Debate: Which driver who missed 2018 playoffs is most likely to make it in ’19?

2019 Jan 7 Byron Suarez

The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs field was comprised of a variety of drivers; from former recent champions like Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch to rising stars like Chase Elliott and Erik Jones. It even had some resurgent names such as Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola.

There were also a few notable names that didn’t make the cut in 2018 — but those drivers could be primed to break through for a championship run in 2019.’s Jessica Ruffin and Pat DeCola break down which driver who missed the playoffs last year is most likely to advance in 2019.

RELATED: Final 2018 NASCAR Playoffs standings

RUFFIN: After his first Busch Pole Award and runner-up finish at Pocono Raceway on July 29 that left him hovering around the top 16, Daniel Suarez looked poised to sneak into the NASCAR Playoffs with a breakthrough first win. While that didn’t pan out last year, the 2019 season could be monumental for the 27-year-old driver. He’s moving to pilot the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford this season, which means he’ll have a new team/organization — which was one of the most dominant in 2018 — and manufacturer come Daytona.

MORE: Suarez lands with SHR | See the new No. 41 driver through the years

Most importantly, he’ll inherit three new teammates — Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola — all of whom won and made the playoffs in 2018. Change is good for a driver like Suarez because he enjoys pressure and always desires to learn from his peers — remember the running joke about him calling Kyle Busch every week when he first arrived at Joe Gibbs Racing? I believe he’ll use the momentum from a fresh start, advice from his teammates and power from dominant SHR equipment to break into the NASCAR Playoffs in 2019.

DECOLA: You know, this might not wind up being much of a debate, because I totally agree with you — Daniel Suarez will make the playoffs, for many of the reasons you mentioned. But there’s no rule that only one driver who missed last year’s postseason will make it in 2019. That’s right; I’m saying that two drivers who fell out of contention at Indianapolis Motor Speedway after Race 26 last year will make the playoffs field in 2019.

The other is William Byron.

Looking at the Sunoco Rookie of the Year’s 2018 stats, a 23rd-place standings finish and just four top 10s don’t exactly scream “breakout,” but dig a little deeper. It was his first Monster Energy Series season — at the ripe age of 20 — and it happened to coincide with the biggest dip in performance that Hendrick Motorsports as a whole has seen since at least the turn of the century (if not ever). Chevrolet also introduced a new car last year in the Camaro ZL1 that appeared to have a significant learning curve as teams with Chevy backing all needed some time to find the speed necessary to win. This is all to say that Byron, HMS and Chevy will likely have some of these issues ironed out for ’19, which will only help to clear a path to sustained performance for the talented sophomore.

Oh, and then there’s that other thing — his crew chief is now seven-time championship winner Chad Knaus, who never missed the playoffs with Jimmie Johnson. We don’t know yet just how Knaus’ veteran presence will impact Byron positively, we just know it will. At least one race win — and the playoff bid that comes along with it — appears to be in the cards for Byron in 2019, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see him battling with Suarez come playoff time.

MORE: Knaus to serve as crew chief for Byron, No. 24 in 2019