16 drivers, 16 questions: Analyzing the Cup playoff competitors

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No matter what has come before, the playoffs represent hope. For those who have been strong all season, there is a hope that such performances will continue. For those who have struggled, there is hope that things will change.

Reality will intercede when cars get on track this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Until then, there is hope.

Here is a key question for each playoff driver:

Kyle Busch (2050 points)

Is this his title to lose?

Yes. Two of his six wins this year were at tracks that will host playoff races (Texas and Richmond), and he finished second at three other tracks this year that will host playoff races (Las Vegas, Phoenix and Martinsville).

(Photo: Getty Images)

A key for him could be the second round, which features Dover (35th in the spring, mechanical issue), Talladega (13th in the spring) and Kansas (10th in the spring). He failed to lead a lap in all three races, making that the only time he’s failed to lead a lap in three consecutive races this season.

The 50 playoff points he has should provide a cushion for him but he knows all too well how cruel the playoffs can be. He was second in the points entering the second round cutoff race at Talladega in 2014. While riding toward the back, he was involved in a crash and eliminated from title contention.

He should go further in the playoffs. Much further.

 

Kevin Harvick (2050)

Is this his title to lose?

Yes. Four of his seven wins this year have come on tracks the series will go to in the playoffs (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dover and Kansas).

He has not finished worse than fifth this year at a track that will host a playoff race and has an average finish of 2.5 at those tracks.

How is anyone going to beat that?

If he’s not racing for the title in Miami, it will be shocking.

 

Martin Truex Jr. (2035)

Is there too much for Martin Truex Jr. to overcome to win another championship?

This team will no longer exist in 10 weeks and enters the playoffs with some uneven performances. It’s either setting up to be a disappointing finish for Truex or a feel-good story that could match last year’s championship run.

The performances lately, though, leave some questions.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The team failed inspection three times at Indy and had to start at the rear. Truex said during the pace laps that his brakes didn’t feel right. A brake failure ended his day after 41 laps, leaving him with a season-worst 40th-place finish.

At Darlington, Truex was fast and ran in the top three in the first half of the race before a penalty for an uncontrolled tire caused him to fall off the lead lap. It took most almost the rest of the race to get back on the lead lap because there were so few cautions. He recovered to finish 11th but the mistake cost him.

He started 17th at Bristol — the only time in the last seven races before Indianapolis that he started so far back. He was collected in an early accident, overcame that and was running near the front when contact from Kyle Busch sent him into the wall.

At Michigan, Truex spun, his team struggled on pit road and he ran out of fuel, ruining what could have been a much better finish than 14th.

“Being fast and doing all the little things right is important,” Truex told NBC Sports. “I feel like the guys that are on top of their game and … can bring speed to the race track are going to be hard to beat.”

Maybe these recent races mean nothing. Maybe they are a sign that this team isn’t as solid as it was last year. We’ll soon find out.

 

Brad Keselowski (2019)

He’s won the past two races by his team executing well instead of having the fastest car. Can that be the pathway to a title or will the lack of speed hurt this team?

So often the fastest car doesn’t win the race. Over time, though, a fast car is more likely to succeed. At some point in the playoffs, Keselowski will need to win.

At Darlington, his pit crew helped him take the lead off the final pit stop. At Indianapolis, pit strategy and a timely caution put him in position to win. He wasn’t the fastest in either race but won.

(Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“We want more speed,” crew chief Paul Wolfe said after the Indy win. “We know we’re off a little bit there. But I believe we can get through the first round for sure by just executing and not making mistakes. 

“As I look at the second and third round, there’s some great opportunity races there. We know we can go to Talladega and win, and we know we can go to Martinsville and win. We have a little bit of work to do on the intermediate tracks to find a little more speed, but winning the last two weeks definitely is a little booster for everyone at Team Penske.”

 

Clint Bowyer (2015)

Can he be consistent enough to contend for a spot in Miami?

His longest streak of top-10 finishes is four in a row this season. Worse is that he has failed to finish in the top 10 in seven of the last nine races.

The Stewart-Haas Racing cars are fast, but he’s not been faster than teammate Kevin Harvick and hasn’t matched the consistency of teammate Kurt Busch. With many expecting at least two of the Big 3 — Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — to make it to the finals in Miami, that leaves little room for the rest of the field and inconsistent finishes won’t do it.

 

Joey Logano (2014)

He made the championship race in 2014 and 2016. Can he keep the even-year streak going?

In 2014 and 2016, Logano came into the playoffs on a hot streak. He had scored three consecutive top 10s before playing 13th at Indy on Monday.

