Where Cup playoff drivers stand heading to Texas

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If everything truly is bigger in Texas, how much bigger can the rivalries become after a pit road scuffle last weekend at Martinsville?

How much more intense can the playoffs be with two races remaining for drivers to advance to the championship race in Miami?

And how much more desperate will some drivers be this weekend?

Here is where each playoff driver stands heading into Texas (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN):

MIAMI BOUND

Martin Truex Jr.’s win at Martinsville makes him the first driver to qualify for the Nov. 17 title race in Miami. It’s the third consecutive year Truex has reached this race, winning the title in 2017 and finishing second last year. So how will Truex treat the next two weeks since he’s already set for the championship race?

“We’ve never been in this position before,” he said after his series-high seventh win of the season. “Every time we’ve made the final four we’ve pointed our way in. We’ve never won in this round, so it’s new territory. It’s good territory to be in, but honestly we can’t change who we are. I said that earlier in the year when the playoffs started. You can’t just go from the regular season to we’re going to change our mindset for the playoffs. You race every week the same, just there’s more on the line as you go down the road here.

DEPOSITS AND WITHDRAWALS

Denny Hamlin has stated multiple times this season about not doing anything outlandish on the track that would incite a competitor, particularly in the playoffs.

He calls it making deposits, which he did when he didn’t rough up Kevin Harvick in the final laps at New Hampshire and allowed Jimmie Johnson to get his lap back at the end of a stage at Kansas. Hamlin also noted the concept when he criticized Joey Logano for racing him hard while down 24 laps at Dover

Sunday, Hamlin and Logano made contact shortly after a Lap 456 restart. Hamlin later took the blame for the contact. After discussing the incident on pit road, Logano shoved Hamlin, triggering a scuffle on pit road.

With two races left in this round, Hamlin is second in the standings. He is 10 points ahead of Logano, who holds the fourth and final transfer spot.

*@&#$%(^)%$!

If one could go inside the mind of Kyle Busch after a playoff race, the symbols represent a clean version of what he might be thinking. Busch, the regular-season champion, has had a miserable playoffs. He has finished outside the top 10 in four of the seven races.

Before he and Aric Almirola decided to beat on each other while racing for seventh this past weekend at Martinsville, Busch had not been happy with his car’s handling, saying at one time on the radio: “We’re terrible.”

Things got worse after the contact with Almirola. Busch’s car was damaged. Busch went on to finish 14th. He’s third in the standings, three points ahead of Logano for the final transfer spot.

Busch also has an enemy on the track. Almirola vowed after Sunday’s incident that “we’ve got three more weeks, and I’m going to make it hell for him.”

Told of Almirola’s comment, Busch said: “Sounds good.”

PLUGGING ALONG

Kevin Harvick was unspectacular throughout much of Sunday’s race but finished seventh. Ryan Blaney was strong all race before finishing fifth.

They’ll look for better results this weekend at Texas. Harvick is 14 points behind Logano for the final transfer spot. Blaney is 15 points behind Logano.

TIME TO GO TO WORK

Everyone knew Martinsville could be a rough race for Kyle Larson, who has not mastered that tough half-mile track.

A good call by crew chief Chad Johnston allowed Larson to score nine points in stage 2 when he had been running outside the top 10 before a late caution. While the field pitted, Larson stayed out for track position. Still, points might not be enough to get him to the championship race in Miami. He’s seventh among the eight remaining playoff drivers and is 24 points behind Logano.

WHAT IS GOING ON?

Chase Elliott opened the previous round of the playoffs by finishing last at Dover when his engine failed after eight laps.

He started the Round of 8 at Martinsville by suffering an engine failure after five laps of opening practice. In the race, Elliott’s car suffered a broken axle on Lap 180 while he was fifth. He finished 36th and is 44 points out of the final transfer spot, meaning he is essentially in a must-win situation the rest of this round. 

As for the mechanical issues with his Hendrick Motorsports team recently, Elliott conceded: “I’m concerned.”

POINTS 

4102 – Martin Truex Jr. (Martinsville win advances him to Miami title race)

4082 – Denny Hamlin

4075 – Kyle Busch

4027 – Joey Logano

4058 – Kevin Harvick

4057 – Ryan Blaney

4048 – Kyle Larson

4028 – Chase Elliott