What driver are you keeping a close eye on in this round?
Nate Ryan: Kyle Busch. Charlotte Motor Speedway isn’t a must-win for him (though he has made no secret he wants to win it so he can cross the last remaining active track off his list that he hasn’t conquered), but it’ll be important to get off to a good start because Talladega Superspeedway is forever an X factor, and he historically has struggled at Kansas in the playoffs (though he did break through for a win in May 2016). Playoff points should help ensure that Busch advances to the Round of 8 regardless, but this round would be his “weakest” if there is such a thing for one of NASCAR’s most talented stars.
Dustin Long: Kevin Harvick. I want to see how this team does on the 1.5-mile tracks (Charlotte and Kansas) in this round and if it can close the gap on the Toyotas and Kyle Larson. Don’t overlook this team.
Daniel McFadin: I’ll be looking at Chase Elliott. Did having another win slip through his fingers light a fire under him or take the air out of him and his team?
Jerry Bonkowski: Matt Kenseth. The second round of the playoffs could potentially be the sweet spot he’s been looking for. A win at Charlotte or Talladega puts him into the Round of 8. He needs to win either of the first two races because he doesn’t want to wait until the final race of the second round — at Kansas. Because of the uncertainty at Talladega, Kenseth’s best hope for a win comes Sunday at Charlotte.
What is a storyline you’ll be watching this round?
Nate Ryan: Talladega as the middle race for the first time instead of a cutoff (a smart move, by the way). Should eliminate any plans for sandbagging (unless it’s the winner of the Kansas race or someone such as Truex who might have enough points to make the race mostly meaningless).
Dustin Long: Pit strategy. It played a key role at Dover in helping Ricky Stenhouse Jr. advance to this round. I want to see which crew chiefs are willing to take chances to score stage points or put themselves on a different strategy than the leaders this round.
Daniel McFadin: Has Hendrick Motorsports gotten its groove back? Or was the case of three of its cars finishing in the top 10 just a blip due to Dover being one of Jimmie Johnson‘s and Chase Elliott’s best tracks?
Jerry Bonkowski: Can Jimmie Johnson come back? He looked much like the JJ of old at Dover. If his team is starting to peak, it couldn’t be at a better time in the second round. One win at Charlotte and he’s on to the third round. Johnson loves pressure, coming from behind and is one of the best when it comes to rallying. Frankly, he could be in a perfect position right now to start the stretch run to a record eighth Cup championship.
Who has a better chance of winning Talladega: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who has won the past two restrictor-plate races or Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Nate Ryan: Based off recent history, Stenhouse is a slight favorite, but Earnhardt Jr. has been much better in plate races the past few seasons, and a win wouldn’t be a surprise (and also would be the best storyline NASCAR could desire).
Dustin Long: Provided Dale Earnhardt Jr. can get to the front and stay there, he has the experience in blocking both lanes and keeping the rest of the field behind him.
Daniel McFadin: While Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has the last two plate wins, Dale Jr. is always the biggest threat. He had the speed to run at the front in all three plate races this year before misfortune struck every time. I’ll put my money on Dale Jr. using every trick in the book to keep the field behind him one last time.
Jerry Bonkowski: From a sentimental standpoint, I’d love to see Dale Jr. win. What better place to earn the final Cup win of his career than at his most successful track. With two restrictor-plate wins this season, Stenhouse is definitely one of the top contenders. However, there’s a potential spoiler that I would not be surprised could steal away a win from both of them at ‘Dega: Brad Keselowski.