Top 8 Takeaways for Round of 12

16 drivers entered, four were eliminated on Saturday night at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway. Cole Custer, William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney’s 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship hopes were dashed last weekend. Now, we have 12 drivers going for eight spots into the third round beginning with Sunday’s South Point 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN).

12 drivers, three rounds, four will be eliminated again.

This round though is arguably the toughest in the postseason. You have a 1.5-mile track (Las Vegas) to where we’ve had 12 different winners in the last 14 1.5-mile races on intermediate tracks including seven in eight tries this season. Following that is a superspeedway race at Talladega. Then, the Charlotte ROVAL will conclude the second round.

1.5-mile track, superspeedway and a ROVAL will make up the Round of 12.

Good luck and buckle up.

Here are my things to watch this round.

Joey Logano during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil Oil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 3, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

May Be a Penske Round

Team Penske may have lost Ryan Blaney in Round 1, but they still have two drivers left in the playoffs. I said before the playoffs that this could be a nice run for Team Penske in the 10 race postseason. They had the speed at the start of the year, then lost a step but that’s only because of the newness of changing crew chiefs and teams for all three drivers. It’s hard to find what you need out of a car to make it a contender when you’ve never worked with each other before and have no practice or qualifying to figure it out.

That hurt Penske during the pandemic. They admitted to that. It’s why Joey Logano won three of his first six races run with Paul Wolfe, counting the Busch Clash and the Duels, before the pandemic set in and why he’s been winless since.

But, as the season went on, they all began to relearn each other. Logano got hot again and Keselowski started winning too. In the playoffs, eight of the 10 tracks that we will go to these teams went already this year. That means those notes that they didn’t have earlier this season for these tracks, well they do now.

The Round of 12 could that very reason could be one of Penske’s better rounds of this playoffs.

First up is Las Vegas to where Keselowski is the only driver to win multiple times on 1.5-mile tracks this season. He has 10 straight top 10 finishes in the Nevada desert including three top three finishes in his last four tries.

For Logano, he’s won each of the last two spring races in Vegas including just this past February. He also has nine straight top 10’s there as well. He says he’s there for championship pace again.

Penske has won three of the last four in Vegas and four of the last seven.

From there it’s to Talladega to where Ford has won nine of the last 10 races overall on the 2.66-mile Alabama superspeedway including six straight in the Fall race and seven of the last eight years. Penske has won four of the last six overall at Talladega and seven of the last 10. They’ve also won five of the last six years for this playoff race.

Then, it’s to their worst track on the ROVAL to wrap up the Round of 12. By that point, I expect at least one of Keselowski or Logano to have won this round and the other to have enough points to where a solid top 15 day at Charlotte can get them by to the Round of 8.

LAS VEGAS, NV – MARCH 03: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John’s Ford, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, lead the field to green for the start of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil Oil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 3, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Hamlin/Harvick May Be Quiet This Round…Or May Sweep It

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin dominated the regular season of the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020. They won 13 of the 26 races to be exact. In fact, they combined to win 14 of the 25 races run during the pandemic too. But, they’re 2-for-3 in the playoffs and I think that number grows to 2-for-6 by time we leave Charlotte in a couple of weeks. Here’s why.

See, Harvick and Hamlin could either sweep the second round or have a quiet Round of 12 too. I do think that they easily get by to the Round of 8 by virtue of all those playoff points accumulated, but I just don’t expect them to necessarily contend for wins this round either as much as they were before the playoffs started.

First up is Vegas to where Hamlin has one top five finish in his last seven starts. His last five finishes there are 17th, 32nd, 10th, 15th and 17th respectively. For Harvick, he has six top eight finishes in his last eight Vegas starts, but was eighth back in the spring and while he dominated in the spring race in 2018 and was runner-up in this race last year, he’s just missing a little bit on this 1.5-mile track.

