Balancing momentum and pit calls in Round of 8

The Round of 8 begins this weekend for all three national divisions of NASCAR at the Kansas Speedway. Three races, eight drivers, four will advance. The easiest path to advancing to the Championship 4 on each level is to win over the next three weeks of competition. It’s highly likely that we will see a championship eligible driver win over these next three weeks too. But, whom?

In terms of the NASCAR Cup Series, you have to think Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick would be the easy favorites to at least take two of the victories. Hamlin, won the last two races at Kansas  while Harvick has won three straight playoff races in Texas. Those are the first two races up.

They’ve also won 15 of the 28 races run during the pandemic and exactly half of the overall races run this season (16-for-32) including 50 percent (3-for-6) of the playoff races too.

But, those three wins during the postseason are also their only three top five finishes as well. How do you balance momentum right now?

“In years past, Kansas has not always been a strong suit,” Hamlin said. “Mile-and-a-halves in general haven’t been a super strong suit for most of career. You could argue the statistics and wins would say otherwise, but it seems like on the mile-and-a-halves we’ve got a really good package or setup going that seems to be working. We nearly won Vegas, and that was the track that – if we could finish in the top 15, I was going to be happy. I adjust my expectations based on how I feel after the first 10 laps of the race. I’m confident. I feel like we’ve got a good grasp on Kansas. Nothing really much has changed other than the tire, which that tire was run at Vegas, so it looks like we’ve accounted for it pretty good in our setup. I’m as optimistic as anyone going into that race track.” 

What if neither of them win? Harvick holds a +45 lead on the bubble with Hamlin +32. The other six drivers are rooting for them to win because you don’t want to be going head-to-head with them on points for a wildcard spot to Phoenix. They don’t want to be going against one another either. 13 points separate them but they’d rather win and get into the Final 4. If they can’t win, they’re rooting for the other.

“It feels that way,” said Brad Keselowski, who is third in the standings. “Yeah, it feels that way. Denny is not completely out of my reach. He’s 19 points in front of me. … So I think I’ve got a shot at legitimately racing him on points, but probably the others don’t. With respect to that, I think Kevin’s a pretty good ways away from everybody.”

The thing is, momentum isn’t on their side and the 1.5-mile tracks have been so random lately.

With the first two races of this round being on 1.5-mile tracks, we’ve seen 11 different winners in the last 15 races on them.

It all started well over a year ago, on June 30 at the Chicagoland Speedway to be exact, with Alex Bowman. Then, Kentucky Speedway (Kurt Busch), Las Vegas in the Fall (Martin Truex Jr), Kansas (Denny Hamlin), Texas (Kevin Harvick) and Homestead (Kyle Busch) to close out the season. This year, we’ve had Las Vegas (Joey Logano), Charlotte (Brad Keselowski/Chase Elliott), Atlanta (Harvick), Homestead (Denny Hamlin), Kentucky (Cole Custer), Texas (Austin Dillon), Kansas (Denny Hamlin) and Las Vegas 2 (Kurt Busch) following suit.

We’re running out of names to keep this going? All that’s left on the big teams are William Byron, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer or Aric Almirola. None are playoff eligible drivers anymore.

Kurt Busch became the eighth different winner in nine races on 1.5-mile tracks this season to kick start the Round of 12. What if he or Alex Bowman win on Sunday? That would certainly shake up this round too and the weird thing is, it’s entirely possible.

Busch, has four straight top 10 finishes on 1.5-mile tracks and seven in his last eight tries. He also has five top 10’s in his last six Kansas starts too. Furthermore, Busch has seven straight top 10 finishes at Texas as well.

“I feel like you’re going to have to win out in this Round of 8 and the championship race in Phoenix,” Busch said. “This group, the elite eight … are the best of the best and can win each and every week. And so, with Kansas not being one of my best tracks, but it is a 1.5-mile, where we have won twice at Chip Ganassi Racing. Texas is a 1.5-mile that we’ve been very good at. And Martinsville has been a nice surprise since I switched to Ganassi. I’ve been running much better with the balance of the car that they have there. And then with Phoenix, if we can get there, that would be huge.”

Bowman, has four straight top 11 finishes at Kansas including a runner-up last year and was fifth in last year’s playoff race at Texas as well.

“Kansas in particular, we’ve almost won there before,” Bowman said. “I feel like we can go be phenomenal there. Kansas and Texas are two opportunities for us to win. Every week going to the racetrack with Hendrick Motorsports is an opportunity to win. Kansas and Texas are going to be our best shots at it for sure. It’s probably going to take a win to make the Round of 4. Just going to go all in and do everything we can to make that happen.”

Just look at the names of the last few winners on 1.5-mile tracks – Custer, Dillon, Hamlin and Busch.

Martin Truex Jr., the driver with the most wins on 1.5-mile tracks over the last 75 races meanwhile, hasn’t won on a 1.5-mile track all season, which is bizarre. He says the reason for the parity now is all due to how these cars race these days.

“I think it’s mostly the cars and the situations to where it seems we always have a late restart,” Truex said. “You look at the way that these cars drive and the way on restarts, we don’t have a lot of horsepower. You can’t get away from each other. You’re kind of at the mercy of the drag and the horsepower and we all end up in a big wad for 2-3 laps. That’s kind of where we’ve seen the different winners come from and it’s come at a pretty consistent basis.”

He’s right too. Busch benefitted from a late race caution which shook up the field in Las Vegas. It can happen again this weekend as well.

So, how do you manage your pit calls when you know a late race caution is likely coming. It can literally make or break your championship aspirations despite having a dominate car for each of the next two weeks before.

Busch had a 13th to 15th place car in Vegas but won because once he got out front from benefitting from running his final stint long. He never got passed after. Why wouldn’t he and Bowman do the same on Sunday? Why wouldn’t everyone else just follow suit?

The thing is, you have to manage your momentum too. Points are crucial now.

Busch and Bowman have it. Busch has two top three finishes in his last three starts on the season. He had one in his previous 21. Bowman, has six top 10’s over his last eight starts. He had four in his previous 23.

Brad Keselowski has one top five in his last 11. Hamlin, only has two top 10’s over his last six. Harvick, has two top five’s over his last six. These are the top three in the standings right now.

Then you factor in Chase Elliott (8 top 10’s in his last 12), Joey Logano (9 top 10’s last 12) and Martin Truex Jr. (10 top 4’s last 14) and you get three drivers you can throw a blanket over. This is a case to where the bottom half of the standings have more momentum than the top half but they also need the top half to win if they can’t.

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