Five races into a regular season consisting of 26 events may seem premature to make any statements about who should feel confident about their chance to qualify for NASCAR's playoffs. History indicates otherwise.
Since NASCAR adjusted the Chase for the Sprint Cup format prior to the 2014 season, five races has represented enough of a gauge on which drivers will comprise the playoff field. In each of the past two years, 11 of the 16 drivers provisionally holding Chase spots after five races went on to earn a postseason berth. Meaning, nearly 69 percent of those currently poised to make this year's Chase will do just that.
The four drivers who have victories -- Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick -- are assured of competing for the championship come the start of the playoffs in mid-September.
And you can feel confident Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will also get in. Although winless, this quintet has flashed both speed and consistency, with Edwards ranked second in points and coming a mere few inches short of beating Harvick at Phoenix, the Busch brothers owning top 10s in all but one race and Logano and Earnhardt having three top 10s apiece.
When NASCAR returns from its Easter holiday break, expect Edwards, the Buschs, Logano and Earnhardt to begin manifesting that early season promise into wins to officially lock themselves into the playoffs.
So with nine of 16 slots either secured outright or appearing virtually set, that leaves a gaggle of prominent names scrambling to solidify their Chase eligibility over the final 21 regular races. Using a 1-10 scale, here's a ranking determining those who should feel confident vs. those who should be experiencing some anxiety.
Sloppy mistakes and sour luck have contributed to Kenseth posting a lone top-10 finish and sitting 15th in points, while Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Edwards, Hamlin and Kyle Busch are all fifth or better. Still, Kenseth had cars capable of reaching Victory Lane in a trio of races (Daytona, Atlanta and Las Vegas) and is too good not to score a win somewhere along the way.
Confidence level: 9
Martin Truex Jr.
With an offseason transition from Chevrolet to Toyota, Truex figured it would be a few months before Furniture Row Racing resembled the form that nearly culminated in a championship last year. Except that acclimation process has seemingly been reduced with Truex putting forth runs at Daytona, Atlanta and Fontana that could have resulted in victories had circumstances changed slightly. Given some additional time to adjust to a new manufacturer, Furniture Row's performance should continue to improve.
Confidence level: 8
Inexperience cost Elliott in the season-opening Daytona 500, but the 20-year-old has been a revelation ever since, posting three top-10 finishes and continually getting better each week. Becoming the first rookie in nine years to win (Juan Pablo Montoya, 2007) is a realistic proposition, and even if he doesn't, Elliott is good enough to point his way into the Chase.
Confidence level: 7
After an uneven first two seasons, Dillon looks like a different driver, producing four finishes of 11th or better. More significantly, the No. 3 team is fielding faster cars placing Dillon on the cusp of getting that maiden win and therefore punching his playoff ticket.
Confidence level: 6.5
The low downforce aerodynamic rules package was supposed to favor Larson, whose ability to handle loose cars skating sideways is pronounced due to his sprint car background. Through five races, however, success is still fleeting -- 2016 mirrors 2015, where he too often overdrove and struggled to finish races. Larson has completed the fewest miles out of any who's started every event. If he is to make the Chase, it will be because he won a regular season race, not via points.
Confidence level: 6
Elliott may garner the majority of the headlines, but Blaney has turned in an equally fine start to his rookie campaign with a pair of top 10s. The difference between the two freshmen is Elliott, who replaced the retired Jeff Gordon, is with a team that's been together for some time, whereas Blaney is with a group that last contested a full schedule in 2008. Does the 22-year-old possess the experience to weather the inevitable growing pains?
Confidence level: 6
Same story, different year for Kahne, who again is struggling while his Hendrick Motorsports teammates are all finding success. Compounding matters is that the No. 5 car doesn't have speed to overcome its lack of consistency, which means Kahne popping off a Chase-clinching win appears dubious.
Confidence level: 5
With his trademark consistency absent -- his average finish is 20.7 is seven spots higher than last year -- and winless since 2013, Newman's path to the Chase is littered with roadblocks.
Confidence level: 4
Jaimie McMurray and Aric Almirola
They may not be teammates, but the formula McMurray and Almirola apply to earn a postseason berth is the same: avoid disastrous results, knock out mid-teen finishes with regularity, and hopefully accumulate enough points to squeak in.
Confidence level: 3