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Bump & Run: Playoff opener

Monster Energy NASCAR Series South Point Hotel and Casino 400 - Practice

LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 14: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 DC Solar Vegas Strong Chevrolet, in the garage drives during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Series South Point Hotel and Casino 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on September 14, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

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With his pit crew being shuffled and his car gaining speed the past few weeks, Kyle Larson has become a trendy pick to make the championship four. Can you make the case that a winless driver is a favorite to race for the title?
Nate Ryan: Yes, because both driver and team are maturing simultaneously. Larson has become finely attuned to how sensitive the ears of crew members can be to driver criticism, and he has modulated his appealing candor accordingly. But he was characteristically blunt about the pit crew’s intermittently disappointing performances after the Brickyard, and Chip Ganassi Racing’s willingness to address that by reshuffling personnel – while also continuing to make his Camaro faster – bodes well for the stretch run.

Dustin Long: No, I cannot make the case because Kyle Larson won’t get to the championship race in Miami. He has to get through the next nine weeks to even worry about the championship race. With two and possibly three spots all but locked up for Miami, that could leave one spot for the rest of the field. There are too many obstacles for this team to overcome. Maybe next year will be his year.

Which driver outside of The Big Three is the best sleeper pick to make the Championship 4?

Nate Ryan: Even after winning the pole position for Sunday, Erik Jones believes he still qualifies as a sleeper. Given his recent speed and a calm and confident demeanor, he might not be after Sunday’s race, though, so snatch him while he’s still drawing double-digit odds.

Dustin Long: Ryan Blaney. I look at the progress Team Penske is making, the speed Blaney had earlier in the year, and I just think he’s one who could make a charge through the playoffs and be one to make it to Miami.

What was the biggest missed emoji opportunity for this year’s playoff drivers?

Nate Ryan: While Clint Bowyer’s nod to his trucking company sponsor is appreciated and understood, how was one of NASCAR’s most amusing and colorful drivers assigned an austere and flat graphic of an 18-wheeler that could only be loved by those with a weigh-station fetish? The possibilities are endless of what the Bowyer emoji could have been – exploding beer cans, Johnny Cash motifs, the touching Martinsville celebration with his son – but “long-haul trucker” wouldn’t have been in the top 100.

Dustin Long: The biggest mistake came earlier this summer when Erik Jones was forced to cut his mullet. Can you imagine the mullet as his emoji? That would have been the best. They still could have done it and had him grow his hair out these final 10 weeks. Oh well, maybe next year.