A victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs has perhaps never been as crucial as it is entering the final two Playoff races to set the 2018 Championship 4 for the season finale on Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Joey Logano has assured himself a position in that final four courtesy of a not-to-be-denied fending off of reigning Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. on the last lap of Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway.
It was a winning move reminiscent of many other short track last laps. And this time, not only did it land Logano a shot at the title, it had a major impact on the championship chances of his competitors as well.
Kyle Busch remains the championship points leader and after a fourth-place finish at Martinsville, he now holds a healthy 21-point edge on his season-long closest challengers Truex and Kevin Harvick.
Counting Logano, who has now qualified for a title shot at Homestead – the top-four in the standings are 25 points up on fifth place Kurt Busch and 31 points up on two-time Playoff winner Chase Elliott, who had been among the Championship 4 heading into Martinsville.
Clint Bowyer is now seventh in the standings, 42-points behind the cutoff. And his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola – also a Playoff race winner this season – is now 50-points back. Both will need to win at either this week’s Texas Motor Speedway or next week’s new-look ISM Raceway in Phoenix. That’s really the game plan for all the contenders.
“Obviously we are disappointed,” said Bowyer, who won at Martinsville this Spring but finished 21st – last among the eight Playoff drivers last weekend.
“We struggled all day trying to fix our loose car, but we stayed in the top-10 until they’re at the end when we got spun. We lost a lap, and that killed us. We have two races left, and we’ll do our best to win at Texas or Phoenix.”
For several of these drivers, history indicates that scoring a win at Texas or Phoenix will be no easy task.
Only four of the eight Playoff drivers have ever won at Texas – Kyle Busch, his brother Kurt Busch, Harvick, and Logano. The same foursome is the only ones among the Playoff contingent to win previously at Phoenix.
Texas Motor Speedway may be the bigger wildcard for the championship hopefuls. With the exception of Almirola, the other Playoff drivers have all led laps at the track. Harvick is the defending winner of this week’s race and Truex was runner-up. Kyle Busch won at Texas this Spring and Harvick finished runner-up to him.
Busch’s three wins at the track are most among the Playoff drivers. Harvick and Kurt Busch each have one, as does Logano. Harvick, however, is riding a string of eight consecutive top-10 finishes at Texas – including three runner-up showings in addition to his win last year.
Kyle Busch has seven top-five finishes – including two more wins – in the 10 races since his first victory in 2013. Kurt Busch won the Fall, 2009 race but has started on the pole the last two Texas races. He has six top-10s in the last eight races here. He was seventh this Spring and ninth in last year’s Playoff edition.
Of the four drivers essentially needing to win at Texas – Truex and Elliott boast the best records. Truex had a string of six consecutive top-five finishes until an accident earlier this season and 37th-place finish derailed that mark. He has led 363 of his career 595 laps led at Texas in the last five races.
Elliott scored his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win at Texas in 2014 en route to that series championship. And he has five top-11 showings in five Cup starts there. He was fourth in last year’s Playoff race.
Bowyer has only three top-fives in 25 starts at Texas, but was ninth in the Spring – his first top-10 since 2014. Almirola has never led a lap at the track and has only one top-10 (seventh in spring, 2013). He was involved in a crash this April and finished 32nd.
When it comes to Phoenix, Harvick has proven himself the “master.” His nine wins is most of any active Cup driver – and exactly triple the total from the only three Playoff drivers to win at Phoenix combined. Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Logano each have one victory at the track. Harvick’s 1,522 career laps led at the facility is nearly twice that of the next best Playoff driver’s number – Kyle Busch has led 827 laps. And Harvick has only one finish worse than sixth-place in the last 13 races (six years) at Phoenix.
However, the newly renovated track stands to put everyone on a more equal footing for the debut of the reconfigured racing surface and high-amenity grandstands. The most obvious difference in that the start/finish line moves closer to the former Turn 2.
With ISM Raceway the final race to determine the Championship 4 drivers – these Playoff competitors are hoping to christen it with a victory burnout. The likely reality for several is that they must win.
For those without a prior victory at Phoenix, again Truex and Elliott have established good resumes at the track. Truex was fifth this March and third last year en route to his championship. Elliott has four top-10s in five starts. He was runner-up in the 2017 Playoff race and third earlier this year.
Both Bowyer and Almirola have looked stronger at the track this year than in the past. Bowyer’s sixth place here in March was his first top-10 in the last 10 races. Almirola has earned two of his three career top-10s at Phoenix in the last two races. He was ninth in last year’s Playoff race and seventh this Spring.
With the points differential that exists now following Logano’s win at Martinsville, the way to the Championship 4 is at least now straightforward, if not easy.
“I need to win,” Elliott said, echoing the sentiment of his closest challengers.
“I mean playing the points game is nice, but I need another [race winner’s] sticker.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!