New York Jets 2021 opponent report: New England Patriots

There would be, perhaps, no better way for the New York Jets to open a new era than by ending their losing streak against the Patriots.

The Opponent: New England Patriots
The Dates: Week 2, September 19, 1 p.m. ET, CBS (@ NY)/Week 7, October 24, 1 p.m. ET, CBS (@ NE)*
The Series: New England leads 69-54-1 (last meeting: 2020, 28-14 NE)

*-(subject to flexible scheduling)

Year one of the post-Tom Brady era was a merciless kick back to reality for the New England Patriots. Yet, one tradition lingered from Brady’s historic tenure: beating the New York Jets.

For all the Patriots’ faults in 2020, they managed to keep their winning streak against the Jets alive, sweeping the annual pair for a fifth straight season. The Jets haven’t earned a sweep against New England since 2000…one year before Mo Lewis’ hit on Drew Bledsoe inadvertently shifted the course of NFL history. New England’s ten-game winning streak is the longest in the series that dates back to the days of the AFL, breaking a nine-game tally the Jets had between 1966 and 1970.

The Jets came close to ending the streak last season in a Monday night showdown in November at MetLife Stadium. New York, in fact, owned a two-possession lead entering the final quarter, but surrendered 13 points over the final six-plus minutes en route to a 30-27 defeat.

New York and New England also met in the final week of the season. Meaningless finales between the Jets and Patriots have been nothing new since the NFL instituted an all-divisional matchup slate for the last week, as New England would often rest starters going into the playoffs. This time, though, mere pride was on the line and the Patriots sent the Adam Gase era note out on an appropriate thud, topping the Jets 28-14.

Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Skinny on the Patriots

Bill Belichick is burdened with a load he hasn’t had to deal with in a long, long time: something to prove.

Few can question the impact and legacy…more a path of destruction…that Belichick has left behind. But last season created the closest thing to a smear one can make on Belichick’s New England ledger: Brady moved on to Tampa Bay and immediately won another Super Bowl with Belichick over 1,300 miles away.

Belichick isn’t like Michael Jordan: he won’t publicly declare that he “took that personally”. But Brady’s instant success in a new locale has to be eating at him a little. Every eye in the football world will turn to Foxboro on October 3, when Brady and the Buccaneers arrive for a Sunday night visit. But the Patriots will have a spotlight on them all season after last season’s flop.

Despite the departure Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and recent retiree Julian Edelman, the Patriots still have leftovers from their most recent glory days. Sony Michel’s third season was cut short by bouts on the COVID-19 list and injured reserve, but he performed well over the final three games of last season (287 yards on 40 touches). Devin McCourty returns for his 12th season, flanked by cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson (the latter earning nine interceptions last season).

New York Jets, Hunter Henry
Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

What’s New in New England?

Belichick did what any supposed villain would do after getting wronged: he spent a lot of money in an attempt to get revenge. 

New England spent over $316 million in free agency endeavors this offseason, a project headlined by swiping the top two available tight ends. The post-Gronkowski situation was even more garish, as Ryan Izzo and Devin Asiasi united for only 238 yards on 15 receptions last year.

New England remedied this issue by brining in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, dedicating over $12 million in 2021 cap space to the former AFC foes. The Patriots have never been hesitant to use two tight ends, routinely pairing Gronkowski with names like Brandon LaFell, Martellus Bennett, and Aaron Hernandez. Expect to see them reemploy more 12 personnel sets with two elite names in tow.

On defense, the Patriots brought in two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Matthew Judon. He’ll join  returnees Kyle Van Noy and Donte Hightower will re-don the Flying Elvis after one-year absences. Van Noy returns after one year with divisional rival Miami while Hightower opted out of last season in the midst of the health crisis. Speaking of front seven additions, the Patriots also added former Jet Henry Anderson, who never lived up to the $25 million extension granted to him in 2019.

No discussion about the post-Brady Patriots would be complete without looking at the quarterback situation. Cam Newton got off to a hot start but was never the same after missing an October game in Kansas City on the COVID-19 list. The 32-year-old Newton is projected to be the opening day starter but the Patriots used April’s 15th overall selection on Alabama thrower Mac Jones.

