SPARTA, KY – We’re not even out of the month of July yet, but it appears that barring something very unforseen that the playoff fields are likely set in both the NASCAR XFINITY Series as well as the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Trucks Series competition.
See, with only nine races remaining in the NXS regular season, the playoff bubble is nearing 100 points.
Brandon Jones in a Joe Gibbs Racing car is 95 points above Gray Gaulding for the final playoff spot. Brandon Brown is next up, but a wide 130 points out. Both Jeremy Clements (-137) and Garrett Smithley (-198) are both eligible if they can reach victory lane over the next nine weeks, but the odds of them doing so are slim to none. With them nearing 200 points out, there’s no way they can points their ways in.
So, it’s down to win or go home scenarios in the XFINITY Series for four drivers who have never won before. Plus, when the “Big 3” have won 14 of the 19 races in 2019 including finishing 1-2-3 in Friday night’s Alsco 300, then winning is harder than ever.
So, I feel good about the 12 driver field right now being set in NXS.
What about the Trucks?
Tyler Ankrum’s surprise win in Thursday night’s Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 at the Kentucky Speedway was bad news for one organization. See, with Ankrum being playoff eligible in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Trucks Series, he’s heading to the postseason by virtue of his victory.
Also, with Ross Chastain finishing in the top 10 yet again, he moves up inside of the top 20 of the standings as well. His bold move of declaring for Truck Series points in May has paid off. He’s currently +13 on 20th place, meaning that if he can remain inside of the top 20 in the standings for the next three races, then he too is playoff bound.
That means we could have DGR-Crosley as well as Niece Motorsports represented in this year’s playoff field. What’s a surprise is, it’s looking more and more likely that Kyle Busch Motorsports may be shutout of the eight driver field. How crazy is that?
Team owner Kyle Busch has been a huge critic of his team this year saying that his drivers needed to compete for more wins. See, Busch came down to run in the series in all five allotted times already. He won each race. He even hired Greg Biffle to run his first Truck Series race in 15 years last month at Texas. Biffle, won that race too.
Busch and Biffle were 6-for-6, his young full time drivers are now 0-for-13. Because of that, they’re on the bad side of the bubble with only three races remaining in the regular season.
As we leave Thursday’s race in Kentucky, Burton is 44 points out. He needs a lot of help. Gilliland is even further back – 100 points behind the cutoff spot.
That’s why these two teams winning hurts them. Both are in the top eight of the points standings but because of these two drivers being further back but having wins, they’re in where the two KBM drivers are out.
Burton, has heeded Busch’s warning and now has four top five finishes in his last five starts on the season including a third place run in his No. 18 Toyota on Thursday night.
Gilliland meanwhile, only finished 17th on Thursday for his second finish outside of the top 10 in his last five races. He does have three top 10 finishes in his last four though, but that’s not going to be good enough. He has to win.
The problem is, can either driver with zero career wins reach victory lane in the next three races.
Their only saving grace will be what NASCAR decides to do about Stewart Friesen’s confiscated truck. NASCAR found that the firewall panel in his truck was in violation and took the truck with them back to North Carolina. That forced Friesen to his backup Truck where despite that, he started last and finished second on the 1.5-mile track for the second straight year.
He’s facing an L1 penalty which could cost him 0-40 points. If it’s 40 points, he would move from second in the wildcard standings to the final spot. Burton, would then go from 44 points out to 20. Gilliland would go from 100 out to 76.
That’s why Friesen’s penalty is so crucial to KBM. Even if he does get a large points penalty, he will be tough to catch and pass. Friesen, has four straight top five finishes in his No. 52 Chevrolet and five in his last six starts on the season.
Next up is Pocono, a race he finished fourth at last year. After that, it’s to Eldora where Friesen is a dirt racer by nature. He finished third in that race last year on the Ohio dirt track. He was second there in 2017. Then, it’s to Michigan to close out the regular season – a place he finished eighth in 2018 too.
If Friesen can back those finishes up, it will force either Burton or Gilliland to win. That’s why KBM may not have a driver in the playoffs this season.