The Round of 12 of the Playoffs starts this Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the South Point 400 and the stakes going into this weekend’s race are high for almost everyone; that is everyone who is not named Kevin Harvick.
Harvick, last week’s winner, holds the points lead and is ahead of the cutline by 62 points over ninth place Aric Almirola. That cushion is the equivalent of the maximum points a driver can earn in a race plus three points.
Harvick is surely a lock in for the next round and likely the Championship Four round, but for those right above and below the cutline, nothing is a given.
Even for a driver like Martin Truex Jr., this is especially true. Truex started the Round of 16 sixth in points, seven points ahead of ninth place, but by the end of the round fell to ninth, nine points behind eighth. Truex had issues at Bristol and Darlington that relegated him to finishes of 24th and 22nd, respectively, but that does not tell the whole tale.
At Darlington, Truex’s performance was strong and damage stemming from a failed, late-race move for the lead on Chase Elliott were what caused issues for Truex. In the Round of 12 , at a track like Las Vegas, it is likely that Truex would not have made a move like that to get by and would have salvaged the points to get into the next round instead. With that in mind, Truex will likely go back to his brand of consistency during this round that led him to score ten top-4 finishes in the last 13 races. Las Vegas will likely be a good top 5 finish for the 2017 Cup champion while the rest of the round will be more of the same. However, there will likely be an added concentration on making as few mistakes as possible and surviving the attrition, given the round has both a superspeedway and a road course in it.
With the mixed bag of tracks in this round, there may be some surprises that define this year’s Playoffs, but so far nothing has topped Austin Dillon’s performance in the Round of 16, in terms of big surprises. Dillon finished a close second place to Kevin Harvick at Darlington and had arguably the best car at Richmond, finishing fourth and leading the second-most laps of any driver (55), then finished 12th at Bristol, one of his worst tracks. Many people projected Dillon to be eliminated in the Round of 16, but Dillon defied the odds and now sits as a dark horse for the championship.
To start the Round of 12 , Dillon goes to Las Vegas, his third-best track, statistically, where he has an average finish of 14.7 in 10 starts, which includes five top 15 finishes in the last seven races there. One of those five finishes was a fourth-place finish in the February race where Dillon scored an 89.7 driver rating, the second-best driver rating he’s scored in a Las Vegas race.
If anything is going to stop Dillon, however, it may be Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. Dillon has crashed out of four of the last seven Talladega races and has a best finish of 23rd at the Charlotte Roval. Thankfully for Dillon, he scored a sixth-place finish at Talladega in October 2019 and has been able to capitalize in stressful situations at the track. In October 2016, he finished ninth in a cutoff race for the Playoffs. Although Dillon lost the tiebreaker to advance to the next round, he ran up front all day when he needed to in a race that showed how Dillon can step up to the challenge of performing when the time comes.
If Dillon survives the Round of 12, another 750 HP race lies ahead at Martinsville, which will be the cutoff race for the Championship Four. If Dillon gets to this position, he may be one to watch for a surprise Championship Four entry that only the year 2020 could serve up.
Even though 2020 has served up a few good surprises for some people, the year has also served up some not-so-good surprises for others, like Kyle Busch. Heading into the 30th race of the season, Busch has yet to win a Cup race this season, marking the farthest into a season that he has gone without winning a race.
Relative to previous seasons, Busch has been off in not only the wins category but also with laps led and average finish. 408 laps led after 29 races is the fewest that Busch has led at this point in a season since 2007 when he led 295 laps after 29 races that season. Busch is also on-pace to average a 14.1 avg. finish, which would be his worst avg. finish in a season since 2014 (17.6).
There is no denying that Busch has been off this season, but three top 10 finishes in the Round of 16 and a near-win at Bristol proved that Busch is not that far off. Bristol was his strongest non-superspeedway performance since leading 52 laps and winning a stage at Kansas, a sister track to Las Vegas. If Busch can put together a good performance at Las Vegas, then replicate his Daytona success at Talladega and return to form on the road courses with a good finish at the Charlotte Roval, then Busch will, dare I say, have a Championship Four berth possibly within his grasp with Kansas, Texas and Martinsville ahead in the Round of 8.