When it comes to the quarterback’s targets, the Patriots appear to be moving on from first-rounder N’Keal Harry. Jakobi Meyers returns for his third season after a breakthrough year in the slot (729 yards), while team added Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor from the west cost.

(Photo By Streeter Lecka)

How to Beat Them

-Wow, What a (Pass) Rush 

The home opener against the Patriots will be an early test for the Jets’ revamped pass rush.

Even Brady finds himself flustered by a strong backfield invasion; if not for that of the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, for example, he might have a Super Bowl ring for every finger. The Jets played a rare role in a Brady denial during their most recent playoff triumph: on that magical evening in January 2011, the Jets took down the arguable GOAT five times.

No matter whom the Jets face under center, they have to up the pressure. Newton can still move around as he gets deeper into his 30s…he scored two on the ground in the first meeting last season…but this isn’t the same Newton we saw during his Carolina heyday. New England was 3-6 when teams blitzed on at least 25 percent of Newton’s snaps last season. The pressure situation should only increase with Jones in tow, as there would probably be no better way to welcome the national champion to the NFL than a relentless rush.

The Jets know just how important pressure will be. Their most impactful 2021 contract is Carl Lawson’s three-year, $45 million deal that lured him away from Cincinnati. Enough has been written about how Lawson has made a defensive impact despite pedestrian sack totals. The early showdown with the Patriots will give him a perfect opportunity to back the early praise up.

-Push the Patriots off the Pedestal 

The horrors that the Patriots have subjected the Jets to could qualify as the stuff of urban legends at this point. November’s aforementioned Monday night loss, for example, was a positive in mere sense that it was the Jets’ first one-possession loss since the infamous Austin Seferian-Jenkins incident in 2017.

Nothing would symbolize a new era of Jets football better than taking down the hated Patriots. So desperate is the metropolitan area for a sports celebration…the Canyon of Heroes has been vacant to local affairs since the Giants’ parade in 2011 (the United States’ World Cup champion women’s soccer team in 2015 and 2019 notwithstanding)…that plans for a Robert Saleh statue could be submitted if the Jets take that Week 2 tilt. The fact that fans will be welcomed back to MetLife Stadium for an NFL regular season game for the first time since December 2019 only adds to how much the Patriots’ will mean.

But the Jets can’t go in with that mindset. A win is a win, no matter who it comes against. The Patriots are the Patriots…they’re a football team not a boogeyman. New York shouldn’t buy into the increased hype just because it’s been a while since they’ve enjoyed a win over a certain divisional rival.

Saleh walked through MetLife Stadium for the first time in June. Unlike, say, Rex Ryan, the newly minted Jets boss wasn’t looking to create bulletin board material for the New England locker room. Instead, his focus lingered only what a win would mean for the New York area. He hoped to create a similar atmosphere seen during late spring’s postseason endeavors at Madison Square Garden and Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, where he witnessed the respective playoff runs of the New York Knicks and New York Islanders.

“I’m really excited to get it going and get that stadium filled where that thing becomes live again like it’s been in the past,” Saleh said in a report from team writer Eric Allen. “New York fans are extremely passionate. They love their home teams, they’re rabid to a sense and it’s awesome. It comes from just absolute love for their teams. But like everything else in the world, you got to earn it.”

“We’re excited about all the work we’re putting in. We’re excited to get the opportunity to earn the same response at MetLife stadium and let the fans light that place up.”

How important is it for the Jets to end their losing streak against New England? Follow @GeoffJMags on Twitter and continue the conversation.

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Joe Gibbs Racing

Championships won and championships missed unite at JGR, whose drivers experienced a roller-coaster 2020 season.

2021 Joe Gibbs Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Denny Hamlin 11 Chris Gabehart FedEx
Kyle Busch 18 Ben Beshore M&M’s/Skittles/Snickers/Pedigree
Martin Truex Jr. 19 James Small Bass Pro Shops/Auto-Owners Insurance/DeWalt
Christopher Bell 20 Adam Stevens Stanley/DeWalt/Irwin/Rheem/Craftsman

History

Legendary NFL head coach Joe Gibbs opted for another championship venture during his days coaching football in Washington. As he closed in on his third and final Super Bowl title, Gibbs was starting his own NASCAR squad, starting things off with future champion Dale Jarrett. After Jarrett and another trophy-hoister in the making, Bobby Labonte, piloted the original No. 18 car to 10 wins over its first seven seasons, Gibbs expanded to a two-car operation, welcoming in the hot-headed but talented Tony Stewart to the No. 20. In the first year of the Labonte-Stewart tandem, the former finished second behind Jarrett, then driving for Robert Yates Racing, before winning a title of his own in 2000. Stewart would take home the championship two years, the first of two such celebrations in Gibbs’ No. 20 (the other coming in 2005).

