Second Round Wonders
By Bob Pockrass
With two unpredictable race tracks in the second round, NASCAR Cup Series drivers will have a sense of urgency from the start to avoid being eliminated as the field goes from 12 to 8 following the next three races.
What is essentially NASCAR's playoff quarterfinal round opens up at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway and then heads to the 2.66-mile high-banks of Talladega Superspeedway and the 2.28-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway road course. Talladega and Charlotte could see a driver running top-5 on the final lap and ending up 35th because crashes (or running of the road course) are more common late in the race and it is more difficult to lap cars in those events.
Charlotte could be even a little more of an unknown as the teams have had just one road-course race this year (Daytona).
Because of that, stage points will be key, especially at Talladega and Charlotte, so the drivers in the playoffs likely will be dicey early.
“I would want to go for stage points in the second round for sure,” said Denny Hamlin, who enters the playoffs second in the standings. “Simply because ... you can put yourself in a good position by gathering all the points that you can early on."
Here’s how the field breaks down:
Class of Field: Kevin Harvick (+62 on cutoff)
With his series-high nine victories this year, including two in the three-race playoff opening round, Kevin Harvick is in a class of his own. Hamlin could argue his six wins can rival Harvick, but Harvick has been more consistent and now has three more victories than Hamlin this year.
Earlier this year, he was 8th at Vegas and 10th at Talladega. And he very well could win either of those races. He led 92 laps at Vegas earlier this year and is a solid superspeedway racer – when he has to have a good performance.
Harvick isn’t taking anything for granted.
“Every race can be a challenge, and that's how we approach it,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “We're confident that we can do what we need to do, and whether that's good enough, you don't know."
Near Head of Class: Denny Hamlin (+43), Brad Keselowski (+30)
Hamlin had a sour opening round and still had enough playoff points to advance before taking a lap Saturday at Bristol. He has enough playoff points that the Joe Gibbs Racing driver should point his way in, but if he doesn’t finish top-10, it could be a little nerve-wracking.
Hamlin, though, has had a season and a mentality where he certainly won’t lack confidence. He was 17th at Vegas and 4th at Talladega earlier this year.
Keselowski saw his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano win at Las Vegas earlier this year and he has been good at the superspeedways and road courses. Even though he doesn’t have as big a cushion as Hamlin, he should make it to the semifinal round. He was 7th at Vegas and 19th at Talladega earlier this year.
Nothing to Lose: Kyle Busch (-1)
Busch has four runner-up finishes this year and no one would be surprised if he wins at any track on any given day. But the defending champ still has that big zero in the win column this year. If Busch had turned two of those 2nd-place runs into wins, the JGR driver would be up nine points on the cutline instead of entering this round one spot back.
While a frustrated Busch proclaimed Saturday night that he wouldn’t advance, just remember Tony Stewart didn’t call himself the favorite in 2011 and went on to win the title.
He might want to think about that rather than his finishing 15th at Vegas in February and wrecking at Talladega earlier this year.
Glass Half-Full: Joey Logano (+17), Chase Elliott (+16), Martin Truex Jr. (+11), Austin Dillon (+0)
These four drivers have reason to feel that if they run the up to the potential of their cars over the last month, they should advance.
In the first round, Logano had a pair of 3rds, and Elliott had one top-5 and two top-10s, Truex’s only good day was a 2nd at Richmond, and Dillon opened the playoffs with a 2nd and a 4th, capping it with a respectable 12th at Bristol.
Logano won at Las Vegas and was 17th at Talladega in the previous stops this year. Elliott won the race on the inaugural Daytona road course, so the Hendrick Motorsports driver should have confidence going into the finale but needs to avoid the pitfalls he had at Vegas (26th following a spin) and Talladega (38th following a crash).
Dillon is on the brink of the cutoff, but might have the most momentum of any driver who didn’t win in the opening round, not to mention his regular season performance didn’t exactly predict the Richard Childress Racing driver advancing to this round.
He has a win on a 1.5-mile track at Texas, was 4th at Vegas earlier this year, and wrecked at Talladega.
Truex struggled at both Vegas and Talladega with a best finish of 20th, but that was before the JGR driver's most recent stretch of races where he has 10 top-4 finishes in his last 13 starts.
Glass Half-Empty: Alex Bowman (+4), Aric Almirola (+0), Clint Bowyer (-1), Kurt Busch (-4)
These drivers haven’t run well enough consistently to feel all that great about their positions entering this round.
Bowman has been a top-10 car through the first round but like the others, just hasn’t been all that flashy. Not that a driver can’t make it to the next round without flash, but it would help. If the Hendrick driver repeats his performances at Vegas (13th earlier this year) and Talladega (7th), he’d at least control his destiny at the Charlotte road course.
Almirola has two victories in the drafting tracks of Talladega and Daytona in his career, and he was 3rd at Talladega earlier this season. He was 21st at Vegas earlier this year, so to think his advancing likely comes down to performing well at Talladega would seem to be a logical conclusion.
Like his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Almirola, Bowyer also has two drafting victories in his career. Repeats of Vegas (12th) and Talladega (25th) from earlier this year won’t get it done.
Kurt Busch hasn’t had a top-5 in his last 12 races, and top-5s likely will be needed to get him from out of the cellar and into one of the eight transfer spots to the next round. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was 25th at Vegas and 9th at Talladega earlier this year.
Xfinity: Briscoe finds groove
Chase Briscoe didn’t have a good race at Richmond, and when he’s mad, he tells people he’s going to win. And his wife, Marissa, has made that known (sometimes after the fact).
Briscoe isn’t sure about this strategy.
“I didn’t want to be in the doghouse tonight, so it ended up working out that we won, but I definitely didn’t know we were going to win,” he said. “I felt like I was going to be pretty determined to win after last week, but you never really know.
“She keeps getting me in trouble with all these tweets. She keeps saying I’m going to win every time and then one of these times it’s not going to come true.”
Truck: Mayer first-time winner
At just 17 years old, Sam Mayer became the second-youngest winner in the Truck Series with his win Thursday at Bristol. Cole Custer is still the youngest with his win at age 16 at New Hampshire in 2014.
Mayer’s victory Thursday also was big in that he might be in his final races with GMS Racing. He already has signed a deal to drive for JR Motorsports after he turns 18 next June, and at this point, he doesn’t know if he will compete in any truck events.
“It’s definitely a big deal,” Mayer said. “Just getting a win in general is a big deal. But having that [JRM] announcement behind me and now that everyone knows and everyone is looking and has their heads turned towards me, it’s definitely a big deal for my brand.”
On The Air
Gander RV Trucks World of Westgate 200 (Las Vegas), 9 p.m. ET, FS1
Xfinity Alsco 300 (Las Vegas), 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Cup South Point 400 (Las Vegas) 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Stat of Note
Michael McDowell finished 10th at Bristol for fourth top-10 of the season, his most ever in a single season.
They Said It
“We'll be eliminated in the next round.” – Kyle Busch