Joey Logano won his way into NASCAR’s championship race last weekend at Kansas Speedway and the remaining contenders in the Round of 8 will look to follow suit on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
First, here’s the playoff grid with just Texas and Martinsville remaining in the Round of 8:
So what does the playoff grid tell us?
Following his engine expiration at Kansas, Kurt Busch definitively faces a must-win scenario over the next two events at Texas or Martinsville.
He qualified into the Round of 8 by virtue of a timely caution late at Las Vegas, a turn of events that earned him track position and clean air, an advantage he would not give up over a series of late restarts.
That sent the 2003 champion from the bottom of the playoff grid (and without a win all season) to the first driver advancing out of the Round of 12.
The summer race at Texas was won by Austin Dillon under similar circumstances and Busch restarted right behind the Richard Childress Racing duo. The intermediate tracks remain his best chance to advance there’s only one left.
“I liked Texas better anyway,” Busch joked during a Thursday Zoom call.
One step beyond that, Busch says he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to advance, even if it means upsetting one of his peers.
“Yeah, for me, I’m already past that line,” Busch said. “I’m not even going to think about it. I’m going to do it. I feel like all the goodwill I’ve built up with other drivers, my position of being a veteran in this sport, and knowing what it takes to win a championship, I’ve put all the puzzle pieces in place. …
“And some of those are decision out on the track where you can’t hesitate. You just have to go. And, that’s where we’re not going to back down. It doesn’t matter who it is.”
MARTIN TRUEX AND ALEX BOWMAN
These drivers face similar odds.
A win over the next two weekends is the simplest way to advance, but they could realistically advance on points too.
At 19 and 23 points behind, both deficits fall within a range that could be made up during a single race if Chase Elliott or Brad Keselowski falter.
“Obviously, we came into the Playoffs without a lot of bonus points that typically we are used to having, and that’s made it a little bit of a challenge, but again, definitely didn’t run as good as we hoped to in Kansas,” Truex said. “We lost a little bit there. We’ve got to make it happen. We’ve got two weeks to do it. Our approach is to just do the best job that we can do and hopefully, we can get it done.”
BRAD KESELOWSKI AND CHASE ELLIOTT
Again, winning over the next two weeks makes the math irrelevant, and Elliott says he doesn’t get preoccupied with counting points anymore.
“I feel like I’ve really worried about the points situation less this year than I ever have before,” Elliott said. “It matters, don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I don’t care.
“It does matter, but I just think the more that you understand that winning is paramount and that’s the only guarantee that moves you on. And also, realizing that if you make the Final Four, you’re going to have to go win that last race anyway.”
Brad Keselowski is trying to keep the math simple as well.
“Obviously, sitting on the cutoff line is not ideal because I could have a great race and still get knocked out because somebody else wins, so the best thing for us to do is to go win that thing,” Keselowski said. “There’s three races left in the season and simple math: If I win one of the next two and then the last one, we’ll win the championship, so I’m trying to keep it that simple.”
However, actually winning races is not that simple so points accrual is still a extremely important.
“I’d like to go there and score a lot of points,” Keselowski said. “We had a solid race in Kansas, just came up a few spots short and a great performance overall. If we can bring that kind of speed and so forth to Texas, we will be in great shape.”
The Joe Gibbs Racing team is in a comfortable spot. At second in the standings with two races left in the Round of 8, Hamlin is protected should someone below him win and he simply maintains.
And a 20 point advantage, while not impossible to lose, would require a significant setback.
“I think that there is no one that is going to make 20 points up on us if we just preform our normal way, we’ve been preforming all year,” Hamlin said. Now, things change. We saw Kansas, things changed really quick. We go from possibly winning the race to finishing 15th, but I think our on-track performance will be enough.
“It’s just all of the variables that you don’t know about. It’s wrecks, it’s pit road, it’s someone pulling out in front of you and doing damage. There’s just so many little things that can affect your finish that you just don’t usually account for, but I would rather be 20 up than 20 down. That’s for sure.”
Less likely than the variables are the possibility that two of Busch, Bowman and Truex win the next two races and leaving him out of the championship race, despite being second in points.
That could make the race for the lead on championship points relevant, which leads us to …
The most important thing for Harvick to do over the next two weeks is simply maintain his points lead (+21) over Hamlin.
It doesn’t matter who else wins over the next two weeks if Harvick can just maintain that advantage. It’s an advantage that his regular season and the first two round afforded him since playoff points carry over from the regular season and into each round of the elimination tournament.
“It’s a lot easier to put yourself in a position by winning races, (because) you can get yourself in trouble so fast and lose so many points so quick,” Harvick said. “You spent the whole regular season putting yourself in a position to have a backup plan and the way that we got that backup plan with those points was to win. …”
“Winning solidifies that 100 percent for moving forward if you can do that.”
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