NASCAR Cup Series

From Chase Elliott to Chase Briscoe: Scouting the NASCAR semifinalists

October 11

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

Drivers who advanced to the NASCAR Cup Series semifinal playoff round enter with a feeling of relief and anticipation. 

After a round that included wild-card-type races at Talladega and the Charlotte road course, the Round of 8 includes three somewhat "normal" tracks at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville.

Or as Denny Hamlin put it after Charlotte: "Now we're going to go to some racetracks where we can go racing."

The 1.5-mile Las Vegas and Homestead tracks are quite different, as Homestead has variable banking, in which the angle of the banking gets steeper closer to the wall, allowing for multiple grooves. The 0.526-mile Martinsville Speedway could be the biggest challenge, as passing could be at a premium, like it was with the first race with NASCAR's Next Gen car there in April. 

Drivers raced at Las Vegas earlier this year in the third race of the season. This will be their first trip to Homestead.

At least one of the eight drivers will advance by points to be among the four drivers eligible to win the championship Nov. 6 at Phoenix. As in the previous rounds, a win automatically qualifies a driver for the next round (in this case the championship). Any spots remaining will be decided by points. 

Until this round, a driver could feel comfortable pointing his way into the next round. But now there is an urgency to win.

Christopher Bell knows about that pressure, as he needed a "walk-off" win Sunday at Charlotte to advance to this round. After a crash at Texas from a flat tire and a frustrating Talladega, Bell went from looking like he would be out of the playoffs to sitting three points above the cutline. 

"I was down on myself, I'm not going to lie," Bell said. "After Texas and then after Talladega, I was just almost depressed, really deflated and bummed because I felt we were doing everything right.  

"And then one bad race at Texas kind of took us out of it. [But] we're right back in the hunt now."

Christopher Bell reacts to win in Charlotte

After his win Sunday, Christopher Bell’s belief that he's a championship contender was renewed.

Here's the outlook for the eight drivers left in contention.

BE SOLID

There is only one driver who probably feels that he doesn't have to win. Top-5 finishes in each of the races should advance him because of his points cushion.

Chase Elliott (Seed 1, +31 on cutoff): The 2020 Cup champion is one of only two past champions still alive in the field. He was ninth at Las Vegas in March. He swept the two stages and led 185 laps before finishing 10th at Martinsville, one of his best tracks. This is the Hendrick Motorsports driver's sixth consecutive appearance in the Round of 8. He has made the championship round the past two years. 

Chase Elliott on his roller coaster week

Chase Elliott describes the roller coaster of racing, from the wreck at Texas to his win a week later at Talladega.

BE GREAT

These drivers should feel that they need to win, but if Elliott wins a race, they'll have a better shot on points. These drivers have virtually no room to breathe and are likely going to need three great races to have a chance.

Joey Logano (Seed 2, +11 on cutoff): Logano, the 2018 Cup champion, and Elliott are the only two past champions left in the playoff field. Logano will soon find out how much he and his Penske team have improved, as he was 14th at Las Vegas earlier this year. If he can put himself in position by Martinsville, he'll feel good; he was second there in April.

Ross Chastain (Seed 3, +6 on cutoff): This is the first time in the playoffs for Chastain and Team Trackhouse. Maybe they don't know the pressure, though Chastain, who has won twice this year, did his best to nearly throw away his opportunity to advance by hitting the wall at Charlotte. In March, he finished third in the first stage, won the second stage and finished third at Las Vegas while leading 83 laps. He started 27th and finished fifth at Martinsville.

Ross Chastain on his long day at the Roval

Ross Chastain said Sunday after the race at Charlotte that he would do his best to leave the day in the rearview mirror.

Christopher Bell (Seed 4, +3 on cutoff): There's a good reason Bell is looking forward to this round: The intermediate ovals (tracks 1.3-to-2 miles in length) have been among his best tracks this year. He sat on the pole and led 32 laps at Las Vegas, where he finished 10th in March. Martinsville wasn't great for him, as he was 20th. The only disadvantage for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver? This is the first time in his career that Bell is in this round. 

BE A WINNER

These drivers shouldn't count on points, at least not at the outset. After a race or two, that might change, but for the start, they can't assume Elliott is going to win, and they can't assume that three solid races will allow them to make up enough points. 

Ryan Blaney (Seed 5, -3 on cutoff): An accident at Las Vegas ended Blaney's day early, as he finished 36th. He was fourth at Martinsville in April. This is his fourth appearance in the semifinal round, but he has never made it past this round. He obviously is hungry for a win as the only driver who made the playoffs without a victory this year.

William Byron (Seed 6, -3 on cutoff): Byron should love going back to these tracks; he won the opening stage and finished fifth at Las Vegas and won at Martinsville earlier this year. This is the first time the Hendrick Motorsports driver has advanced to the Round of 8, so he will have to show he can handle the pressure.

Denny Hamlin (Seed 7, -5 on cutoff): Hamlin has made the Round of 8 in seven of the nine years of the format, and he has made the championship round four times ... and still has not won a championship. This might not be his best opportunity for a title, but if he and his team can avoid mistakes, he'll be in the mix. A drivetrain issue ended his day early at Las Vegas, where he led 31 laps earlier this year. He has to be concerned about Martinsville, where he finished 28th.

Chase Briscoe (Seed 8, -9 on cutoff): Briscoe was in an accident at Las Vegas earlier this year, so he didn't get as many laps as others. He started 19th and finished ninth at Martinsville in April. This is his first year in the playoffs, and his advantage is that the pressure is off because few would've predicted him advancing this far. Plus, if the Stewart-Haas Racing driver can get to the championship, he is the only driver who has won at Phoenix in the Next Gen car.

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.


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