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. 

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 years, but when you have seven championships on your resume you can take a couple body shots and not let it 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 that this is the first time that 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 Vegass.

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. In all honesty, 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 the format being used. 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 2007 and Tony Stewart in 2005.

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

He also did it in 2016 (finished third in points after getting to Championship 4), 2011 (finished 12th after getting suspended for a race) and 2008 (finished 10th).

The year Busch won his only championship (2015), he was injured early in the season and entered the playoffs 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: