CONCORD, NC — And then there were eight. Following Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series barrels down towards the Texas Motor Speedway now to kick off the Round of 8 next Sunday.
This past weekend’s race eliminated four more drivers from championship contention as we’ve dropped half of the original playoff field that began in September. Kurt Busch, Tyler Reddick, Aric Almirola and Michael McDowell were all bounced in the first round. Now, Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, Alex Bowman and William Byron join them on the outside looking in list.
8 of the 36 chartered teams remain.
So, who’s left?
You get all three Team Penske drivers. Three of the four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers and half of the Hendrick Motorsports fleet. Surprising? I’d say somewhat. At one point of the season, we wondered how many HMS cars would get to the Championship 4. Now, half of them have already been eliminated.
Plus, it seemed as if Team Penske was just treading water for much of the second half of the season. It still kind of seems that way too, but here they are having all three of their drivers in the third round of the playoffs.
So, with all this being said, who comes out of the next round? I can make a case for and against literally all eight drivers left.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – SEPTEMBER 26: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on September 26, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)
Joe Gibbs Racing – Put a car in the Final 4 in all 7 years of this format
- Case For – Arguably the hottest driver in the playoffs. Excluding Talladega and the ROVAL, 2 entirely wildcard races, Hamlin led 645 of 1,534 laps this postseason (42%) as well as taking home a pair of victories to go along with five stage wins. He has finished in the top 10 in all six playoff races with five of which being in the top five at that. This round suits him in a sense he has five top fives in 10 tries on 550 tracks. We close the round in Martinsville, a place to where he led the most laps at this past spring and should have won. He’s at his best on 750 tracks this year and I can make a strong case that he’s better now than when he visited there in April.
- Case Against – These are his best tracks either. He’s been 20th or worse in four of his last six Texas starts. For Kansas, he was 15th in this race last year and 11th this spring. He was third in Martinsville this past spring but only 24th and 11th respectively a year ago.
- Case For – He’s the opposite of Hamlin. He doesn’t enter this round as hot but these are his best tracks. Busch, has eight top fives in 10 starts on 550 tracks this season with six of his last seven in the top three. For Texas, he won the last points paying race at that track last Fall. Same for Kansas which is up after. He’s had five top 10’s in his last six starts in the LoneStar State and 6 top fives in his last seven Fall starts at Kansas as well. Then it’s to Martinsville where he has eight top fives in his last 12 races.
- Case Against – He’s not been strong this playoffs. He’s only had two top fives in six races and three top 10’s too. The thing is, he’s had fast race cars still. Darlington he crashed, Talladega he was just biding his time while Richmond and Bristol he had issues with pit road and a tire.
Martin Truex Jr.
- Case For – In Texas, he has three top sixes in his last four starts. In Kansas, he has seven top sixes in his last nine starts. Then it’s to Martinsville to where he won two of the last three races and led 129 laps in the one that he didn’t win.
- Case Against – 1.5-mile tracks are no longer this advantage anymore. He’s only had five top sixes on these tracks this year which means he almost needs to be perfect this round.
DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – AUGUST 28: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 BodyArmor Ford, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on August 28, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)
Team Penske – Put a driver in the Championship 4 in 4 of the last 5 years and 5 of the 7 overall
- Case For – He’s been consistent in the playoffs with four top seven’s in six starts. For Kansas, he’s had four top four’s in his last five starts. Then it’s to Martinsville where Keselowski had 10 straight top 10’s prior to this past spring including nine of which being in the top five.
- Case Against – He’s only had three top fives in his last 21 starts on the year. He’s not won since April. The 550 tracks are his worst and this round pits 2 of the 3 on them. He’s been 11th or worse in six of his last 10 Texas starts. He was 33rd in Martinsville this past spring.
- Case For – He’s been here before. He’s had nine top 10’s in his last 10 starts at Texas. He won this Kansas race last year. He has six top eight’s in his last seven starts at Martinsville.
- Case Against – He enters cold. Logano, has five top fives in his last 22 starts on the season. On 550 tracks, he’s yet to score a top five all year. In Kansas in particular, he’s been 15th or worse in four of his last five there including a 17th place run this May.
- Case For – He’s the strongest of the Penske bunch overall. Blaney, has eight top six finishes over the last 12 races on the season. On 550 tracks, he has seven top six results. For Texas, he was third and fourth respectively last year. He was fifth and second in 2018. At Kansas, he was seventh in this race a year ago. Then it’s to Martinsville where he has four top fives including a pair of runner-ups in 2020 in his last five starts.
- Case Against – He’s not been here often. In Kansas, he’s been 20th or worse in four of his last five. In Martinsville, he was 11th in April.
CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – OCTOBER 10: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 10, 2021 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
- Case For – He’s been at his best on 550 tracks this year. Larson, won the All-Star race at Texas, led the most laps and should have won at Kansas and had a solid outing in Martinsville. He’s been the in the fastest car all season. Why stop now? He has a 42 point gap on the cutline too.
- Case Against – He’s only had three top fives in his last 13 starts at Texas, six of which being 20th or worse. In Kansas, he only has a pair of top fives in his last 11 races there. In Martinsville, he has one top five in his last eight tries.
- Case For – He’s the defending Cup champion. He’s been in this round in each of the last five years now. He has five top sixes in the last six races at Kansas including fourth, first, second and sixth in the Fall race. In Martinsville, he was second in the spring, won in the Fall a year ago to go along with four top fives in his last six.
- Case Against – He’s not had the best of seasons on ovals. His wins are only on road courses. We’re out of them now. He’s only had three top fives all year on 550 tracks. He was 13th, 32nd, 12th and 20th in his last four Texas starts. Can he turn it up now? Four of his six playoff finishes have been 12th or worst.
So Who Makes It?
In the four years of this playoff format, just once has someone below the fifth seed advanced to the Championship 4. That was Logano in 2018. Chase Elliott made it as a 5 seed a year ago. In 2017, 3 of the top 4 seeds advanced to the final round. In 2018, the top three marched on. In 2019, the entire top four moved onto the Final 4 with last year having four of the top five.
This year, the seeds remaining are No. 1 (Kyle Larson), No. 2 (Ryan Blaney), No. 3 (Martin Truex Jr.), No. 4 (Kyle Busch), No. 5 (Chase Elliott), No. 7 (Denny Hamlin), No. 9 (Joey Logano) and No. 10 (Brad Keselowski).
Trends say that two of the three Penske’s will get eliminated. Hamlin, would tie history.
For the Penske’s they’ll be strong on the 750 tracks, the final two races of the year, but to what position will they be in by then?
“The 550 tracks have been a daunting challenge for us this season. We just haven’t shown the speed. The combination of offseason rules enforcement changes and the parts freeze just kind of completely neutered us as a group and we just haven’t shown that speed all year long,” Keselowski said on 550 tracks. “I think the closest we’ve been was probably Ryan Blaney at Atlanta, which was more kind of that long run speed and smooth driving than anything else. He executed very very well, but outside of that I can’t recall a moment where I’ve seen the Fords be in a spot of dominance or a spot where they’ve controlled a race at a 550 track.”
He’s not wrong. Ford has 2 wins in 10 550 races this season. Chevrolet has five wins with Toyota the other three. For Keselowski, he’s had just three top five finishes on them this season. His teammate Joey Logano has finished 15th or worse in six of those nine without a single top five to his name.
Aric Almirola was another playoff driver and said back in late August that he too agrees with Keselowski in the sense of a 550 deficit. He’s not had a top 15 in any of the 10 races.
“I would say that there’s some truth to that,” said the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. “There’s some things about what we have with Ford that certainly has not been advantageous for us on the 550 racetracks, absolutely. And the other manufacturers have seemed to find a lot of speed on those tracks with the rules package going into this season and with the parts freeze and lack of development for this year and lack of windtunnel time and all those things has certainly piled up against us, I would say.”
So, in saying that, there’s three Toyota’s (Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.) and two Chevrolet’s (Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott) that the Penske trio is trying to beat on these tracks.
Busch, has won on two of them (Kansas, Pocono). Hamlin won on the latest (Las Vegas). Larson, has won twice but should have at the very minimum 3-4.
In Vegas 1, Larson led 103 of 267 laps and won the second stage.
For Atlanta, Larson led 269 of 325 laps and swept both stages. He’d finish runner-up.
For Kansas, Larson led 132 of 267 laps, won the second stage but was caught up in an incident at the end of the race while restarting in the top five.
For the Coke 600, Larson swept all three stages and led an astounding 327 of 400 laps in a dominating win.
For Pocono 1, Larson led 15 times and Bowman 16 laps of the 130 but it was Bowman who won.
For Pocono 2, Bowman led 18 laps and Byron 22 laps of the 140, including winning the second stage, but it was Larson who finished runner-up.
In 10 races on intermediate tracks this season, Larson has three wins, three runner-ups, seven top fives and a top 10 in all but two. The only two he didn’t get a top 10 was in Kansas to where he led 132 of 267 laps and restarted in the top five on the final shootout but was incurred some damage on it. Then, it was Atlanta when he had problems on pit road.
He’s led 1,351 out of 2,913 possible laps (46%) in these 10 races which also accounts for 67% (1,351 out of 2,011) laps led on the season for him. Furthermore, he’s won 10 stages and has been in the top two in 13 of the 21 stages run on these tracks.
Hamlin, is looking for a third straight opening race of each round win. Take out the two wildcard races at Talladega and the ROVAL and you’d see that Hamlin has led 42% (645 of 1,534) laps this postseason.
They all have the speed. Busch, has eight top five finishes in his last nine 550 starts with his worst finish in that stretch being seventh at Michigan. 6 of his last 7 he’s been in the top 3. He won this very Texas race last year and won at Kansas back in May.
Truex Jr. has five top sixes on these same 10 races as well as three top sixes in his last four at Texas and seven top sixes in his last nine at Kansas.
Can the Penske trio top this? Do they have the speed when they said all along the 550 tracks are their worst?
The top teams in Texas history is Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing. They’ve each won nine times. Penske is next best at four.
Ford, has only produced seven wins all season. Chevy has 15 and Toyota 10. Ford has at the very minimum 10 wins in every season since 2017. They had 18 last year. They’d have to win 75% of the final four races to end up reaching double digit victories for the fifth straight year and sixth of the last eight overall.
I just don’t see the speed out of them though.
Keselowski has been solid in the playoffs with four top 10’s in six races but other than Talladega, they’ve all been sixth or worst. In fact, his runner-up at Talladega was his only his third top five in the last 21 races. He’s not won since Talladega in April (23 races ago) and has led just 44 laps since the start of August.
Logano is in a similar boat. He’s had four top 10’s in the playoffs, two of which in the top five, but one of those was at Talladega too. He’s only had six top fives in his last 23 starts and four in the last 11 at that. Also, out of the last 18 races he’s led just 84 laps. That dates back to Memorial Day weekend in Charlotte and 37 of those came at Daytona in August. His last win came 26 races ago in Bristol during the spring race.
Does he bode well with long winless streaks like that in a round that you’re more than likely going to have to win a race at with two of those three tracks not being your best and the only times you’ve won this season being at a superspeedway (Keselowski) or a dirt track (Logano)?
Keselowski, has finished outside the top 10 in six of his last 10 Texas starts. Logano, has been 15th or worse in four of his last five Kansas races.
That’s why maybe Blaney is their best hope. He’s been faster and more consistent. He’s had seven top fives in the last 12 races and nine top sixes over the last 15 in general. Since the Indy road course, he’s had five top fives including a pair of wins and a runner-up. He’s also led 151 laps in the last 11 races at that.
Plus, out of those Ford wins on 550 tracks, Blaney has two of them. He’s also had seven top sixes in those 10 races to go along with a pair of top four finishes last year at Texas.
Can Penske keep up with the others in the speed department this round? Likely not. They need to hope for the others to make some mistakes and them just keep doing what they’ve been doing and that’s scoring stage points and getting as many top seven or eight finishes in the end as they can with clean days. They can’t afford mistakes. They have to be perfect.
The thing is, if they can be and come out of these next two weeks looking good, then watch out. The 750 tracks are where they’re good at.
Blaney, has four top fives in his last five starts at Martinsville including a pair of runner-ups last year. Logano, has six top eight’s in his last seven there including a sixth place run in the spring race. Keselowski, saw his 10 race top 10 streak come to an end there this spring too but he had nine top fives in his previous 10 races on that track prior.
If they can get to Martinsville with a shot, then all bets are off. Phoenix has been a good track for them lately too. Logano, led 143 of 312 laps back in March and finished runner-up. Keselowski, led 19 laps himself and finished fourth. Blaney, led 35 laps and was 10th. He actually won the first stage and was fifth in Stage 2. Keselowski, was third and fourth respectively in the two stages while Logano was second and first respectively.
That’s a stage sweep of each, 63% of the laps led (197 of 312) and two top four finishes and all three in the top 10. Both Logano and Keselowski were in the Final Four last year and know what it takes. Plus, Logano has nine top six finishes on 750 tracks this season which includes road courses. On short tracks, he was runner-up in Phoenix, sixth in Martinsville, third in Richmond, fifth at Dover, fourth in Loudon, fifth at Richmond 2 and 11th in Bristol.
They have the speed on the 750 tracks, it’s the 550 ones first that they have to worry about.
At least 2, maybe even 3 of Larson, Blaney, Truex Jr. and Busch will get by.
For Larson, last year was the only time the No. 1 seed didn’t make the final round. The No. 2 seed has made it in each of the last three years. The No. 3 seed has made it every time. The No. 4 seed has made it in three of the four years.
Larson, has all those playoff points, but I feel like he won’t need them and win in Kansas. I’ll take Busch capitalizing in Texas. That’s 2 of the 4 spots. Martinsville, will be down to Hamlin, Truex, Blaney, Keselowski, Logano and Elliott.
Trends say Keselowski and Logano are out and so do their recent finishes in Martinsville. Blaney has never made the Championship 4 either.
I’ll take Hamlin for the win in Martinsville and Truex in on points.
That’s 3 Joe Gibbs Racing cars vs. Larson with Hendrick for the championship.