The sting of his Indy performance left him viewing the playoffs more critically.

We just have to get going, that’s all,” Logano said. “The playoffs are about to start and hopefully we’ll do better than that.”

One thing that Logano fans can look forward to are the tracks in the playoffs. He scored six top-10 finishes in the eight races at playoff tracks earlier this year, including his win at Talladega.

 

Kurt Busch (2014)

Is consistency enough to get him far in the playoffs?

The Bristol winner enters the playoffs with eight consecutive top-10 finishes, which ties Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick for the longest active top-10 streak. That also matches what Kyle Busch did earlier this season for the longest top-10 streak of the season.

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Kurt Busch said the turnaround came at New Hampshire in July when he won the pole, led 94 laps and finished eighth. He’s encouraged that the team has been good on a variety of tracks even though none of the tracks in his current streak will be in the playoffs.

As for the playoffs, he has a simple philosophy.

“There is no reason to change anything going into the playoffs,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports after finishing sixth at Indianapolis. “This is one of the best Brickyard cars that I’ve ever had, I just didn’t execute on restarts to the best of my ability.”

 

Chase Elliott (2008)

Can momentum carry this team forward?

Last year, Chase Elliott finished no better than eighth in the eight races leading into the playoffs. But that didn’t matter. He had three runner-up finishes in the first four playoff races and finished the year with four top 10s in the last five races.

This year, Elliott enters the playoffs having scored six top 10s in the last seven races, making him among the hottest drivers.

“I think our speed has been better,” Elliott said. “We’ve just got to keep improving.”

 

 

Ryan Blaney (2007)

Is he a contender or pretender?

The Team Penske driver is an interesting case study. Eight of his 12 top-10 finishes this season came in the first 15 races of the year.

But since his 40th-place finish at Daytona in July, he has not placed worse than 15th in a race. To be a true title contender, those finishes need to be better in the coming weeks.

Some of his best tracks — other than Bristol — are playoff tracks. He finished third at Martinsville in the spring and was fifth at Texas and fifth at Las Vegas earlier this year. So there’s a foundation for him to be a contender.

 

Erik Jones (2005)

Can he step it up in his first Cup playoffs?

He enters the playoffs after a runner-up finish at Indianapolis and nine top 10s in the last 11 races, but the playoffs are so much different from the regular season.

It’s a point Jones discovered in 2016 in the Xfinity Series.

(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

“I thought it was going to be a breeze to get to the final four because we were so fast and had won races all year, but really it wasn’t,” Jones told NBC Sports. “It was very challenging. We almost missed out in the final four.

“It’s going to be tough. Even the round of 16 (this year), as much as you want to think yea, it will be easy, just top 10 our way through it, it never seems to go like that.”

But if Jones can do what he’s done lately — he has averaged 34.3 points a race — that should get him through the opening round comfortably.

“We’ve done a good job the last month of really sticking with it, and when we’re not having a great day,  making it into one that is more than salvageable,” he said.

 

Austin Dillon (2005)

Can this team get beyond the first round?

This team has shown improvement in the second half of the season with an average finish of 16.3 in the last nine races.

That likely won’t be good enough in the playoffs. He failed to advance out of the first round last year with an average finish of 17.0. Teammate Ryan Newman had an average finish of 16.3 in the first round of last year’s playoffs and also failed to advance.

“We have had fast cars here lately and that is a good thing,” Dillon said. “So, we are capable of bringing some speed to the track, and Vegas has been a good track for us in the past. Hopefully, we can just take what we have been good with the last couple of weeks and run it there.”

 

Kyle Larson (2005)

Can he find a way to Miami and win the title at what is his best track?

Kyle Larson is encouraged by the speed he’s had in the car the past two weeks at Darlington and Indianapolis.

(Photo: Getty Images)

The key is to get to Miami. Even if the Big 3 all made it to the championship race, some observers would view Larson as the favorite there if he also qualified for that race because of how good he is there.

Getting there has been the challenge for Larson even when he’s been better.

Larson was vocal after Monday’s race at Indianapolis about what needs to be fixed if he is to make it to Miami.

“We’re still horrible on pit road,” he told NBC Sports. “That’s discouraging. We’ll clean it up. I made mistakes on pit road as well. So I wasn’t happy with myself and my performance on pit road, but our pit crew needs to be better if we want to win the championship.”

 

 

Denny Hamlin (2003)

Was Indianapolis a sign of things to come?