The original Nos. 18 and 20 cars are now respectively piloted by Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell. Busch has brought home two further Cup Series championships (2015, 2019).

A third car, the No. 11, arrived in 2004 as a part-time unit before Denny Hamlin earned full-time duties just over a year later by closing out the 2005 campaign with five top 20 finishes in the final seven races. The gambit immediately paid off with a third-place finish in the final standings, the best by any Cup rookie in the modern era (since 1972). Hamlin has since gone on to win 44 races in Gibbs’ equipment, including three Daytona 500s (including the most recent two), and, with the exception of an injury-marred 2013, has finished no worse than 12th in the final standings.

Gibbs would often field a fourth car for research and development before that unit eventually became the No. 19 Toyota, originally driven by Carl Edwards in 2015-16. Edwards retired weeks before the 2017 Daytona 500, first leaving the Camry to Daniel Suarez for two seasons before championship driver Martin Truex Jr. came over after the shutdown of Furniture Row Racing.

2020 in Review

The closest Gibbs ever came to an undefeated season was the 1991-92 NFL campaign, winning his first 11 games en route to Super Bowl XXVI. Hamlin tried hard to duplicate the feat after the coronavirus-induced pause, winning seven races and running at the front of the standings with Kevin Harvick all season. Following a 28th-place finish at Indianapolis in July, Hamlin finished outside of the Top 20 in just one of the final 20 races. He advanced to the final four at Phoenix for the second straight season but came home fourth in the standings despite a run in the top five.

Despite Hamlin’s success, the biggest story at Gibbs was by far the Kyle Busch saga. The No. 18’s title defense did not as planned, as a topsy-turvy season often denied him victories through factors beyond his control. Busch eventually was able to score a win at Texas in the 34th weekend of the season.

Truex was relatively quiet in his second year in the No. 19 car after picking up seven wins and a runner-up posting the year prior. He earned a single, yet dominant, victory at the summer race at Martinsville and his 23 top tens led all Gibbs drivers (third in NASCAR overall). Despite a summer stretch where he earned a streak of nine top fives in ten races, Truex missed out on the championship quartet after a tough race at the penultimate event back at Martinsville.

Bell, the 2017 Camping World Truck Series champion, got his Cup feet wet in the No. 95 at now-defunct Leavine Family Racing, which shut down after last season despite a technical alliance with Gibbs. Erik Jones piloted the No. 20 car in each of the past three seasons, finishing no better than 15th and winning two races.

Meet the Drivers

Denny Hamlin

Experience: 16th full season
Career Cup Victories: 57 (last: Texas, fall 2020)
2020 finish: 8th
Best standings finish: 2015, 2019

There’s nothing wrong with going down in the same sentences as the legendary Mark Martin, whom Hamlin passed on the all-time wins list last season. But those comparisons are going to grow in a pejorative light if Hamlin continues to miss out on a title, unfair as they may be. Based on his on-track output, Hamlin may be closer to a title than ever before. Since Chris Gabehart took over as crew chief in 2019, Hamlin has won 13 races.

“Chris (has done) a great job of getting the most out of me each and every week,” Hamlin said prior to descending upon Daytona. “When he came in, a lot of it was me working on the driving aspect and giving him the free reign to go and do whatever he needed to do with the race car and us trusting each other. I think that whatever has happened, it’s clicked and it’s worked well, and we’ve gotten a lot of success from that.”

