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First Three Races Of The Playoffs Shape Championship Contenders
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series completed its first round of the NASCAR Playoffs last Sunday at Dover International Speedway, eliminating four drivers from championship contention.
The start of the playoffs provided one answer: Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch are on collision course for the championship.
The two drivers that dominated the regular season continued that trend during the first three weeks of the playoffs. Truex Jr. kicked off the playoffs with a victory at Chicagoland Speedway while Busch countered with consecutive victories at New Hampshire and Dover, respectively, to further solidify both drivers’ drive for a final four berth in the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The opening Round of 16 also saw the resurgence of NASCAR young gun Chase Elliott, who nearly broke through with his first career Cup Series victory at Dover.
Here is how each driver advanced and how the Round of 12 shapes up, beginning with Sunday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (1 p.m. CT, TV: NBC, Radio: PRN, SiriusXM).
- Martin Truex Jr. (Wins: 5) – Truex Jr. remained consistent in the first three races of the playoffs, finishing in the top five in all three races including a victory at Chicagoland. He also secured his second pole of the season last weekend at Dover. He led 240 laps during the three-race stretch. With more playoff points under his belt than any other driver (59 total), he appears to be a shoo-in for a berth in the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I am looking forward to the next round and feel good about where this Furniture Row Racing team is at right now,” Truex Jr. said. “We just need to maintain our consistency.”
- Kyle Busch (Wins: 4) – Busch walked away the biggest winner of the first three races of the playoffs, scoring two important wins and padding his playoff points total. Busch breezed to victory at New Hampshire, but used his veteran savvy to pass Chase Elliott for the victory last Sunday at Dover. Like Truex Jr., Busch appears to be headed to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I don’t think there’s necessarily a favorite,” Busch said. “Maybe it closes our gap that the 78 had on us a little bit where I still think it’s 78, 18, 42, and there’s different distances between us each and every week.”
- Kyle Larson (Wins: 4) – While he didn’t score a victory, Larson continued to run up front and contend in all three races of the playoffs. With three top-five finishes – his best performance coming at New Hampshire with a second-place finish – Larson is on his way to making a charge for a championship. He also led 137 laps during Sunday’s race at Dover.
- Brad Keselowski (Wins: 2) – Keselowski finished the first three playoff races with three top-10 finishes, including a fourth-place finish at New Hampshire.
- Jimmie Johnson (Wins: 3) – Johnson experienced a bumpy first three races of the playoffs. He was forced to a backup car following a practice session crash at New Hampshire. He could only muster a 14th-place finish, his worst performance during the three races. He did rebound with a third-place finish at Dover, a track where he has tallied 11 wins. It was his first top-five finish in 15 races. “These banked tracks seem to suit us much better than a lot of the flat we saw during the summer,” Johnson said. “Usually, if you run well at Dover, you run well at Charlotte, so we are excited to go to next week as well.”
- Kevin Harvick (Wins: 1) – Harvick experienced a difficult start to the playoffs, earning just one top-five finish. The 2014 Cup Series champion advanced, but needs to bounce back with more consistent finishes in the next round to contend.
- Denny Hamlin (Wins: 2) – Hamlin struggled during the first three races, earning his best finish (fourth) in the opening race at Chicagoland. Last weekend at Dover, issues with his axle put him behind the wall and sent him to a 35th-place finish, his second worst of the season.
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Wins: 2) – Stenhouse Jr. proved to be the biggest beneficiary of NASCAR’s new playoff points system. He used every point possible to advance to the Round of 12, edging Ryan Newman by two points for the final transfer spot. Stenhouse Jr. failed to crack the top 10 in the first three races, his best performance coming in New Hampshire where he finished 15th. “The first three races were definitely not near as good as what we wanted,” he said. “We didn’t have fast enough cars, we made too many mistakes.”
- Ryan Blaney (Wins: 1) – Blaney flew under the radar to get into the Round of 12. A ninth-place finish at New Hampshire and 11th-place finish at Chicagoland proved to be enough to help him advance. Blaney is eyeing the two 1.5-mile speedways in the Round of 12. “I think the tracks just play into our favor,” Blaney said. “We are really fast at 1.5-mile race tracks and had a good run at Kansas earlier, and (on) speedways we run great.”
- Chase Elliott (Wins: 0) – Elliott proved to be one of the biggest surprises of the playoffs. He earned a pair of runner-up finishes, including what was nearly his first career win last weekend at Dover. Kyle Busch passed him in as the two were coming to the white flag, leaving Elliott dejected. “I’m so disappointed in myself,” Elliott said. “Golly, I couldn’t have had it easier, from the stage break to the end and I just gave it away. My team kept us in the ballgame and I didn’t.”
- Matt Kenseth (Wins: 0) – Kenseth, a model of consistency during the course of his 18-year career, continued in his ways. He earned two top-10 finishes, including third at New Hampshire. Consistency will need to translate into a victory for Kenseth if he wants to advance to the Round of 8.
- Jamie McMurray (Wins: 0) – McMurray reaches the second round of the playoffs for the first time in his career. Sitting on the bubble throughout the first three races, McMurray was able to advance on the strength of a ninth-place finish at Dover. McMurray has an uphill battle to advance to the Round of 8 as he has the fewest points starting the Round of 12.
- Ryan Newman – Newman missed the Round of 12 by just two points. He was one of two Richard Childress Racing cars eliminated from the playoffs. RCR struggled down the stretch with Newman failing to earn a top 10 and failing to finish on the lead lap in two of the three playoff races. “We weren’t good enough, it’s as simple as that,” Newman said. “You can’t run what we ran the last three races and expect to go out and win championships.”
- Austin Dillon – The second Richard Childress Racing driver eliminated, Dillon’s pair of 16th-place finishes in two of the three races were not enough. The team also struggled in qualifying, starting 17th or worse in two of the three races. “It stinks, but proud of my guys who fought hard,” Dillon said.
- Kasey Kahne – Kahne, who will move on from Hendrick Motorsports after the season, struggled during the playoffs. A 35th-place finish at New Hampshire compounded with a 21st-place finish to start the playoffs at Chicagoland hampered any chance of advancing.
- Kurt Busch – What started as a promising season for Busch with a victory in the Daytona 500 proved to be disappointing. A disastrous three races foiled any chances of him advancing. Finishes of 19th, 37th and 20th proved too difficult to overcome. The performances were a microcosm of the season for Busch, who has just two top-five finishes outside of his Daytona 500 victory. “Disappointed in the way that I drove all through this playoff run,” Busch said. “I was driving at 101 percent trying to get every ounce of speed out of it. It just never had a flow for three races.”