What Larson, Logano, rest of field must do in NASCAR playoffs' second round
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
The first round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is a don’t-beat-yourself type of round.
The second round carries a similar theme — but only to a certain extent. That's because two of the three races are known for their unpredictability. In reality, it's more of a survive-and-advance type of round.
NASCAR’s "Round of 12" is its version of the quarterfinals. It opens Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, which previously was in the third (semifinal) round. The final two races of the three-race round are the same as in previous years, with Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2) and the Charlotte road course (Oct. 9).
Talladega and its sister track, Daytona, are known for high-speed drafting in big packs that tend to create massive, multi-car wrecks. The Charlotte road course (commonly called the "Roval" because of its use of both an oval and a road course in the infield) is much like other road courses on the Cup schedule; it is easy to get spun or collected in an incident and have a top-five day turn into a 30th-place day in the final laps.
"It’s a weird bunch of tracks, so I don’t know," defending Cup champion Kyle Larson said. "Hopefully Texas will go good, and Talladega we can get some breaks ... Usually superspeedways aren’t good for me. So we’ll see.
"The Roval, I think we will be really good at. Just keep working hard and hopefully get through this round."
No driver can feel safe, but the key will be having a cushion following Texas and then being one of the playoff drivers running at the finish at Talladega. It would be great, obviously, to win and not worry about points, as the four winless drivers with the fewest points in the round will be eliminated after the Charlotte road course.
"There would be no better place than Texas [to win] because that’s going to be a very important race," said Christopher Bell, who earned the most points of any playoff driver in the first round.
The seeding and point differential from the cutoff at the start of the round are set by the playoff points drivers earned in the first 29 races — five playoff points per race win, one playoff point for each stage win and playoff points awarded to the top 10 in the regular-season standings on a 15-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 scale.
This is how they sit heading into the round, with a little bit of an outlook on each.
Chase Elliott (Seed 1, +31 on cutoff): Elliott entered the first round 33 points ahead of the cutoff and finished 53 points up while having one bad race, one mediocre race and one very good race. Elliott has two top-10s in superspeedway (Daytona and Talladega) races this year. If it comes down to the Charlotte road course, Elliott has seven career road-course wins. He doesn’t have any in five road-course races this year but was second at Road America and fourth at Watkins Glen, where he was battling for the win before a tangle with Larson. The Hendrick Motorsports driver, the 2020 Cup champion, was involved in an accident at the all-star race at Texas, the only event at Texas so far this season.
Joey Logano (Seed 2, +18): Logano knows about survive and advance. He retired early from Bristol and still advanced by being 33 points ahead of the cutoff. Logano hasn’t finished on the lead lap of any superspeedway race this year, so he hopes his luck turns around at Talladega. He also hasn’t had much joy on road courses this year, but he was third at Watkins Glen. The Team Penske driver, the 2018 Cup champion, was fourth at the all-star race, so bring on Texas.
No Mistakes, No Wrecks
Ross Chastain (Seed 3, +11): Chastain did what he had to do in the first round, advancing with 49 points to spare. Do we need to remind anyone that his two victories this year came at Talladega and the road course at Circuit of the Americas? That should give him some confidence going into this round, though he finished in the 20s in the previous two road-course events. The Trackhouse driver was involved in an accident in the all-star race.
Kyle Larson (Seed 4, +10): The defending Cup champ somewhat cruised through the first round, advancing 50 points ahead of the cutoff. Larson wrecked in both Daytona races but was fourth at Talladega, which might give him a little confidence for that race. He won the most recent road-course race at Watkins Glen and was third at Road America. The Hendrick driver was involved in an accident at the all-star race.
William Byron (Seed 5, +6): Byron was solid in the first round, advancing with 71 points to spare. This round might not be so smooth. Byron doesn’t have a top-10 in three superspeedway races. His best road-course finish this year was ninth. He was 11th in the all-star race at a time when Hendrick wasn’t strong on intermediates. He will need to show how much improvement they have made at Texas, or it could be a rough round.
Denny Hamlin (Seed 6, +4): Hamlin opened the playoffs with back-to-back second-place finishes and advanced with 58 points to spare. He has five career superspeedway wins, but those tracks haven’t been kind to him this year. The Toyotas also struggled on road courses, and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Hamlin is no exception, with no top-10s. He was second in the all-star race at Texas, which appears to be the place where he must perform to feel good about his chances to advance.
Christopher Bell (Seed 7, +4): Bell had the best first round of any driver, as he clinched a spot on points after two races and finished 93 points ahead of the cutoff. Bell hasn’t finished on the lead lap of any superspeedway race this year, so he'll need to turn around his luck at Talladega. He has two top-10s at road courses this year, so he'll need to have a solid day at the road course. The JGR driver was mediocre (10th) in the all-star race at Texas.
Ryan Blaney (Seed 8, +4): Blaney had an awful Bristol and had to sweat it out, running 160 laps down until other playoff drivers had trouble. The Team Penske driver still made it by 26 points, and this round could be better for Blaney, who won the all-star race at Texas. He has three career superspeedway wins and has won at the Charlotte road course in his career. He has two top-10s in the five road courses this year.
No Points Left On Table
Chase Briscoe (Seed 9, -4 on cutoff): Briscoe was the biggest surprise at Bristol, as he went from nine points out of the playoffs to finishing 14 points ahead of the cut. He was third in the Daytona 500 but crashed out in the other two superspeedway races. His best finish on the road courses this year is 13th, so if he has to get it done at the Charlotte road course, that could be a problem. He needs to have a good race at Texas, where he was not good in the all-star race (finished 18th out of 24). One thing he might have going for him? He's the only Stewart-Haas Racing driver left in the playoffs, which means the full energy of the organization will focus on his car.
Alex Bowman (Seed 10, -6): It's a little surprising to see Bowman this low, considering how well he raced at Darlington and Kansas in the first round. He made this round by 28 points despite dropping out of Bristol early after being caught up in an accident. He has one top-10 finish in the three superspeedway races this year. The Hendrick driver was second at COTA, but that was his only top-10 on a road course this year. He was sixth in the all-star race. All those results should surprise no one since he has been inconsistent this year. But if he has the consistency he had in the first two races of the opening round, he’ll be fine.
Daniel Suarez (Seed. 11, -6): Suarez barely got into the second round as he managed to crash at Bristol (taking out Austin Dillon and impacting Tyler Reddick, both of whom were eventually eliminated) and finished several laps down but with seven points to spare. He doesn’t have a top-10 at a superspeedway race this year. He does have a road-course win at Sonoma and top-5s at Road America and Watkins Glen. As far as Texas, the Trackhouse driver was good during all-star weekend, winning the final stage of the open to advance and then finishing fifth in the main event. A good return to Texas will be key.
Austin Cindric (Seed 12, -7): Cindric fought tire issues at Bristol but advanced by a mere two points, giving the Team Penske rookie a bit of new life in this round. And it could be a good round for him, with Talladega and the Charlotte road course. He won the Daytona 500 and was third there in July, so he has potential at Talladega. And he has two top-5s and two top-10s in his five road-course starts this year. Cindric was a decent seventh in the all-star race.
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.