The bothersome issue with this team has been the speed it has had in qualifying — Hamlin had four front-row starts in the six races before Indy — yet he had not finished better than eighth in those races.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

With qualifying rained out at Indianapolis, Hamlin showed speed in the race. He led 37 laps, tying Clint Bowyer for most laps led, and was in position to win the race until a late caution. Brad Keselowski, whose car had fresher tires, took advantage of the last restart and beat Hamlin.

Indianapolis is a track that shows what teams have the best horsepower and aero package. That said, the question is would Hamlin have led as much had Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick not had various issues on pit road? It’s doubtful.

But maybe it is the surge Hamlin and his team need entering the playoffs.

“Typically in history, we’ve performed better in the playoffs than we have in the regular season just about always,” Hamlin said. “We’ll have to take a bigger jump this year than what we’ve taken in years past. We’ve typically been pretty good and then we’ve been great in the playoffs. This year we’ve been mediocre, and I think that the big jump to great is a big one.”

 

Aric Almirola (2001)

What is a realistic expectation for this team?

For a team that hasn’t won — and is the only Stewart-Haas Racing team without a victory this season — getting past the second round could be considered a success.

He has not scored more than back-to-back top-10 finishes this year. This team will have to step it up to avoid being eliminated early.

I feel like we’ve got fast race cars and we’ve got a chance to go up there and compete to win races and go far into the playoffs,” Almirola said after finishing 23rd at Indianapolis, saddled by a flat tire while running in the top five. “Just thinking about today and another lost opportunity for us. We had a car capable of challenging to win and run up front and we just keep having things pop up.”

 

Jimmie Johnson (2000)

Will his worst season end in an early playoff exit?

It’s hard to discount a seven-time champion, but what has his team shown this year?

This team has not finished better than ninth in its last 12 races. His last top-five finish was a fifth at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend. Johnson’s winless streak is a career-long 49 races.

“Honestly, we’re not in a position, I think, just to go out and drive our way in right now, sadly,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “It’s hard to admit that, it’s hard to say that, but it’s the truth. That’s not going to change our work effort, our determination, our mindset and we’ll keep swinging.”

 

Alex Bowman (2000)

Could he be the Cinderella story of the playoffs?

Alex Bowman drove underfunded cars earlier in his career, found out on social media he had lost a ride, decided his best opportunity was to join Hendrick Motorsports as the driver for its simulator program and filled in well enough when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was out in 2016 to take over the No. 88 this season.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

There’s already a lot there. Now add that Hendrick Motorsports has not been as competitive this season, Bowman’s career-best finish of third came a few weeks ago at Pocono, he had to battle through damage from a crash at Indianapolis to clinch the final playoff spot and he enters the postseason as the last seed.

“To come from where I was at in my career is so unobtainable,” Bowman said. “Just driving for Hendrick Motorsports seemed unobtainable, but to make the playoffs in my first year back is really cool. It’s a special thing to be a part of.”

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David Ragan to make first Truck start since 2006 at Atlanta

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David Ragan is coming back and going home at the same time.

The Unadilla, Georgia native, who stepped down from full-time racing after last season, will drive in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at Ragan’s home track, Atlanta Motor Speedway, on Saturday, June 6.

The 34-year-old Ragan will drive the No. 17 Ford for DGR-Crosley in his 30th career Truck Series start and his first since 2006.

David Ragan will make his first Truck Series start since 2006 in the June 6 race at his home track of Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“I’m really looking forward to racing one of DGR-Crosley’s F-150’s at Atlanta,” Ragan said in a media release. “We were originally going to run the truck at Richmond Raceway in April, but since that race was postponed (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), I wanted to return to my home state of Georgia with Select Blinds for this race.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve raced in the Truck Series. Atlanta has always been one of my favorite tracks since it’s my home track.”

Blake Bainbridge will serve as Ragan’s crew chief. The Atlanta race was originally scheduled for March, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Since stepping away from full-time racing, Ragan has made just one start in 2020, finishing fourth in the Daytona 500 for Rick Ware Racing.

Ragan currently works in a development role with Ford Performance, where, according to the media release, “he assists teams with simulator work and has a hand in developing the NextGen car that will come into play in 2022.”

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NASCAR schedule for Cup, Xfinity races at Bristol

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NASCAR has put Charlotte in its rearview mirror and moves next to Bristol Motor Speedway.

One significant change to the schedule has already occurred. The Xfinity Series race originally slated for Saturday has been moved to Monday due to travel and setup challenges.