To start the Round of 12, I predict that Martin Truex Jr. will break through to win at Las Vegas to net his second victory of 2020. Even as the Toyotas struggled in February, Truex ran up front and was a close competitor to Chase Elliott, who led 70 laps and had the best car until issues struck late for him. Elliott will run well at Las Vegas but I think Truex will finally put together a whole race to win for the first time since Martinsville in June. However, he will be closely challenged by teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, as well as by Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano, especially given the latter has scored the most points of any driver in the last six Las Vegas races.
For the second race of the Round of 12, at Talladega, I think a Playoff driver will emerge with their first win of the season. Busch is certainly the favorite, given his performance at Daytona, but Aric Almirola also stands out. Almirola has not finished outside of the top 10 at Talladega in the last eight races, proving his worth on superspeedways no matter the package. Almirola is on pace to have his best average finish in a season (12.1) of his career in 2020, while also scoring the most top 5s (6) and top 10s (17) in a season of his career this year. While he has yet to win a race this season, a superspeedway race with much on the line could change that for Almirola.
Lastly, at the Charlotte Roval, I think we will see a repeat of Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott running up front like they did at the Daytona Roval. Hamlin has been stellar on road courses, having scored top 10s in all but one race at Watkins Glen and Sonoma since 2016. Elliott has also been stellar, having won the last three road course races, including that Daytona Roval race. However, they will likely be joined by drivers that have otherwise flown under the radar recently.
Winless driver Clint Bowyer is one of those drivers. Bowyer is one of two drivers to score top 5 finishes in both Charlotte Roval races, with a third place in the inaugural 2018 race and a fourth place in last year’s race. The other driver is Alex Bowman who finished second last year and fourth in 2018. Bowman has run well recently, scoring four top 10s in the last five races. While the Charlotte Roval is at the end of the round and not coming up right away, the momentum he has had lately will factor into a strong run for the driver of the no. 88 Chevrolet.
The Roval will be a Playoffs-saving race for Bowman and Bowyer as I think both drivers will be close to the cutline. Out of the two drivers, I could see Bowyer having the best shot at breaking through, but they will have to go through Hamlin and Elliott, which may be a tall task. No less, I would pencil in one of those three or, again, Kevin Harvick, to be the favorites at the Roval.
Barring a win by any of these drivers, I predict that Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon and Aric Almirola will miss the Round of 8. The battle for the final spot will come down to Clint Bowyer, Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch. Given his recent track record of issues and bad luck, I believe that Kyle Busch’s Playoff run will come to an end after the Roval. However, if Busch is able to reverse that trend, then I believe that Bowman will sneak into the Round of 8 over Bowyer.
The Round of 12 drivers will line up in the first 12 positions, with the lineup being determined by the following metrics: Finishing position in the previous race (50 percent weight) ranking in team owner points standings (35 percent weight) and fastest lap from the previous race (15 percent weight). This how the Round of 12 will line up for Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas:
1. Kevin Harvick (Points leader; +62 points above the cutline)
2. Kyle Busch (Tied-10th in points; -1 point below the cutline)
3. Chase Elliott (5th in points; +16 above the cutline)
4. Aric Almirola (Tied-8th in points but below the cutline)
5. Joey Logano (4th in points; +17 above the cutline)
6. Clint Bowyer (T-10th in points; -1 below the cutline)
7. Austin Dillon (Tied-8th in points but above the cutline)
8. Alex Bowman (7th in points; +4 above the cutline)
9. Kurt Busch (12th in points; -4 below the cutline)
10. Denny Hamlin (2nd in points; +43 above the cutline)
11. Martin Truex Jr. (6th in points; +11 above the cutline)
12. Brad Keselowski (3rd in points; +32 above the cutline)
Joey Logano is the most recent Cup Series winner at Las Vegas, having won the February 2020 Pennzoil 400, while Martin Truex Jr. won last year’s South Point 400. Logano and Truex have combined to win four of the last six Cup races at Las Vegas, including the last three which all took place with the current 550 HP/high downforce rules package.
Sunday’s South Point 400 will be 267 laps, with stages of 80/80/167. The race is expected to go green at around 7:17 p.m. ET (TV: NBCSN; Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).