Then it’s to Talladega to where Harvick has one top five in his last 18 tries there. Hamlin is at his best on superspeedway’s with finishes of 1st, 4th and 3rd this year on them and having four straight top sixes in the Fall playoff race at Dega. But, without much Toyota drafting help, can he win?

From there it’s to the ROVAL to where Harvick has one career road course win. He was third in this race last year but wasn’t much of a factor at Daytona on the road course in August. Hamlin, was 12th and 19th in his two ROVAL starts himself.

As you can see, they can contend for a win in Vegas and Talladega, but that’s asking a lot too. SHR was only 8-12-19-21 at Vegas in February and 2-13-20-25 in the playoff race last year. JGR was only 15-17-20-23 in the spring and 1-15-19-36 in the playoff race.

Don’t panic if neither win this round as I still think that they’re the ones to beat for this year’s championship.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – SEPTEMBER 15: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on September 15, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

MTJ’s Best Round, Not Kyle Busch’s

This could be where Kyle Busch’s run to a second straight Cup Series championship ends. He said as much after Bristol’s runner up too.

Busch, only has four playoff points and enters this round (-3) in the standings. He has to get to the plus side and into the top eight by time the checkered flag falls in three races at Charlotte. That sounds easier said than done though.

Busch, has three finishes of 15th or worse in his last six Las Vegas starts. He was 19th in last year’s playoff race and 15th this past spring. Then, it’s to Talladega to where his last six playoff finishes there are 40th, 11th, 30th, 27th, 26th and 19th respectively. He only has two top fives on the high banked Alabama superspeedway since 2014. From there the ROVAL wraps up the round. Is Busch facing a must win then? He’s not won all season. He was 32nd and 37th in his two ROVAL starts and 37th this past August at Daytona on their ROVAL.

I do think that his teammate Martin Truex Jr. will be the favorite with the Penske’s this round. He won this playoff race at Vegas last year and has six top eight finishes in his last eight Vegas starts overall, five of which in the top four.

Then, it’s to a rough patch for him at Talladega but he wraps up the Round of 12 at the ROVAL to where he should have won this race in 2018 and has a top three finish in seven of his last eight road course starts.

Truex, may one win, but possibly two in the Round of 12.

Bowman A Sleeper This Round

Don’t look now, but Alex Bowman is heating up again. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has four top 10 finishes in his last five starts on the season and easily made it to the second round for the second straight season. But, I think Bowman has a solid case of making it to the Round of 8 now too.

The Arizona native is strong at all three tracks in the Round of 12. He finished sixth in the playoff race at Las Vegas last year and had a top two car at the end of the spring race before a late race caution flew and ruined his chances. He was chasing down Ryan Blaney and honestly probably going to win. With the caution for Ross Chastain that race, the field was going to do the opposite of what Bowman did. If he didn’t pit, then they would for fresher tires. If he did pit, then they’d stay out.

That’s exactly what happened too.

Bowman pit and everyone stayed out and he went from a win to 13th.

Then, it’s on to Talladega to where he has three top seven finishes in his last five tries on. After that it’s to the Charlotte ROVAL to where he was fourth at in 2018 and runner-up last year.

Watch out for Bowman.

ROVAL Will Be Wild

Yes, Talladega is going to be the ultimate wildcard, but with who’s left in the playoffs and how they fare at some of these tracks, the ROVAL is going to be tight in terms of the points.

Harvick and Hamlin are going to get by on their playoff points accumulated. We know that and we also know that they may not win a single race this round. We also can figure Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. may sweep this round between them or at the very least see two of the three win and the other get by on points.

Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman can get by on points too. Bowman’s stats are superb on these tracks while Elliott was fourth in the Vegas playoff race last year, swept both stages in Vegas this spring before a tire went down, won at Talladega last year and was second at Daytona last month to go along with winning the ROVAL last year and Daytona’s road course this year. He has four wins in 11 road course tries. These two I believe are getting by.

That’s seven of the eight spots. Who gets the last?

