2018 NASCAR Cup playoff predictions: Experts pick a champion

Here are NASCAR's 16-driver field for the 2018 Cup series playoffs, which begin Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

NASCAR's 10-race Cup series playoff begins Sunday at 3 p.m. ET (NBCSN) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and we have the playoff picture mapped out for you, right down to our picks on who will be crowned the champion.

Here's a full breakdown of the 16 playoff drivers: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Austin Dillon, Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson, Alex Bowman.

Our ESPN experts go round-by-round:

Mike Clay, ESPN

Second round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Truex Jr., Keselowski, Bowyer, Logano, Kurt Busch, Elliott, Blaney, Jones, Larson, Hamlin

Third round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Truex, Keselowski, Bowyer, Elliott, Blaney, Larson

Final four: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Truex, Larson

Champion: Larson

I'm sticking with my preseason pick. Yes, Larson has had some absurdly bad luck and hasn't managed a single win this season, but he's certainly been competitive and is one of the best raw talents in the field. Larson ranks fourth behind only the Big Three (Harvick, Kyle Busch, Truex) in top-5s (eight) and laps led (666) and is tied for fifth in top-10s (14). Larson has also been terrific at Homestead (his 7.6 career average finish is worse than only Harvick). If Larson gets to the final four round, he'll have as good as shot as any driver to take home the gold.

Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst

Second round: Harvick, Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Truex, Larson, Bowyer, Hamlin, Jones, Elliott, Logano, Almirola, Kurt Busch

Third round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Truex, Elliott, Larson, Bowyer, Keselowski, Jones

Final four: Harvick, Kyle Busch, Bowyer, Elliott

Champion: Kyle Busch

Truex is worthy of a second title. He has the speed, but the distraction for team members as the season winds down leads to too many mistakes. Elliott will finagle his way into the final four, something that he nearly accomplished last year. Bowyer's dream season comes up a bit short. So it comes down to the two drivers who dominated statistically during the regular season. In the end, I give it to Kyle Busch in part because of what I saw from him and his team a few weeks ago in Bristol, rallying back from early adversity in a damaged race car to contend late. I believe he and the No. 18 team are a bit more resilient, Kyle is in his prime, and the concentrated effort of Toyota in this final race is too much to overcome. Kyle Busch becomes a two-time champion in 2018.

Ryan McGee, ESPN senior writer

Second round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Truex Jr., Keselowski, Bowyer, Logano, Kurt Busch, Elliott, Jones, Larson, Hamlin, Johnson

Third round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Truex, Keselowski, Logano, Johnson, Larson, Hamlin

Final four: Harvick, Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin

Champion: Kyle Busch

The moment this elimination format was announced during the Charlotte media tour in January, I remember leaning over to the writers next to me and saying, "This is made for Kyle Busch." I still believe that it is.

Alisha Miller, ESPN.com

Second round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Keselowski, Bowyer, Logano, Kurt Busch, Elliott, Blaney, Larson, Johnson, Hamlin

Third round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Larson, Elliott, Johnson, Hamlin

Final four: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Larson

Champion: Kyle Busch

The Big Three have captivated NASCAR and its fans all season long. Why stop now? I'm anticipating the playoffs playing out in the same arc that the regular season followed: Kyle Busch and Harvick going nose-to-nose, and Busch rolling into Victory Lane at Homestead.

Scott Page, Jayski editor

Second round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Martin Truex, Keselowski, Bowyer, Logano, Kurt Busch, Elliott, Blaney, Larson, Hamlin, Almirola

Third round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Martin Truex, Keselowski, Bowyer, Logano, Larson, Hamlin

Final four: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Martin Truex, Larson

Champion: Larson

Larson will win because of NASCAR karma. The discussion all year has been about the Big Three, with only passing discussion of the final championship driver. Larson runs well at Homestead, so it seems as though it would be appropriate for him to grab the win and take home the championship. That would open up a whole new discussion of the playoff system and who is and isn't worthy of being a champion.

Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com

Second round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Keselowski, Bowyer, Logano, Kurt Busch, Elliott, Jones, Larson, Hamlin, Johnson

Third round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Truex, Keselowski, Logano, Kurt Busch, Larson, Hamlin

Final four: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Truex, Larson

Champion: Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch's team has executed well this year, and it just appears they are getting the most out of their cars on most days. Busch is still upset over losing a year ago. The toughest cuts at the end of each round were: choosing Jones over Blaney to make it out of the first round, choosing Logano over Bowyer to make it out of the second round, and leaving Keselowski and Hamlin out of the final four.

Marty Smith, ESPN

Second round: Harvick, Truex, Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Bowyer, Keselowski, Logano, Larson, Jones, Elliott, Johnson

Third round: Harvick, Truex, Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Bowyer, Keselowski, Elliott

Final four: Harvick, Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Keselowski

Champion: Harvick

Harvick is locked in. He's been on a mission from the second they opened the gates at Daytona. Busch will be a tough out, but Harvick and Rodney Childers are relentless.

Scott Symmes, ESPN.com

Second round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Keselowski, Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Elliott, Blaney, Larson, Denny Hamlin, Jones

Third round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Keselowski, Bowyer, Logano, Kurt Busch, Elliott, Larson

Final four: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Elliott, Larson

Champion: Larson

Conventional wisdom says Harvick and Kyle Busch will be duking it out in the closing laps at Homestead, but I'm going to roll the dice and take Larson to steal the title. Larson is a force at Homestead (three straight top-5s, 277 laps led in the past two races), where the fast top groove plays to his strengths, so the spoiler potential is real. That said, Larson is hardly a lock to make it that far. Although the speed is there, the No. 42 team doesn't have a lot of playoff points to lean on and hasn't exactly been a model of consistency. I might regret not picking Keselowski, who's riding back-to-back wins, for the championship four. The same goes for Truex Jr., but I think the No. 78 team will be derailed (you can argue it already has) by its impending closure.

Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information

Second round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Keselowski, Bowyer, Logano, Kurt Busch, Elliott, Blaney, Jones, Larson, Hamlin

Third round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Elliott, Larson, Hamlin

Final round: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Elliott

Champion: Harvick

Thanks to their bonus points, Kyle Busch and Harvick merely need to avoid two races of trouble in a round to not cruise into the round of eight, and I think both have no issues getting to the end. Keselowski usually owns plate tracks but has six DNF in his past eight races, so Talladega spells his end. If Larson can get to Homestead still in it, he's the favorite, but the round of eight tracks are among his weakest. Kurt Busch and Elliott's consistency puts them in the final round with Kyle Busch and Harvick. There have been seven races on 1.5-mile tracks this season, both Kyle Busch and Harvick have three wins in those. But I'll give Harvick the ever-so-slight edge at Homestead based on his track history.