2018 NASCAR predictions: Most improved, playoff favorites, Cup champion and more

Brendan Marks, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in Auto Racing

Most improved

This isn't meant to be a slap in the face, especially considering how close Chase Elliott came to making the championship four in 2017. Rather, this is more about Elliott finally capitalizing on his potential.

Any NASCAR fan knows that, to this point in his career, Elliott hasn't been able to make the leap from perpetual runner-up to perpetual winner. His dad, Bill Elliott, was the same way early in his career ... until he figured it out and became a Hall of Famer. It's a little early to say Chase is going to have the career his father did, but this is the season he gets his first Cup Series win -- and likely once one comes, a bunch will follow.

Prediction: Chase Elliott

Championship four at Homestead

Given how dominant both Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch were last season, especially by the end of the year, they have to be two of the favorites to make it back to Homestead. As for Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, as good as they are, their championship appearances were less set in stone and thus less likely to be repeated.

As for the other two, there are a handful of drivers you could go with -- Larson, Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano -- and feel good about. Let me have Larson and Johnson, though. Larson was on track to make it to Homestead before his engine troubles in the playoffs, and I see his team correcting those issues in 2018. As for Johnson, what else is there to say? Give a seven-time champion a new car, some motivation coming off a bad season, and we'll see you in Florida.

Prediction: Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson

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2018 Cup Series champion

Truex owned 2017 in every way possible. Not only did he win the most races, lead the most laps and have the fastest car all season long, but he had a tremendous story on his side, too. The thing is, repeating as a champion in any sport is incredibly difficult. Doing so in NASCAR, with all the luck involved, is perhaps more so.

And as tempting as it is to give the trophy to Kyle Busch, who came second in 2017, or Jimmie Johnson, whose eighth title would make him the greatest driver of all time, let's go with Larson, probably the best driver at Homestead of the three. He was in position to pass both Busch and Truex in November, but stayed behind to let them duke it out. This year, they'll have to watch him drive past and into Victory Lane for his first Cup Series championship.

Prediction: Kyle Larson

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