5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN)

Non Playoff Drivers

It’s been a common thing during this year’s postseason that non playoff drivers are winning races. Well this one in particular could be dominated by drivers that aren’t championship eligible anymore.

Prior to last year, Kevin Harvick had 12 straight top 10 finishes at Homestead and six top fours in-a-row. Martin Truex Jr. had three consecutive top two finishes and led 78 laps, 20 laps and 103 laps respectively in those races. Kyle Busch had five consecutive top six finishes, three of which being in the top two.

Kyle Larson has been so dominant on this 1.5-mile track in the past. He has three top five finishes in his last five starts there including leading 132 laps in a runner-up effort in 2016, 145 more in a third place run in 2017 and 45 laps in 2018. He’s never finished past third in any stage at Homestead either.

This is also Tyler Reddick’s race. He was fourth in 2020 and runner-up last year. Reddick, has never finished worse than fourth at Homestead before and was runner-up this past September in the Southern 500 too.

“Homestead-Miami Speedway is one of my favorite tracks and I can’t wait to get down there next week,” he said after his top 10 in Vegas.

Erik Jones is good at Homestead and also won the Southern 500 last month.

“We’ll head to Homestead next weekend where I feel like we made gains at the test a few weeks ago and see what we can do,” he said.

Then you have Justin Haley who is one to watch. He’s 1 of just 3 drivers to have a top 20 result in every playoff race thus far. He also has 2 top 5 finishes the last 4 weeks and if not for a late race caution in Vegas, was going to be 3 for his last 4. Haley was 3rd back in the spring race at Darlington too.

“The speed of this Kaulig Racing team is kind of coming around,” Haley says. “We had a rough summer, but with AJ working wth us, a lot of sim time at GM, we’re starting to make forward progress. It’s so hard to build a race team from the ground up. It takes time. Super proud of everyone at Kaulig Racing. Got AJ in the top 10. Good runs. We keep building this into the offseason and hopefully next year will be really good.”

They’d be among the top favorites and sleepers right?

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 31: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, reacts after the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 31, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Must Win For Toyotas?

It’s odd to say Sundays race is a must-win for either Denny Hamlin or Christopher Bell. There’s still 2 races left in the round and Hamlin is +6. Bell is -23. Both are easily attainable margins.

However, with Martinsville looking next week, this may be a dire set of circumstances for the Toyota camp.

Both Hamlin and Bell are more than capable of winning on Sunday. However, if they don’t and someone else among the 8 drivers left in this playoff field does, Martinsville may not be a spot that they can make up much ground.

Martinsville ironically enough is going to be Hamlin’s worst track this round. 4 of his last 5 Martinsville finishes have seen him come home 11th or worse (28th in the spring). The driver to finish third in the Championship 4 has made it to at least the Round of 8 in each of the last 5 years with 3 of the 5 being in the Championship 4. That’s good news for Hamlin. That’s why Homestead could be a win for him.

Martinsville hasn’t been a strong suit for Bell either (20th in spring) but he has 4 top 10’s in his last 5 short track starts on the season. He also won the Round of 12 elimination race.

“We tested Homestead. We have a baseline there so we know we aren’t going to venture too far from there. Same with Martinsville, we tested there.

“Now that we’ve created some more data points we can lead into next year. We just need a little more potential in the car to have more speed.”

HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 28: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Toyota, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Small Business Grant Constest Toyota, lead the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 28, 2021 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Does Anyone Go To The Aggressive Extreme?

The drivers that made it to this point are here for a reason and mostly because they weren’t as aggressive as others in some key moments during this postseason. Whether it’s not pushing the car to places it shouldn’t be in, or lifting in sketchy moments or even to a more conservative approach in air pressures, the key to advancing in this year’s playoffs was determined by playing it safe.

Now that we’re down to 8 drivers left, most are saying the aggression has to match the round. It’s time to ramp it up. You absolutely have to go for broke now. Being conservative won’t get you to the final four.

However, in a round to where you have to be perfect, how do you balance the aggression and perfection?

Being too aggressive on tire strategy could have a repeat of Texas and if a playoff driver now has that in this round, forget about making the Championship 4 without a win. However, not being aggressive and too conservative can force an elimination this round too because top 10’s are likely going to cut it.

So where’s the balance?

In this round, there’s really no margin for error if you want to take at least one of the wildcard spots. In an unpredictable postseason, there could be multiple wildcard spots left and in the event that there are, a bad start to Vegas and Homestead can cause a big stir in Martinsville.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 13: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, signs autographs for fans during the red carpet prior to the Ruoff Mortgage 500 during at Phoenix Raceway on March 13, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Team Penske

Austin Cindric is a rookie here in Cup but he was 5th as a rookie in the Truck Series, 5th as a rookie in the Xfinity Series and 5th in Cup….? We’ll see on Sunday.

Cindric has finished 5th, 7th, 2nd and 10th in his 4 total NXS starts on the 1.5-mile track. He could be a factor on Sunday.

But so could his teammates.

Ryan Blaney was 11th in 2019 and 3rd in 2020. He was also 8th, 4th, 5th and 4th respectively in 4 Xfinity Series tries. In Trucks he had 2 top 5’s in 3 tries including a runner-up.

What about Joey Logano?

Prior to 2020, he had five straight top six finishes. He was 27th and 25th in his last 2 tries. So which wins out?

This could be the middle of a dominating stretch to the finish for them. Logano enters off of a win. One of them can win here. Then at Martinsville, Cindric was a respectable 11th as a rookie. Logano had pair of top five finishes coming at Martinsville in 2020 and again this past spring (2nd) to go along with 8 top 10’s in his last 9 tries. Finally for Blaney, he was 4th in the spring race while also coming home runner-up in both races in 2020. He was fourth and fifth respectively in 2019. Blaney, has 6 top fives in his last 9 tries on the Virginia paperclip overall. While he was 11th in both races last year, he did sweep both stages in the spring race.

Then it would be to Phoenix to where you know Championship 4 drivers should shine.

Can they end the year with 4 straight victories?

The thing is, they enter Homestead with three different philosophies. Logano is into the Championship 4 and doesn’t need to worry about points or a finish. Blaney is below the cutline and needing in while Cindric is out of the playoffs. How do they treat this race?

Do they use Logano and Cindric to help get Blaney the best setup? I mean they could in theory throw on 3 different setups (1 for each car) for the short practice session, all geared towards Blaney’s liking and allow his team to pick the best. They could also use Logano and Cindric’s cars for 2023 data. It’s in the same spot on the schedule next year, so with nothing to lose plus having some test data from a few weeks ago, do they use this upcoming weekend as a fact finding mission to help them even more for next year?

There’s endless possibilities here for Penske.

HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 28: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 28, 2021 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Is Chase Elliott In Trouble?

Trends aren’t on Chase Elliott’s side. While there’s not much that you can take from one year to the next, Homestead hasn’t statistically been one of Elliott’s stronger tracks but he didn’t fare well at Darlington this year either. With only a 17 point buffer over the cut line and the strong chance one of the five drivers below him can win on Sunday, that could hurt his Championship 4 chances.

He does have three Top-7’s in his last five Homestead starts, but he’s also winless here as well as at Darlington (a similar track) too. He was fifth and 36th this past year at Darlington and 21st the last time out at Homestead. On top of that, 6 of his last 8 starts on the season have seen him finish outside the top 10 including being 21st last Sunday in Vegas.

Elliott has no room for error this weekend despite a comfortable lead at the moment.

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