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

Non Championship Eligible 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 too.

Three times has a non-Playoff driver won the Playoff race at Homestead-Miami Speedway: Greg Biffle (2004, 2006) and Denny Hamlin (2013). Also, four times a non-Playoff driver has won the eighth race in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, all at Texas Motor Speedway: 2006, 2014, 2015, 2020.

o   In 2006, Tony Stewart was ranked 11th in the NASCAR Cup Series point standings at the time of the win.

o   In 2014, Jimmie Johnson was 11th in points at the time of the win. Johnson had made the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2014 but was eliminated in the Round of 12.

o   In 2015, Jimmie Johnson was 12th in points at the time of the win. Johnson had made the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2015 but was eliminated in the Round of 16.

o   In 2020, Kyle Busch was ninth in points at the time of the win. Busch had made the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2020 but was eliminated in the Round of 12.

Among the drivers no longer championship eligible, a lot of them are strong at this track. 7 of the top 10 drivers to make the final round of qualifying are no longer championship eligible.

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. He starts 5th.

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. He’ll roll off 7th.

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 after qualifying 15th. “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?

Then you have both RFK Racing cars starting in the first 5 rows. I also didn’t mention either 23XI Racing driver who start in the top 6. That’s 4 of the top 9 starters belonging to RFK and 23XI.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 04: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, William Byron, driver of the #24 Valvoline Chevrolet, and Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Yahoo! Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 04, 2022 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Does Anyone Below The Cutline Move Back In?

Joey Logano is into the Championship 4. Does anyone on Sunday join him? In 2014 and 2015, 2 of the 3 Round of 8 races were won by a non championship eligible driver. Last year, the final race was. With Kyle Larson winning the opening two races of the third round, it allowed for 3 wildcard spots for the taking into the Championship 4.

With 4 of the first 7 playoff races being won this season by non championship eligible drivers, you get the notion that the final spot or two into Phoenix could come down to the slimmest of margins.

First off, the easiest path to the Championship 4 is to win Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400. Does any of the 8 championship eligible drivers do so?

While we’ve seen 4 races won by a non playoff driver, the last 3 however have been won though by one. If Logano wins, he doesn’t really affect the Championship 4 in a sense that he’s already in and you can’t take playoff points with you.

Can he rebound from being 27th and 25th the last two years at Homestead? Logano, had five straight Top-6 finishes prior and won at Darlington this past May.

Ross Chastain is +18 after being +6 entering. He hasn’t had any Cup experience at Homestead with Trackhouse but he did have a great car at both Darlington races this season and has 4 top 7 finishes in the last 6 weeks. Chastain has scored 79 more points than any other driver this season in the eight races at 1.5-mile tracks.

Chase Elliott dropped from +31 to +17 and has largely struggled on this track. He’s winless here and also at Darlington while having 6 of his last 8 finishes being outside the top 10 on the season.

Denny Hamlin is only +6 and while he was outside the top 10 at each of his last visits on the next 2 tracks, he also is a past winner at each too including the 2020 Homestead race. He also tested at each recently too.

William Byron is -6 and the latest Homestead winner. Chase Briscoe is -9 and scored his first career NASCAR win in the 2017 Truck Series race on this track and calls it his favorite place to race at. He’s always good here and has 4 consecutive top 10 finishes on the season including 2 of each in the top 5.

Ryan Blaney is -11 but was 3rd in the 2021 Homestead race and has 2 top 4 finishes in his last 4 starts on the season but if you glance back to the last 5 weeks, he also has 3 finishes of 26th or worse too.

Christopher Bell is -23 and has been 17th or worse in 3 of the last 4 weeks as well as having just 1 top 10 in 2 Cup Homestead starts.

So, the question being does someone below the cutline moving in after Sunday’s race? I think so. Im going with Byron for the win.

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)

Hendrick Motorsports

They could potentially win out this season. The last winner at Homestead? Hendrick Motorsports. The last two Martinsville winners? Hendrick Motorsports. The last two Fall Phoenix race winners? Hendrick Motorsports.

However, they could also have troubles in Sunday’s race too.

While there’s not much that you can take from one year to the next, Homestead hasn’t statistically been one of Chase Elliott’s stronger tracks. He also didn’t fare well at Darlington earlier 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.

Byron is -6 at the moment and has won the last 2 visits at each track coming up. He won the 2021 race at Homestead and the spring race at Martinsville. At Darlington too, a track similar to Homestead, Byron had a car capable of winning the spring race and was in the Top-10 in the Southern 500 too.

Does that bode well for Sunday?

Byron’s last 3 finishes have been 12th, 16th and 13th respectively. He four top 10’s in the opening four playoff races are the only ones he’s had in the last 16 points paying races. His 3rd place finish in Bristol is his only top 5 in the last 25 races. His last top 5 prior?

His Martinsville win in April.

Kyle Larson is usually always a threat at Homestead. 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. However, Larson also only has 1 finish better than fifth in the last 15 races though too.

I’m almost wondering if Noah Gragson may be their top finisher for the second straight week. He was 11th last week in Vegas and coming to arguably his best track.

In the Xfinity Series, Gragson has three Top-5 finishes in four tries here and the one that he didn’t was the last time out where he was leading before getting caught up in a crash with a lapped car. He led 83 laps (most) in race 1 of 2020 but didn’t win. A day later he led 81 more laps (most) and didn’t win again after passing the lead over to Harrison Burton with 2 to go. At Darlington, a similar track, he finished 2nd and 1st respectively this year. Now you hand him a Hendrick car in replacing Alex Bowman again to which he just finished 11th in last week.

The problem is, HMS doesn’t need Gragson being their top finisher either…

However, they advanced three drivers to the final round of qualifying though too so they have good track position early. 3 of the top 5 starters belong to them on a track that 7 of the last 9 were won via a top 5 starter…

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.”

Joe Gibbs Racing’s next win is its 200th and would make it the third organization with at least 200 wins.

HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 28: William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, drives 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.

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