Column: NASCAR Cup Playoff Intensity Keeps Rising As Next Round Approaches

Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – MARTINSVILLE, VA – As intense NASCAR competition often goes – and much to the pleasure of its fans – the eight drivers who have advanced in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs may not have been the odds-on choices to challenge for the Cup championship in the pre-season.

But the mix of motivated young talent and tested veterans has certainly created a must-see penultimate three-race semifinal round beginning this week at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway with the First Data 500 (Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Following last Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway, regular season champion Kyle Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, Team Penske’s Joey Logano, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, Hendrick Motorsport’s Chase Elliott, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson and Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney earned their right to continue challenging for the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title.

With the points re-set, regular season champion Busch holds a slim four-point edge over six-race winner Truex, a nine-point advantage over Sunday’s winner Hamlin (a five-race winner) and Busch is 16 points up on defending Cup series champion Logano in fourth.

Among those drivers – Busch (2015), Truex (2017), Logano (2018) and Harvick (2014) are all former series champions. Sunday’s Kansas winner, Denny Hamlin, finished championship runner-up to seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson in 2010 and has finished third in the title chase twice (2006 and 2014).

The 20-somethings that will be challenging these seasoned vets, have plenty of reason to feel good about the upcoming Playoff round and their quest to hoist their first championship trophy. Chase Elliott, 23, has advanced to this Round of 8 each of the last three years posting a career-best championship finish of fifth in 2017. The 27-year old Kyle Larson’s best ever title run was eighth place in 2017. And this will be Ryan Blaney’s second-time making the Round of 8. The 25-year old’s best ever championship finish was ninth in 2017.

Although Larson and Blaney won the first two races of the last Playoff round to automatically advance, Elliott’s fate came down to an overtime restart on Sunday. The combination of his runner-up finish and veteran Brad Keselowski’s tough luck on those last two laps – including a brush with the wall – was enough to move Elliott in the title hunt by a mere three-points over the 2012 Cup champ Keselowski at the checkered flag.

Not only was it a test of gumption, Elliott said his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team’s last laps-effort was a positive sign of their possibilities down the Playoff stretch.

“If you ever get to (championship finale at) Homestead (Fla.), you’re going to have to fight for a win down there,” Elliott said Sunday afternoon at Kansas. “Proud of the effort. Learned a lot. To be able to come out here and, like I said, in our minds have to win, come and fight for one, to finish second. I think is a step in the right direction for us. So excited to move on.”

Sizing up the next three Playoff races that will ultimately decide which four drivers compete in Nov. 17 Homestead-Miami Speedway’s season finale, shows a decided edge to the veterans. However, just having had more experience at the tracks doesn’t necessarily ensure positive outcomes. There are good cases to be made for all eight of these title contenders.

Among these drivers Harvick has earned the most combined trophies (11) at the next three venues – Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix’s ISM Raceway. Hamlin has nine wins total and Busch has eight. Logano has a win at each of the tracks. These four drivers are the only Playoff competitors with victories at all three upcoming tracks.

At the historic half-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Hamlin leads the eight Playoff drivers with five wins, including three in a row from 2010-11. Four of the eight Playoff competitors have won the classic Martinsville grandfather clock awarded to race winners. Kyle Busch is the only other multi-time Martinsville winner with wins in Spring, 2016 and the 2017 Playoff race. Logano is the defending Playoff race winner at the track. Harvick won the 2011 Spring race.

Harvick is the only driver to win in all three of NASCAR’s major series at Martinsville, with a 2006 Xfinity series victory and three Gander Outdoors Truck Series trophies (2009, 2010, 2012). Busch and Hamlin both have a pair of truck series wins. Logano and Elliott have each won a truck race there as well.

However, among the Playoff drivers, Elliott boasts the best spring finish – a runner-up effort to Keselowski this May, Blaney was fourth.

At the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway, where the series races Nov. 3, Busch and Hamlin lead the Playoff contenders with three Cup wins each and Hamlin won just this April. Harvick is the only other among the eight with multiple Cup wins at TMS, winning both the 2017 and 2018 Playoff races there. Logano has one win – in 2014.

Among those without a Cup victory at Texas, Elliott did earn his first career Xfinity Series race victory there in 2014. Larson (2016) and Blaney (2018) also have Xfinity Series wins at Texas.

At the newly redesigned ISM Raceway in Phoenix, where the series races on Nov. 10, there is no question who shows up the odds-on ultimate race favorite: nine-time winner Kevin Harvick. He and three-time Cup winner Kyle Busch are the only drivers with multiple Cup victories at the Phoenix mile.

Busch has a track record 11 Xfinity Series wins there, along with a pair of truck victories. Harvick has an Xfinity win and four Truck Series wins in addition to his record nine Cup victories – the two drivers clearly are the class of the ISM Raceway field.

Busch has won the last two Cup races at the track – the first two on the newly-designed layout.

Logano (2016 Playoff win and a pair of Xfinity series wins) and Hamlin (a 2012 Cup winner) are the only other Playoff eligible drivers to hoist a trophy at the track.

Truex, who has set the bar with six victories in 2019, has not won at any of this Playoff round’s tracks. The 2017 series champion was runner-up in the 2017 Playoff race at Martinsville and third last year. He was also runner-up at Texas in the 2017 Playoff race – a career-best for him. He has three top-five finishes in the last four races at ISM Raceway and was runner-up to Busch this Spring – a career-best showing.

The redesign and change in track format makes this a new “ballgame” so to speak. And while Busch has certainly shown the way winning the opening two races on the new surface, because the facility represents the “last shot” to earn a championship chance, the competition is inevitably high-drama.

While the three youngest competitors haven’t earned the winning hardware at Phoenix yet, they do come into this Playoff round as recent winners – all having won Cup races in three of the past four weeks.

And momentum is a coveted attribute.

“A lot of circumstances determine whether or not you’re going to get to Homestead as a race team or an organization,” Hamlin’s crew chief Chris Gabehart said Sunday.

“Clearly, we have shown the ability to be the favorites, I think. It’s just a matter of executing, with a little bit of luck these next three (races), and I think we got a great shot at it.”