NASCAR StatWatch: Who are the favorites and long shots heading into the playoffs?

Kyle Busch receives the regular-season champion trophy from NASCAR president Steve Phelps. Busch holds a 15-point lead over second-place Denny Hamlin heading into the playoffs. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

After 26 races, we welcome you to the playoffs that, for the first time, do not feature Jimmie Johnson.

It's been a rough couple of years, but when you have seven championships on your résumé you can take a couple body shots and it won't ruin your reputation. Look at the late careers for drivers like Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, and then think about if that has tarnished their legacies at all.

We know this is the first time Johnson has missed the playoffs, and although Kevin Harvick put together one of the most impressive Indianapolis runs in NASCAR's history at the track, we'll use this space this week to preview the playoffs.

The 10-week, 10-race run to a championship starts Sunday night in Las Vegas.

Not the place to be for Kyle Busch

You might think Kyle Busch is in the catbird seat for the playoffs, holding a 15-point lead over second-place Denny Hamlin after his four regular-season wins plus the regular-season points championship. Ordinarily, you wouldn't want to be in any other position but the points lead, but in playoff history, that hasn't been a great indicator of a championship.

In the first 15 years of the playoffs, only three champions have led the points at the start of the playoffs, regardless of format. Martin Truex Jr. was the last to do it in 2017. Before that, you have to go back to the early days of the postseason -- Johnson in '07 and Tony Stewart in '05.

This is the fifth time Busch has entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed. Last year, Busch got to the Championship 4 but finished last at Homestead, although it was still a strong fourth-place finish.

He also did it in 2016 (finished third in points after reaching the Championship 4), '11 (finished 12th after getting suspended for a race) and '08 (10th).

The year Busch won his only championship (2015), he was injured early in the season and entered the playoffs ranked 25th in points but as the No. 2 seed.

Finally Hamlin's time

Right behind Busch in the playoff standings is Hamlin, Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. He's come close to a championship before, finishing second to Johnson in 2010.

He stands as one of the most accomplished drivers in series history to never win a championship. Let's break it down by the numbers:

  • 35 wins: His wins rank him third in Cup Series history among drivers without a title, behind Junior Johnson (50) and Mark Martin (40).

  • Four top-five points finishes: Only five drivers have had more top-five finishes without winning a championship: Martin, James Hylton, Carl Edwards, Harry Gant and Ricky Rudd.

  • 14th full season: Only two drivers won their first title in their 14th season or later -- Bobby Allison (18th season in 1983) and Harvick (14th in 2014).

Running the Gibbs gauntlet

The 2019 season has belonged to Joe Gibbs Racing, so let's keep running through their list of drivers. Next up is Truex Jr., a four-time winner already this season who won the '17 championship and finished second in points last season.

We haven't seen a driver go from runner-up to champion in back-to-back seasons since Stewart did it, also in a Gibbs car, in 2001 and '02.

Before that, it was another Gibbs driver, Bobby Labonte, who finished second in points in 1999 and then won the championship in 2000.

Since 1990, only two other drivers have done it: Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt.

Last but not least, Erik Jones

His wreck at Indianapolis aside, Jones enters the playoffs on a pretty hot run. He won at Darlington and has finished fourth or better in five of the last eight races.

Still, he only has two career wins, putting him as one of seven drivers in this year's playoffs with five or fewer career wins. Here's the list:

Dating back to 1950, only three drivers have won a championship with five or fewer wins on their resume: Benny Parsons (two in '73), Terry Labonte (four in '84) and Alan Kulwicki (five in '92).

When Earnhardt won his first championship in 1980, he had only six wins on his resume.

If the 23-year-old Jones or any of the other young guns can capture a championship this year, they'd put their name among the youngest series champions in Cup history.

Currently, that mark is held by Bill Rexford who was 23 years, 229 days old on the final day of the 1950 season. The only other driver to win a Cup title at age 25 or younger was Gordon, who was 24 years old for his 1995 title. Only Rexford, Gordon, Kurt Busch and Petty have won titles at 27 or younger.

At the other end of the spectrum

Johnson might have missed the playoffs, but fellow 43-year-old Harvick looks to be among the championship favorites following his Brickyard win.

If Harvick can capture his second championship, he'll become just the fourth driver in Cup Series history to win a championship at 43 or older, joining Earnhardt (43 in 1994), Allison (45 in '83) and Lee Petty (44 in '58, 45 in '59).

A long-shot champion?

At the end of the 2017 season it would've been a bold prediction to take Joey Logano to win the 2018 championship. After all, he finished 17th in points and missed the playoffs.

Truex Jr. finished 11th in 2016.

Going back to the start of the modern era (1972), only three other drivers went from outside of the top 10 in points to a championship the next year: Kurt Busch (11th in 2003), Earnhardt (12th in 1992) and Kulwicki (13th in '91).

With the playoff system in place, there's no shortage of drivers in the mix this year who were outside the top 10 last year, including Hamlin (11th place), Clint Bowyer (12th), Jones (15th), Bowman (16th), Ryan Newman (17th) or Byron (23rd).