Analysis: Ten drivers who could dethrone Jimmie Johnson in 2017

Now that Jimmie Johnson has joined the elite seven-title club, will there be an eighth championship for the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team?

Analysis: Ten drivers who could dethrone Jimmie Johnson in 2017
Champion Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2016 Champion and race winner Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Joey Logano, Team Penske Ford
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing Toyota
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford
Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford

Certainly, there’s no reason to believe Johnson won’t be on a mission from Daytona Speedweeks all the way to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson came out of the gate strong in 2016, winning two of the first five races. He saved the rest of his firepower for the playoffs — and won when it mattered, including at Homestead when the title was on the line.

There’s not another driver in the NASCAR paddock that can match Johnson in championships or wins (80), but here are 10 drivers who will attempt to dethrone him in 2017:

1. Kevin Harvick

Next to Johnson, Harvick had the best overall statistics last season with four wins, 17 top fives and 27 top 10s. Harvick’s average finish of 9.9 topped the Cup tour last year. With the change in manufacturers from Chevy to Ford, all eyes will be on Stewart-Haas Racing to ascertain whether the juggernaut has lost a step.

2. Joey Logano

For the last three seasons, Logano has been a threat to win the title. After a year to acclimate to Team Penske systems, the 26-year-old driver has won 14 races and 10 poles and not finished worse than sixth in the standings. The combination of Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon has paid dividends for the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil team.

3. Kyle Busch

It didn’t take long for Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens to find the magic that had been missing with the No. 18 M&Mss Toyota. Together, the pair has won nine races, while posting 19 top fives, 41 top 10s and a championship in 61 starts. While Busch fell short of repeating the Cup title in 2016, the driver of the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota continues to set the standard for Joe Gibbs Racing. 

4. Martin Truex Jr.

In 2016, Truex, 36, earned a career-high four wins and five poles. His 1,809 laps led topped the Cup tour. If not for an engine failure at Talladega, it’s likely that Truex would have been one of the final four at Homestead. Can the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team go the distance? It depends whether the company experiences growing pains with the addition of a second team with driver Erik Jones.

5. Brad Keselowski

Keselowski had a stellar regular season in 2016 with four wins, 12 top fives and 17 top 10s. But following the first round of the playoffs, any hope Keselowski had at a second title dissipated with consecutive DNFs at Kansas and Talladega. Ever since Keselowski, 32, actively recruited Joey Logano, Team Penske has evolved into the top two-car operation in NASCAR.

6. Kurt Busch

Busch might run under the radar, but his fellow competitors understand the No. 41 team is a force at NASCAR's highest level. The 2004 champion has battled back from near obsolescence to become a perennial playoff contender. However, if Busch ever hopes to earn his second Cup title, he’ll have to increase his top-five finishes and lead more laps to improve his chances of winning.

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

After missing half the 2016 season with a concussion, Earnhardt, 42, is  prepared to attack 2017 with a vengeance. But time is of the essence for Earnhardt. With a new wife and the desire to start a family, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver has a short window to build on his resume of 26 wins and 13 poles.

8. Kyle Larson

Following three full seasons on the Cup tour, Larson finally earned his first win under the direction of crew chief Chad Johnston. Together, the pair returned the No. 42 Ganassi Racing team to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, when Juan Pablo Montoya qualified for the only time in his career. Larson, 24, was slightly more consistent in 2014 than 2016. But experience in the playoffs will serve him well moving forward

9. Denny Hamlin

Hamlin posted a remarkable average qualifying effort of 6.3 — the best on the Cup tour in 2016. The initial track position paved his way for three wins, 12 top fives and a career-best 22 top 10 finishes for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. After completing his first season with crew chief Mike Wheeler, the defending Daytona 500 champion should come out strong again in 2017.

10. Clint Bowyer

There’s no driver more eager for the season to begin than Bowyer. After another miserable season with another shuttered team, Bowyer will inherit the No. 14 ride — the former championship car belonging to Tony Stewart. Still, 2017 will be a make-or-break season for the 37-year-old racer who has just eight career wins in 397 starts.

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