Undeterred by another close finish, Hamlin has kept busy this offseason. In addition to starring in a widely-aired Domino’s commercial, Hamlin has been busy running 23XI Racing alongside NBA legend Michael Jordan and competitor Bubba Wallace. Hamlin has been instrumental in the team’s formation but has assured fans of his No. 11 that his day-to-day involvement with 23XI (which will hold a technical alliance with JGR) is on hold for the time being. Hamlin solidified his commitment to the No. 11 with a newly granted extension.

“I’m really looking forward to going to the race track and then concentrating on one thing and that’s being a race car driver and getting the most out of it,” Hamlin said. “For myself, I felt like February 1 was the date and where I’m kind of done on the day to day for 23X1 and I just think that now my focus is really on the No. 11 FedEx team and how we can win a lot of races and win a championship. That’s where ultimately is going to be the best thing for me, in the long run, to continue to be successful.”

Kyle Busch

Experience: 17th full season
Career Cup Victories: 
2020 finish: 4th
Best standings finish: 2nd (2010)

By all accounts, there are many teams in NASCAR that would make ridiculous sacrifices to earn Busch’s 2020 ledger (1 win, 14 top fives, 20 top tens). But Busch knows that there’s far more expected of him. Following Jimmie Johnson’s retirement, Busch is the only active multiple-champion on the Cup level.

To kickstart 2021, the No. 18’s personnel underwent a bit of a reboot. A good bunch of Busch’s crew shifted over to the No. 20 inherited by Bell, including pit boss Adam Stevens, who helped Busch win each of his Cup Series titles. Busch’s Camry will carry the familiar, colorful insignias of M&M’s and Mars, Incorporated’s confectionaries, but he feels it’s a complete shift. He compared the shift to his original Gibbs arrival in 2008, when he moved into the No. 18 after his first three Cup seasons with Hendrick Motorsports. Busch would go on to earn his first eight wins in a Gibbs vehicle that season.

“I kind of feel like I got fired from the 18 car and moved over to the 20 guys,” Busch said. “There’s this whole thing mentally in my head that I kind of got fired and rehired. Maybe that’ll hold true with how it looked in 2007 to 2008 from Hendrick to Gibbs. And I went off and won eight races. It’s a new challenge, it’s a whole group, but looking forward to it.”

Engineer Ben Beshore will take over as Busch’s crew chief, having overseen four Busch wins at the Xfinity level in 2019. Beshore matched the output in a full season with Harrison Burton. The collaboration got off to a good start this week, as Busch took advantage of a battle for the lead gone awry between Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to win the Busch Clash on the Daytona Road Course on Tuesday night.

“We’ve had a lot of success together. We kind of know the language we’re both speaking,” Beshore said after the Clash victory. “To be able to start the year with some momentum, some positive momentum, get a win right off the bat here, it’s awesome. Especially with a lot of new team members on the car, just getting everybody tied together, pulling in the same direction. I think it’s huge.”

Martin Truex Jr. 

Experience: 16th full season
Career Cup Victories: 27 (last: Martinsville summer, 2020)
2020 finish: 7th
Best standings finish: 2017 Champion

Truex was another driver with a very consistent season that went somewhat by the wayside because we’ve grown accustomed to much bigger things. Going into last year, Truex had won 19 races over the prior three campaigns, winning the 2017 title and finishing in the runner-up slot in the other two seasons. Last season was Truex’s first without crew chief Cole Pearn since 2014. The Mayetta, NJ native had won all but two of his 26 Cup Series races with Pearn in town. Eventually, Truex found a rapport with new boss James Small, leading to their summer endeavors.

JGR brass obviously feels the collaboration is working. Truex and Small will work a second season together and Truex, 40, was recently signed to an extension that will keep him in the No. 19 Toyota.

“We’re always fired up and we are working hard to be better at things,” Truex said what was and what’s to come at JGR. “Last year did not go the way that we wanted. We had a lot of close calls and had some races we probably should have won, and things didn’t go the way we needed to, or we screwed them up. That always makes you angry and makes you want to go back and redo it or retry it. I think we are better prepared this year for sure as a unit.”

