The eight drivers who have advanced to this three-race round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs likely feel a return-to-normalcy after an unprecedented season of schedule flux and the most recent Playoff round that included a superspeedway and a relatively new road course that forced teams to compete on rain tires for the first time in the Modern Era.
NASCAR Cup Series regular season champion Kevin Harvick, who leads the series with nine victories but was winless in this most recent Playoff round, holds a 13-point edge on seven-race winner Denny Hamlin atop the standings as the series moves to Kansas Speedway for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
After Hamlin the points separation in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff standings is far greater. Brad Keselowski is ranked third, 32 points behind Harvick as the points reset for this penultimate group of races at Kansas, then Texas Motor Speedway, then Martinsville (Va.) Speedway before the Nov. 8 Championship 4 round at Phoenix Raceway.
Last week’s Charlotte ROVAL race winner Chase Elliott is currently in that fourth and final transfer spot, 40 points behind Harvick. Joey Logano (-45 points), Martin Truex Jr. (-50), Alex Bowman (-58) and Kurt Busch (-61) round out the Playoff field. Defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch was among those who did not advance in the Playoffs after the ROVAL race last weekend marking the earliest a reigning champ has been eliminated from title contention in the ‘elimination-style’ format.
Six of the Playoff drivers have won races at Kansas Speedway previously, with Hamlin and Harvick part of a four-way tie (also Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson) with three Kansas wins each. Hamlin won this July edging Keselowski by a half-second marking his second straight win a the 1.5-mile speedway dating back to last year’s Playoff race.
In all, six of the current eight Playoff drivers finished among the top-10 this summer at Kansas. Harvick, who has seven top 10s in the last nine Kansas races (including a pair of wins and a runner-up finish) leads a quartet of drivers particularly good at the track.
Hamlin has top-10 finishes in six of the last eight races, including wins in the last two. Keselowski has a win and a runner-up finish in the last three Kansas races and Truex has six top-10 finishes in the last seven races at the Kansas track, including a pair of wins and a runner-up showing.
Among these drivers, only Talladega, Ala. race winner Denny Hamlin owns a victory in the most recent three-race Playoff round. Harvick has set a career-high mark for single season victories in a year and earned a series-best 19 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes through the opening 32 races. He had only a single top-10 (10th at Las Vegas) in the last Playoff round, however.
“This wasn’t a great round for us, so we definitely need to do better,” said Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “We need to display that our cars are fast and do a good job on pit road and do the things we did all year. Definitely two good race tracks coming up for us with Kansas and Texas and hopefully, we can get a win at one of those two race tracks and go on with it.”
A return to some 1.5-mile tracks will be welcomed by many of the Playoff drivers. Harvick, Hamlin, Logano and Bowman are the only drivers with victories at both Kansas and next week’s venue, Texas Motor Speedway, however, seven of the eight drivers have won at one of the tracks. Only Bowman is still looking for his first career win at Kansas, Texas and Martinsville.
“I don’t’ know if we are necessarily taking a different approach,” the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Chase Elliott said of trying to earn his first Championship 4 opportunity.
“I think we’re just trying to build on what we’ve been working on over the past few years. I feel like every year we’ve been close we just haven’t been able to get over that hump and really assert ourselves among that top group. I feel like we’ve been right there. I feel like we’re very capable of it.
“Just those little inconsistencies and some bad race tracks have been our biggest problems. So we’re trying to be a little more consistent everywhere. I think it’s a goal. … You can’t have bad tracks at this level and the guys who win often and win all the time and run well don’t have any bad tracks. It’s certainly possible and that’s just where we have to get to. The reality is that’s the only way to contend with them and I think we’re capable of doing it.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!