Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in motorsports as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday for the first race of the playoffs:
Turn 1: As we enter the playoffs, what or who has been the biggest surprise of 2017?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: The biggest surprise for me is the guy I picked to become 2017 champion in the preseason. He didn't even make the playoffs. That would be Joey Logano. His numbers in the previous three seasons suggested this would be his year. I missed something.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: Joey Logano's struggles truly caught me off guard. I believed he was one of the small handful of top title contenders, and when I was standing in Victory Lane at Richmond there was no reason to believe he wasn't about to go on a run like we've seen from Larson, Truex, etc. Then that win essentially vanished. His fall from then to completely out of the playoff field is pretty crazy.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: The struggles of Hendrick Motorsports. The organization has three drivers in the playoffs and the only reason one is in the title conversation is because, frankly, of what he's done in past years, not this year.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: I'd like to make it a pleasant surprise, but it's Joey Logano not even making the 16-driver playoff field. Logano had made the championship four in two of the past three years, and his 14 wins from 2014 to 2016 were tied for the most among all drivers. He entered 2017 with 8-1 odds to win the championship, tied with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch. They're now title favorites -- Logano is racing for pride.
Turn 2: Is Jimmie Johnson a legitimate championship contender?
Craven: Yes, he is a legitimate title contender every single year of his life, but this year seems more challenging than most. It has never paid to bet against Jimmie Johnson. So I'm taking him as one of my final four, not because the statistics this year suggests that to be obvious, but because his crew chief has optimism. That suggests something good is coming for the 48 team.
McGee: Sure. As long as he is in the field he has to be considered a contender. But their struggles are very real. I will never bet against him. But this year I'm probably not betting on him, either.
Pockrass: Duh. Yes, he is. Any driver with seven NASCAR Cup trophies is a legitimate contender. Dismiss him at your own risk.
Willis: That adjective "legitimate" makes it a no for me. There's always a chance he catches fire, a la Tony Stewart in 2011, but I don't think a repeat of 2016, when he turned it on for the playoffs, happens again. In 2016, he had seven top-5s entering the playoffs -- this year it's three, and the last of those came more than three months ago. Consider this stat: Twenty-six drivers have finished better than eighth in at least one of the past 13 races. Jimmie Johnson is not one of them.
Turn 3: Who gets eliminated in the first round of the playoffs?
McGee: History can be brutal with its truths, and Chase/playoff history says that the feel-good stories, the guys who raced their way in via a first career win or with an underdog team, don't last very long. That's bad news for Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Sorry, fellas.
Pockrass: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney and Kasey Kahne. They will find winning difficult and their lack of consistency won't help them with points.
Willis: I'll take Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who hasn't finished better than 14th since his Daytona win and has the worst average finish at the three round of 16 tracks among the 16 playoff drivers. Kasey Kahne is wreck-prone (six crash DNFs in the past 15 races). Austin Dillon is too prone to poor finishes (two top-10s, but finishes outside the top 20 in the past seven races). And Ryan Blaney has a 25.5 average finish at Dover and New Hampshire this year, and he doesn't have a top-5 finish since winning at Pocono.
Turn 4: This is the last year Chicagoland opens the playoffs. It goes to Las Vegas next year. Do you like the move?
Craven: I suppose Las Vegas would be an improvement because of the tourism. I'm just not sure the first race of the playoffs needs to be on the West Coast. I kind of felt like Richmond would be a great first race in the playoffs. But I don't think anybody's gonna miss Chicago.
McGee: I think it's pretty much a straight-up trade. Any upgrade will likely come by way of the SMI promotional think tank, which always figures out out some kind of stunt to garner some sort of extra attention. My issue isn't with this move. I want Richmond and Talladega to go back to their elimination status.
Pockrass: It's a wash. Like I've written before, NASCAR should open the playoffs at Talladega. Every newscast would show highlights, and a crash in the opening round wouldn't be devastating to any driver who has had a solid regular season.
Willis: I am, but I'd like to see some playoff races move around to different tracks. Vegas has been able to provide some exciting finishes. Three of the past four Vegas races have had the deciding lead change inside the final six laps. But the playoffs are still too dominated by 1.5-mile tracks. Luckily, we lose one next year in favor of the "roval" at Charlotte.