Here is the schedule for Saturday through Monday at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile:

(All times are Eastern)

Saturday, May 30

5 p.m. – Cup driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7 – 9 p.m. – Cup haulers enter (screening and equipment unloaded)

Sunday, May 31

7:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. – Cup garage access screening in progress

1:30 – 2:30 p.m. – Engine prime and final adjustments

3:20 p.m. – Cup drivers report to vehicles on starting grid

3:30 p.m. – Cup Series race, 500 laps/266.5 miles (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5 p.m. – Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit track

Monday, June 1

8:30 – 11:30 a.m. – Xfinity haulers enter (screening in progress)

11:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. – Xfinity garage access (screening in progress)

5 – 6:30 p.m. – Xfinity engine prime and final adjustments (pit road)

6:50 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to vehicles on starting grid

7 p.m. – Xfinity race, 200 laps/300 miles (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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Winners and losers after Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte

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WINNERS

Chase ElliottAfter losing the Coca-Cola 600 when he pitted from the lead before the overtime restart, Elliott scored the victory Thursday night at Charlotte. “I think we were hungry and wanted to get back and try again,” Elliott said after his seventh career Cup victory.

Denny Hamlin Crew chief serving the first race of a four-race suspension and Hamlin was starting 29th in a 310-mile race. No problem. He worked his way through the field, helped by his pit crew, and finished second.

Ryan Blaney He left Charlotte with a pair of third-place finishes in the two races. Many would take that.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Fourth-place finish is his second top-five result of the season in his first season at JTG Daugherty Racing.

LOSERS

Alex BowmanWon the second stage and had a fast car. Saw his night come undone when he hit the wall while running second. He had to pit for repairs and finished 31st.

Kyle BuschCut tire while racing in traffic sent him to the pits under green and he lost two laps. He never recovered, finishing 29th.

Friday 5: When fans can return, how many will be allowed at tracks?

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As NASCAR moves ahead with racing, among the key questions are when will fans be allowed back at the track and how many fans will be able to attend?

NASCAR has stated that there will be no fans at any of its races through June 21, covering events at Bristol, Atlanta, Martinsville, Miami and Talladega. NASCAR has not announced what its schedule will be after June 21 and when fans could be back in the stands.

Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, said “I think that NASCAR will be the first major sport with fans back in attendance, and I think it will be in a place where one, the state regulations allow it, and two, where the large outdoor facility gives an opportunity to provide plenty of space, plenty of distance and plenty of areas for people to still have fun but be in a  safe environment.”

Should Pocono Raceway maintain its June 27-28 Cup doubleheader weekend dates, it appears likely it would be without fans.

Pocono Raceway is in Monroe County in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf has set three phases for easing of restrictions — red (most restrictions), yellow and green (fewest restrictions).

Asked if NASCAR could race at Pocono, Gov. Wolf said in a May 18 press conference: “If Monroe County goes to yellow before that race happens and NASCAR, in fact, has the competition without spectators in the stands and they follow other guidelines to keep the competitors safe, yeah.”

Monroe County enters the yellow phrase today.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be the first track that hosts fans when it has the NTT IndyCar Series and Xfinity Series race on the road course July 4 and the Cup Series race on the oval July 5.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has a five-step plan in easing restrictions for the state where the final stage is projected to be enacted July 4 and states that “raceway events may return to full capacity.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials have not announced what plans they’ll have for the July 4-5 races. A track spokesperson told NBC Sports that they’re “hopeful” to have fans but “will be prepared to run with or without spectators.”

Whenever and wherever fans return, it won’t be at full capacity with the need for social distancing.

That will force tracks to determine who can attend races when they have more ticket buyers than seats they’re allowed to make available because of social distancing protocols.

“It’s going to be challenging,” Smith said. “I think if we have 40 percent or 50 percent capacity, it’s something that we’ll have to figure out. I don’t think we have those details yet, but it’s certainly something we’re sensitive to and working on right now.”

While Smith mentioned 40-50 percent capacity, he’s not sure what it will be at various tracks.

“Who knows if it’s 40 or 50 percent or 25 percent?” he said. “It’s something that when you take into account different regulations in different states, I think that percentage is going to change depending on what the regulations are.”

2. Feeling better

Crew chief Alan Gustafson admits it “wasn’t a great feeling” Sunday after his decision to pit Chase Elliott before overtime cost Elliott a chance to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But Gustafson didn’t let the decision wreck him the rest of the week.

