearances: 2
Championships: 0
Westgate odds: 12-1

Why he will win: Elliott appears to be peaking at the right time (although Indianapolis was a disappointment). He has a team that is experienced in the playoffs.
Why he won't: Hendrick Motorsports still appears to be a tick or two behind. It's doubtful it will make that up in time for Elliott to make a serious final four run.
Elliott says: "Just be solid [and be] getting as many points as you can trying to grab a victory."

Ryan Blaney

Team: Team Penske No. 12 Ford
Crew chief: Jeremy Bullins
2018 regular-season points finish: 9th
2018 wins: 0
2018 playoff points: 7 (9th)
Previous playoff appearances: 1
Championships: 0
Westgate odds: 30-1

Why he will win: Blaney doesn't appear to let the pressure get to him. And there's a lot of pressure come the playoffs.
Why he won't: He has just five top-5 finishes in 26 races this year. That percentage isn't going to get it done in the playoffs.
Blaney says: "Hopefully, we're closing in on it. There's only one way to find out and that's next week."

Austin Dillon

Team: Richard Childress Racing No. 3 Chevrolet
Crew chief: Justin Alexander
2018 regular-season points finish: 19th
2018 wins: 1
2018 playoff points: 5 (T-10th)
Previous playoff appearances: 2
Championships: 0
Westgate odds: 50-1

Why he will win: This is his third time in the playoffs and if he can get to the second round, he'll be a threat at Talladega. If he can get to the third round, if he can get some help and if he can be strong at Homestead, he has a shot.
Why he won't: Count the number of times the word "if" appears in the paragraph above.
Dillon says: "We have been racing the last couple of weeks like it's playoff time and trying to get as many points as we can. We will go after it hard when we get to Vegas."

Newbies

Erik Jones

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota
Crew chief: Chris Gayle
2018 regular-season points finish: 12th
2018 wins: 1
2018 playoff points: 5 (T-10th)
Previous playoff appearances: 0
Championships: 0
Westgate odds: 25-1

Why he will win: The JGR cars are strong and he has been through this type of elimination format in the Xfinity Series. He can rattle off enough top-5s to make it at least to the semifinal round.
Why he won't: While he did win at Daytona, he has led in just four races this year. He's still a year away from really competing for the title.
Jones says: "The last couple of weeks we've had top-5 cars and ran up front. That's been a good feeling as a team and as a driver, but we just need to keep it going."

Alex Bowman

Team: Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet
Crew chief: Greg Ives
2018 regular-season points finish: 15th
2018 wins: 0
2018 playoff points: 0 (T-15th)
Previous playoff appearances: 0
Championships: 0
Westgate odds: 50-1

Why he will win: Ives has been in the playoffs before and Bowman should be feeling good about the accomplishment of just making the playoffs.
Why he won't: While he isn't a rookie, he's a rookie to driving for an elite team. Just advancing to the next round could be tough for this team, which didn't make the playoffs with Dale Earnhardt Jr. a year ago.
Bowman says: "To make the playoffs in my first year back is really cool. It's a special thing to be a part of."