Austin Dillon was 12th and fourth in his last two Vegas starts. Was sixth in last year’s Talladega playoff race too but only 39th and 23th on the ROVAL.

Kurt Busch has one top five and only three top 10’s in his last 16 Vegas starts. He’s been 20th or worse in 12 of his last 15 on his hometown track too. He does have seven top 10’s in his last 10 Talladega starts but only fifth and 20th on the ROVAL.

Kyle Busch struggles on all three tracks lately.

Clint Bowyer hasn’t led a lap in Vegas since 2012. He has no top fives there in his last 13 tries. He has just one top five since 2014 at Talladega. But, he was third and fourth respectively in his two ROVAL starts and ha six top six finishes in his last nine road course starts in general.

Aric Almirola was only 13th and 21st in his last two Vegas starts. He does have eight straight top 10’s at Talladega including a win in 2018, but only 19th and 14th on the ROVAL.

See where this bubble gets real interesting. Minimizing mistakes is going to be the key to whomever can get the final or final couple of wildcard spots to the third round.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – SEPTEMBER 15: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #41 Haas Automation Ford, and Clint Bowyer, driver of the #14 Toco Warranty Ford, lead the field at the start of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on September 15, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

3 SHR Cars Move On

Four SHR cars entered the playoffs, three advanced on. Now, it’s time for two of them to end long winless streaks. SHR has won 10 times this season. Nine by Kevin Harvick and one by Cole Custer. Harvick should easily march on, Custer was eliminated from the playoffs in the first round.

Aric Almirola earned his first Bristol top five since 2014 and advanced to the Round of 12.  It was his first top five in his last 13 starts on the season too. Can he keep marching on?

He was ninth, eighth and fifth respectively in the first round of the playoffs. He now has 14 top 10 finishes over his last 18 starts on the season now.

Uneventful, but enough.

Same for his teammate Clint Bowyer. He came home sixth on Saturday night in Bristol for his fifth top 10 in his last seven starts on the season but also a pair of seventh place runs last year on this track and a runner up this past spring. He’s had nine top 10’s over his last 11 overall Bristol starts too.

 “I just feel comfortable we’re getting back to our consistency,” Bowyer said of his momentum now. “I guess for a long time in my career I was kind of steady Eddie, and that’s what it takes in these playoffs, to go the rounds, you can’t make mistakes.  

“I said that going into these playoffs. For our team, we’ve got to live up to our capabilities, and if we can do that and race to our capabilities and not make the mistakes we were making through the summer months, we can contend and move forward rounds in this playoff system, and that’s what we’re doing.

Again, enough.

He said he didn’t think about it too much when he saw Byron crashed and knew only three drivers were left to find their ways past him.

“You know, not really,” said Bowyer. “Obviously they told me that on the radio.  I saw it.  That’s a shame for William.  He had a good run going, and Chad has been doing a good job there with those guys. 

“But I mean, from there — it’s short track racing.  You don’t have time to think about points and all that stuff.  There’s nothing you can do.  You attack the racetrack, 100 percent every lap, especially at a place — bullring like this.  Love these short tracks.  

“Obviously was hoping to be a little bit better, but at the end of the day we did what we came here to do, and that’s advance.  Obviously you come here to win the race, but proud of Kevin Harvick and everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing for winning the race here and taking care of business with the 10 and the 14, and we’ll move on and survive and live to see another round here in the playoffs.”

Now, it’s time to swing for the fences to get a win now. He’s there.

“Yeah, looking forward to getting out to Sin City and having some fun out there.  Hopefully we can double down, get some stage points and continue to march forward up through this playoff system and the points.  We’re definitely starting behind again, there’s no question about that.  We’ve got to get out there and swing for the fence.  These are the playoffs; you don’t base hit it.  Steady Eddie got us through this round, but from here on you’ve got to get up to the plate and swing for the fence every time, and every decision, and that’s in the car and out of the car, we’ve got to lay it on the line and go for it, and that’s why these playoffs are fun.

