Assessing the playoffs going into Talladega
Here’s how the playoff standings look with two races to go in the Round of 12:
No. 42 Kyle Larson (Locked into Round of 8; winner at Dover) — The speed has been there all season and talent has never been a question, but “Yung Money,” as the sprint car crowd calls him, finally cashed in when it matters most Sunday at Dover. He’ll be the only driver breathing easy next weekend at Talladega, having advanced to the Round of 8. However, he has some work left to be considered in a solid position to lock himself into the Championship 4. If the Round of 8 started tomorrow, he’d still be 18 points out of the top four. But fortunately for Larson, there’s still 14 playoff points up for grabs at Talladega and Kansas.
No. 19 Martin Truex Jr. (+63 points) — Not sure what’s more frustrating, breaking an axle before the green flag or having the fastest car and coming one position short of advancing to the next round ahead of Talladega? Hey, things could have gone much, much worse for the 2017 champ, who finished second and gathered another playoff point in the process. He’ll gladly take that and move on, hoping to add to his cushion with the Round of 8 nearing.
No. 18 Kyle Busch (+48 points) — After a pair of lackluster practices (by the 18’s standard, at least) and a mid-pack qualifying effort, Busch bounced back from a pit road speeding penalty to finish a modest sixth on Sunday. Even with the fickle ‘Dega up next, Busch remains in the forefront of the championship picture. Look at this way: Chase Elliott finished last Sunday at Dover and lost 26 points to the cut line in the process. Next week, a playoff driver is bound to do the same, but even if Busch’s weekend at Talladega went awry, he’d still be a solid 20 some points to the good heading to Kansas.
No. 11 Denny Hamlin (+48 points) — Despite leading a race-high 218 laps, Hamlin couldn’t overcome traffic once losing the lead on pit road and had to settle for fifth. The good news is he almost doubled his advantage on the cut line, increasing the total from +25 points to +48.
No. 4 Kevin Harvick (+42 points) — Harvick was steady all day, one of the few playoff drivers to run a clean race and finish in the top five. He entered the day 23 points above the cut line and exits plus 42 going into a track that Stewart-Haas dominated last year.
No. 2 Brad Keselowski (+20 points) — Keselowski started 16th and managed to finish 11th Sunday, adding just one point to his cut line advantage. It wasn’t a storyline day for Kez, but at least his day didn’t end like his teammates: 25 laps down and in the garage. Keselowski will pack up shop and head to arguably his best track next in Talladega, looking to gain some ground on Truex, Busch, Hamlin, and Harvick.
No. 88 Alex Bowman (+17 points) — On paper, the Round of 12 appears to play right into the hand’s Bowman, and through one race it’s certainly appearing that way. Bowman finished third on Sunday and moved from outside of the cut line to 17 points above the chopping block.
No. 22 Joey Logano (+0 points) — A broken axle on the pace laps put Logano 24 laps down before he even took the Round 12. He salvaged a 34th-place finish but sees a 24-point cut line cushion evaporate. Last year, Logano’s championship run was in large part to rolling through the opening round races, where he finished fourth at Las Vegas, third at Dover, and first at Martinsville to surge him into Homestead. Talladega has been good to Logano (one win and four top-fives the previous five ‘Dega races) but, as we all know, everyone is on thin ice at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
No. 24 William Byron (-0 points) — Byron had a top-five car, but a speeding penalty while running fifth soiled his chance at strengthening the odds to advance to the next round. Instead, he wound up 13th, two laps down and remains outside the cut line.
No. 14 Clint Bowyer (-4 points) — Bowyer probably would have liked to do better than 10th, given Dover is one of his stronger tracks, but he did gain a point on the cut line going into the very place Stewart-Haas finished 1-2-3-4 last year. He’ll need to produce next week though if he’s serious about boosting his odds at the Round of 8.
No. 9 Chase Elliott (-7 points) — Right when you think Elliott is turning the corner as a championship favorite, on the heels of a big playoff win and entering one of his best tracks, the defending race-winner poops out on Lap 8 (engine issues) and finishes dead last. Elliott goes from 19 points above the cut line to seven points behind.
No. 12 Ryan Blaney (-22 points) — Brake issues with 100 laps to go foiled a surefire top-10 effort Sunday for Blaney, lost at least 20 points to the failure and instead stumbled to 35th and 22 points behind the cut line. He’ll look to bounce back next week at Talladega.
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