The favorites to win the Cup championship are clear. It’s Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.
But who could be the surprise to challenge for the title?
Playoff riders were asked who their Cup playoff dark horse was. More chosen Aric Almirola than any other pilot. He is ranked 12th in the 16-driver playoff peloton.
“I’m excited about the playoffs,” said Almirola, who recently signed a contract extension. “I feel we have a lot of potential. We have done very well. We made some mistakes along the way that we definitely need to clean up before the playoffs to be a contender. I feel like our speed and the way we run, the ability is definitely there.
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Almirola is an intriguing choice. He had a streak of five consecutive top-five races. These finishes were part of his streak of nine races with results in the top 10.
“They’ve always been quick on a lot of these circuits,” William Byron said of Almirola as his dark horse in the Cup qualifiers. “The only thing about that is that I feel like a lot of the tracks are going to be very different in the playoffs than the ones we broadcast in the summer.
Almirola’s Kyle Busch said: “He’s the one that could show up anytime with the guys at SHR and be as quick as they’ve been every week.
But Almirola also had poor finishes on some tracks in the playoffs. He was 29th in Bristol after being involved in a crash on a restart while running seventh. Battery issues led to a 33rd place finish at Martinsville, a race he led early on. He was 21st in Las Vegas.
Almirola finished 12th in the first round of Darlington Raceway and seventh in the second race. The playoffs begin Sunday with the Southern 500 on this track (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
« They had problems, ”said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing of the Almirola team. “Pit teams, restarts, speeding on the pit lane – things of that nature that made him go to the back and have to run forward. If we can clean up all of these things and not make a mistake, I think he will have a good opportunity.
MORE DARK HORSE PICKS
William Byron and Kyle Busch have each been mentioned by several playoff riders as their choice of dark horse.
Byron just picked up his first career Cup points victory last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. The victory secured his place in the playoffs. Byron is the ninth seed.
«Momentum is something, ”Clint Bowyer said of Byron’s selection as his black horse. “Confidence is something. Winning your first race is worth something. Having a team leader like Chad Knaus is worth something.
Alex Bowman said of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate: “I think William Byron, who just got a win, could be very strong. I feel like as a team everyone at HMS has picked up lately. “
Maybe the role of the underdog will suit Busch. He missed the first 11 races of the 2015 Cup season when he was injured during the Xfinity season opener at Daytona. Busch returned to win the Cup title this season. Last year he was seen as the underdog before the championship race. He won his second title.
Although Busch is winless this season and ranked 14th, he may be in the right place.
“Everyone’s waiting for Kyle Busch to tear down that wall,” Harvick said. “We all know he could win any week and we know he’s had a lot of bad luck this year.
Keep an eye on this choice
Among the interesting choices for the dark horse was the selection of Ryan Blaney by Denny Hamlin. The Team Penske rider is the seventh seed.
“I think he shows the most speed when he’s on the speed he’s really on,” Hamlin said of Blaney. “I think of Texas where I thought he was a lot faster than everyone else. … He’s just a guy that I consider to be, he has the ability to be successful at every turn.
“I don’t know how many last four hooks it might be. I would say, if I had to guess, whoever fills one out, it’s probably in five percent of them maybe. Rightfully, I think he has a much better chance of succeeding.