Almirola hasn’t won in 70 races, Bowyer in 86. If they want seriously challenge for a title, they both need to win for the first time since 2018 a piece.

Harvick won two of the three races in the opening round and SHR now has three of the 12 playoff spots to their drivers heading to the Round of 12.

Chase Elliott leads Alex Bowman during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 28, 2019 in Talladega, Alabama.

Winless streak

As we get later and later in the playoffs, some drivers that are riding long winless streaks are going to have to end them if they want to keep going.

Kevin Harvick won last week. Brad Keselowski before. Denny Hamlin has a five race winless streak with Chase Elliott’s six. Austin Dillon is next at 10.

Just look at everyone else.

Martin Truex Jr hasn’t won in his last 18 starts. He has one win all season. Joey Logano and Alex Bowman also only have one win each this year. Both coming 25 and 26 races respectively ago — both the final two races before the pandemic set in.

The other four haven’t won all season. Kyle Busch last won at Homestead last year but that’s his only win in his last 51 starts. His brother Kurt hasn’t won since July 13, 2019 (46 starts ago).

The SHR tandem of Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer have won since 2018. Almirola has a 70 race winless streak and Bowyer 86.

Who goes onto the next two rounds will see some of these droughts have to end.

Clean Races So Far

Heading into the 2020 season, the way the cutoff races shaped up, well it appeared to be full of fireworks. Two short tracks and a ROVAL sandwiched in between them as the three cutoff races in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

The first round would have the Southern 500, Richmond and Bristol. The second round had Talladega and the ROVAL in Charlotte to close the Round of 12.

But, we all figured two short tracks in the playoffs would have led to some hurt feelings after them. Instead, it was anything but.

Richmond only saw three cautions for 21 laps. The only three were for stage breaks and the competition caution.

Bristol saw just five cautions for 50 laps all night. That’s eight combined cautions, three for crashes but two were for single car incidents. 900 laps of racing with just 71 of them run under yellow in the playoffs on two short tracks.

No bump and runs. No crashing finishes. No excitement that we thought we’d have. Kurt Busch kind of warned that something like this could happen though.

“The anxiety will be higher, the nerves of course,” Busch said on Thursday of what to expect this weekend at Bristol. “The ambiance of excitement.  Still, everybody has to protect their points and the race car and not run into somebody and get a fender rub. That’s what led to Richmond’s lack of excitement and that’s what can happen at Bristol.”

He said that if that happened, which is absolutely did, we’d have to question if we need to move these races back to the regular season.

“Then, that would be a question of ‘oh wait a minute maybe we need to move this race back to August when guys aren’t necessarily worried about points as much and let the rough edges dry,” Busch continued.” Dump somebody. Wreck some cars and not have to pay such a big points penalty.’

“That’s the difference in playoff racing in that everybody is making sure that they get every point possible. Therefore they are driving more cautiously.”

We didn’t see many guys get into one another at Bristol which is very un Bristol like. We saw so much action this past spring which is why we expected more the second time around too.

Round 1 cautions –

Southern 500: 7 for 34 laps

Richmond: 3 for 21 laps

Bristol: 5 for 50 laps

Total: 15 for 105 laps

1,267 laps run with 1,162 of them under green (92%)

Wild stat for an entire round when 2 races were short tracks. While I don’t like seeing sloppy races with crashes and honestly like to see so much green Flag runs, I am just shocked to see so few on track run ins with what’s at stake. Maybe that’s because of what’s at stake too though.

This round may be more of the same. Talladega may be tame until the end. The ROVAL is a wild card but the opening race in Vegas has been clean.

The 2019 spring race saw two caution flags fly — both for stage breaks. In the race in 2018, we saw only four cautions fly for just 29 laps. In the playoff race last year, we only saw four more yellows, half for stage breaks too, for 22 combined yellow flag laps. This past spring, we only had five cautions for 28 laps.

Carnage could ensue over the final two races of the round, but the first should follow the clean suit.

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