Bump & Run: Examining race for final playoff spots, who raises most concern

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NBC Sports’ Steve Letarte Slugger Labbe, Nate Ryan and Dustin Long discuss this week’s hot topics.

Who are you most concerned about making the playoffs: Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth or Clint Bowyer?

Steve Letarte: I actually feel that it’s a coin flip between the three. It’s hard to believe that we’re this far in and Joey Logano, from the outside looking in, I don’t know what the summer funk that they’re in is, but it’s real. They seem to continue to struggle. Matt Kenseth, the news of just this last week of not coming back to the 20 car, I don’t know if that’s going to change the way he’s been driving or take the pressure off. He actually looked much better at Kentucky until the last-lap crash. Clint Bowyer has been kind of close but no cigar. I really don’t know. I think that’s going to be a fascinating race over the course of the summer. I think it just comes down to a few good decisions and a few fortunate breaks.

Slugger Labbe: Joey Logano. Team Penske is lacking speed since the encumbered win at Richmond. NASCAR has tightened up the inspection process for the teams and this has seemed to have affected the Ford teams the most. The best chance for Joey to win will be this weekend at New Hampshire; otherwise this team will have a long road ahead to Richmond 

Nate Ryan: Matt Kenseth. Last week’s revelation that he isn’t returning to Joe Gibbs Racing could be a rallying cry for the team … but history shows it usually goes the other way for lame-duck drivers in their final seasons. Kenseth assuredly will give it his all, but the No. 20 Toyota already has lacked speed this year relative to teammate Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. It’s hard to see Kenseth securing a playoff spot in his final season at Joe Gibbs Racing as the internal atmosphere with this team figures to become more difficult, particularly the longer he remains without a ride for 2018.

Dustin Long: Joey Logano. The lack of speed from this team in recent weeks is worrisome. Without that speed, it will be hard to win races. With additional winners likely, that will mean fewer playoff spots via points and drop Logano further behind for the cutoff. This team has been in pressure situations before but it often had more speed in those cases. Let’s see what this team can do now.

What team not in the spotlight you are keeping an eye on?

Steve Letarte: This driver is going to be in the spotlight at some point, the driver of the No. 77, Erik Jones. I think he’s doing a tremendous job and is being overlooked because it’s easy. His teammate (Martin Truex Jr.) is so fast. He’s doing what a rookie should do, which is not make the news. I haven’t seen him wreck anyone. I haven’t seen him wreck himself. I haven’t seen a lot of rookie mistakes.

Slugger Labbe: AJ Allmendinger. AJ can send the playoffs into madness with a win at Watkins Glen but the team has to provide a solid race car and must eliminate the mechanical and pit road issues. New Hampshire marks the final race on a playoff track before the playoffs begin. What will you be looking for this weekend as you gauge playoff teams?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin. It’s been an unusually quiet season, but the fourth place at Kentucky Speedway shows he’s poised for a breakout. Everyone is expecting Kyle Busch will end JGR’s winless drought, but Hamlin seems to stand just as good of a chance, particularly at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (where he has dominated before).

Dustin Long: Kevin Harvick. They’ve had some struggles in the switch to Ford this season but this is a seasoned team that knows how to win in pressure situations. Don’t overlook this team when the playoffs start. I want to see in the coming weeks if this team builds momentum and shows more speed.

New Hampshire marks the final race on a playoff track before the playoffs begin. What will you be looking for this weekend as you gauge playoff teams?

Steve Letarte: In years past, I think this was a very accurate question because there were not a whole lot of other things for the playoff teams to be racing for over the points, but I think the playoff points have almost nullified this question. I don’t think this race at New Hampshire is any more important to Kyle Larson or Martin Truex Jr. than next week’s race or at Watkins Glen or Bristol because of what’s at stake, those potential playoff points. Without a doubt, they’re going to want to leave New Hampshire with a good notebook but with this traction compound put down, I think that’s going to drive the storyline at New Hampshire more than what car is good or bad. This system is different. We’re learning as we go over the course of the summer.

Slugger Labbe: New Hampshire is a very hard race track to adapt to. Restarts and mechanical grip for the long run are very important. A lot of the teams already locked in the playoffs will use the first New Hampshire race as an experiment to find the best set up as they prepare for the fall race at New Hampshire, which is the second race of the playoffs. I’ll be watching for the teams that can maximize both keys to running well there. 

Nate Ryan: In the past, this race would have been a prime opportunity for qualified teams to gamble on setups (such as the No. 48’s aggressive experimentation with lower tire pressures in the July 2014 race). But with stage racing, that luxury is gone, so it should be a more accurate barometer of where teams are at the halfway point. It also has been five years since a Hendrick Motorsports car won at New Hampshire, and it bears watching if the team is any closer to ending that trend.

Dustin Long: I will keep an eye on Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. They both should be good this weekend and it will be important for them to be so, especially if they don’t win before the playoffs begin and enter with few playoff points. That will mean they will have little margin for error in the first round, which includes New Hampshire, to advance. If they struggle this weekend, that could be a troubling sign.