Christopher Bell

Experience: 2nd season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 20th
Best standings finish: 20th (2020)

Bell, the 2020 Camping World Truck Series champion, didn’t live up to his massive potential in his first season, probably due to underfunded equipment over at LFR. He did, however, put up some strong efforts in his debut. His 20th-place posting was the best by any LFR driver and he tied Matt DiBenedetto’s team record with seven top tens. Bell’s best finish was a third-place showing at Texas behind Busch. He now returns to Gibbs after placing their Xfinity program in the top five in 2018 and 2019 with Stevens as his crew chief. The pair got off to a strong start at the Bluegreen Vacations Duels on Thursday, as Bell earned a runner-up result in a photo-finish with Aric Almirola.

Despite his familiarity and prior success in a Gibbs vehicle, Bell feels like there’s some pressure to perform in his return to the organization.

“I’m in a difficult position, no doubt about it,” Bell said. Whenever you drive for Joe Gibbs Racing or any top organization, I think that the expectations are to be a championship contender. Coach provides all of the resources needed to have four championship-caliber teams and that is what the goal is. Anything short of that is not good enough.”

Outlook

JGR is an organization where each of its four drivers is more than capable of making the postseason, and they should be well expected to do so in 2021. The biggest question mark will probably be Bell, if only because he has yet to consistently prove himself at the Cup level yet. Either way, there’s no reason to believe that this team shouldn’t be contending for a championship.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Stewart-Haas Racing

SHR’s NASCAR dominance went unrewarded at both the Cup and the Xfinity Series levels. They’re seeking revenge and even more wins in 2021.

2021 Stewart-Haas Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Kevin Harvick 4 Rodney Childers Busch/Mobil 1/Hunt Brothers Pizza
Aric Almirola 10 Mike Bugarewicz Smithfield
Chase Briscoe (R) 14 Johnny Klausmeier HighPoint
Cole Custer 41 Mike Shiplett Haas Automation/Dixie Vodka

Two-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart united with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas in 2009. Haas, formerly a collaborator with Hendrick Motorsports, had been running a full-time team since 2003 but was struggling to find traction. Stewart joined him in co-ownership and, under the new name of Stewart-Haas Racing, joined the team alongside Ryan Newman. Driving the team’s No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart won his third and final Cup Series championship in 2011. Three seasons after, Kevin Harvick joined the team in the No. 4, formerly occupied by Newman under No. 39 branding. Harvick would win five races and earn his first Cup title that same year.

The team has raced Fords from the 2017 season onward. Stewart vacated the No. 14 the year before, giving way to Clint Bowyer for the last four seasons. Bowyer has since retired and will join Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon in the Fox Sports booth. The team’s No. 10 car, introduced in 2012, was driven for six seasons by Danica Patrick before Aric Almirola’s arrival. Elsewhere, the No. 41 arrived two years later and was driven by Kurt Busch and Daniel Suarez before Cole Custer’s takeover last season.

2020 in Review

The 2007 New England Patriots. The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors. Kevin Harvick’s 2020 endeavors.

These dominant efforts all went for naught, as the more controversial side of the NASCAR playoffs came to light when Harvick, the winner of a series-best nine races last season, wasn’t one of the four championship contenders at the championship race in Phoenix. His last two wins came in playoff events at Darlington and Bristol, but consecutive finishes outside the top-ten in the Round of 8’s latter stages doomed him to elimination.

As a whole, the 2020 season was a bit of a roller-coaster for SHR. Beyond Harvick’s efforts, Almirola was at least consistent, finishing in the top ten in nine consecutive races drummer the summer stretch. No wins followed, however, and he was eliminated after the Round of 12. Bowyer’s swan song was respectable, ending in a playoff berth after a runner-up finish in the spring Bristol race. Custer’s Cup debut was a bit of a disappointment, but he managed to steal a win at Kentucky, along with the playoff spot and Rookie of the Year title that came with it. He was eliminated after the first round.

Meet the Drivers

Kevin Harvick

Experience: 21st season
Career Cup Victories: 58 (last: fall Bristol, 2020)
2020 finish: 5th
Best standings finish: 2014 Champion

If anything, last season simply made Harvick a stone-cold lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Harvick’s Cup Series career began under the most harrowing of circumstances. It was he, after all, who was called upon to take over Dale Earnhardt’s car when The Intimidator tragically passed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Prior to last season, he finished no worse than third in the final standings in eight of the last ten seasons. His Truck Series squad had also taken home two championships with circuit legend Ron Hornaday Jr. behind the wheel.