“I don’t base my self‑worth on other people’s opinions, or if I’m doing a good job based on what other people say, but certainly I’m a human being, too, and when you get that many rocks thrown at you, it doesn’t feel great,” Gustafson said after Elliott won Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte. “It was a long couple days, but at the end of the day, you’ve just got to look past it and move on.”

Gustafson said of the decision to pit late in the 600: “There’s a lot of factors that went into it, and our struggles earlier in the race probably influenced me more than I should have let it, and it didn’t work out. We’re also assuming that we stay out and we win the race, so it’s tough. It’s just a tough situation.”

While it’s easy to look at how Elliott could have three wins in a row — he was running second late at Darlington when Kyle Busch’s contact wrecked him, then the 600 pit call and Thursday’s win — Elliott prefers to look at things differently.

“I think the biggest thing is if we can continue to put ourselves in position and give ourselves chances and we do a good job at controlling the things that are in our control, that’s all we can ask for,” Elliott said after Thursday’s win. “We can’t control when a caution comes out two laps to go and you’re kind of in a lose‑lose situation there. We’ve got to keep doing things that are in our hands and keep doing those well.”

3. Hold on tight at Bristol

Much was made about drivers not having practice and qualifying before they raced at Darlington Raceway since it is considered among the sport’s most difficult tracks.

While not as much has been mentioned about the obstacles drivers will face at Bristol Motor Speedway before Sunday’s Cup race and Monday night’s Xfinity race, they shouldn’t be overlooked.

Tyler Reddick, who won the Bristol Xfinity race last August and finished second in the April 2019 race there, notes some of the challenges drivers will face this weekend.

“I think the first challenge is going to be just completing that first lap,” he said. “That’s one of the toughest race tracks to go around when it doesn’t have rubber and heat on it. I’ve run Truck races there through my career and when we’re one of the first ones on the race track, that first hour of practice you can’t really learn much. The traction compound is slick – you go down in there to try to use it and you almost spin out. You run the middle and that’s about it. Man, the first hour or so of practice you can’t get up in that either because it’s slick and you almost wreck.

“I remember the first time they put traction compound down at Bristol. I went out for practice and I was in the middle, we were OK. But I wanted to try the bottom, so I went down there, got loose and couldn’t go anywhere. So, I was like ‘that’s not going to work’. I went up to try to use the top and I drove it straight into the fence.

“I’m worried that the start of the race is going to be very chaotic. I don’t know how that’s going to go. There’s only one groove and we’re going to be starting double-file, so that’s going to be very interesting.”

4. Midweek racing

Thursday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway marked the second midweek Cup race since NASCAR’s season resumed.

The series will race at Martinsville on June 10, a Wednesday night. There could be other midweek races as NASCAR seeks to run 32 Cup races in 25 weeks.

But what about next year? How realistic is it that there could be a Cup race in the middle of a week?

“Lot of people have talked about it,” Marcus Smith said this week. “Running midweek races with no attendees is not a concern in terms of how you pull it off. … You don’t have to take into consideration selling tickets and hosting live things.

“Very different model than hosting these big parties, these big events that we do. The biggest events happen on the weekends. That’s why NASCAR races typically are on a weekend. When you have these events as we do, and we have to think quickly and figure out how to catch up on this nine or 10-week delay of the NASCAR season, running races midweek was a natural way to get caught up.

“But going forward, I still don’t think that the biggest events in sports will be hosted midweek.”

Brad Keselowski would like to see midweek races continue.

“NASCAR, in my opinion, has hit gold with this format,” he said after Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “The limited practice, show up and race, and the time window that benefits both the East and West Coast. No qualifying. Inversion from the week before is really good because it mixes the field up and creates some good storylines there. I think it’s fair. 

“It’s compelling and it’s at a time where, quite frankly, the sports world, even if it wasn’t for COVID, midweek races in the summer, when you’re generally not having a lot of competition, is in a time period where everybody is hungry for content. I think they’ve got gold here. COVID or not, I hope we keep this for years to come. I think this is a great little format that’s good for the sport and good for the fans and good for everybody all around, so kudos to them.”

5. All-Star Race status

Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted four NASCAR races, including two Cup races, this week but none of those Cup races was the All-Star Race.

Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, was asked this week in a media conference about that event’s future and if it will remain at Charlotte.

“I think the plan is that it would be at Charlotte, but I think it’s important to note that we haven’t announced it because it’s just not ready to be announced yet,” Smith said. “With all the moving parts in this time, we have to be aware of how things change. Very soon, and I think in the next two weeks or less, we’ll have the next round of events that will be announced (by NASCAR) and it will help solve those schedules.”