But, despite the lack of a championship at the end, 2020 may go down as Harvick’s greatest accomplishment yet. The way he dominated the circuit in a time where on-track preparation and adjustments were at an ultimate premium was extraordinary. The history was likely no consolation to Harvick, however, and that just makes this No. 4 team all the more dangerous in the future.

Last season’s win tally allowed Harvick to enter the top ten in the Cup Series’ all-time wins ledger. Up next on the list? Earnhardt at 76.

Aric Almirola

Experience: 10th full season
Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: fall Talladega, 2018)
2020 finish: 15th
Best standings finish: 5th (2018)

After wallowing in racing purgatory over at Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola has been consistent since being granted stronger equipment at SHR. He has reached the playoffs in each of his three seasons behind the No. 10 and came home fifth in the 2018 standings. But when are expectations allowed to be raised? Almirola felt primed for a breakout at numerous points last season. He had remarkably strong luck in terms of starting position during the random draw portions and led a career-best 305 laps this season. Yet, Almirola remains mired in a 77-race win drought. SHR renewed his contract last season, but Almirola wants to kickstart things to a higher level.

“So far, I’ve been able to have some success (but) I still want more,” Almirola said prior to the playoffs last season. “I still have a burning desire to win more races, lead more laps, and ultimately win a championship…so far, we’ve been successful…I feel like we have the potential. We’ve been all around it, we just haven’t put it all together to win races, but we’ve been so close. We’ve led a lot of laps. We’ve run top five a lot and when you do those things, typically you’ll find yourself in victory lane, so maybe the Good Lord is just making me be patient.”

Chase Briscoe

Experience: 1st season (No prior Cup starts)
Career Cup Victories: N/A
2020 finish: N/A
Best standings finish: N/A

Much like his new teammate Harvick, Briscoe saw a dominant season go for naught, his own misfortune coming on the Xfinity Series level. Driving SHR’s No. 98 Ford, Briscoe won a circuit-record nine races but failed to take the championship at Phoenix. The most memorable victory came at Darlington in May, when Briscoe held off two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch for the win in the Xfinity Series’ return from the coronavirus-induced pause. Briscoe’s victory came shortly after his wife Marissa suffered a miscarriage.

Briscoe will now replace the retired Bowyer in the No. 14 Ford, a dream come true for the 2016 ARCA champion. As an Indiana youth, Briscoe was a die-hard fan of Stewart, taking in his endeavors from the 14 car from afar. Now, it’s Briscoe’s to command on race days.

“The goal and dream was always the 14 car, but I don’t think it was always necessarily believable that it was going to happen the way it all worked out,” Briscoe said in October. “I truly care about that number and the history of that number going from AJ Foyt to Tony and even Clint. There is a lot of pride in that number being a dirt guy and drive that car and drive for Stewart-Haas. It is still unbelievable.”

Cole Custer

Experience: 2nd full season
Career Cup Victories: 1 (last: Kentucky, 2020)
2020 finish: 16th
Best standings finish: 16th (2020)

Custer’s Rookie of the Year award wasn’t received well by some, as many noted that Tyler Reddick was the more consistent first-year man. But Custer was the only victory lane visitor with a yellow stripe on the back of his car, earning him the ROTY award. The shocker in Kentucky, NASCAR’s final visit to the Bluegrass State for the foreseeable future, did come during a short summer surge for Custer. Prior to the win, he posted his first career top five at Indianapolis and followed the triumph up with consecutive top tens after some bad luck in the immediate aftermath. Nonetheless, there’s going to be a bit of a target on this team’s back moving forward to perform on a more consistent basis.

Outlook

There’s little doubt that Harvick is going to insert himself in the championship picture. The only question is how many races he’ll take along the way. Almirola is also a potential playoff shoo-in but he needs to focus on getting back to victory lane, perhaps multiple times. Briscoe shouldn’t face too many obstacles in winning Rookie of the Year (his only competition, for the time being, is Anthony Alfredo in the underfunded No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford), so he can focus on keeping the No. 14 competitive in the post-Bowyer era. If Custer can’t make it back to the winner’s circle this season, placing the car in the top 20 in points would be a goal to be proud of.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags