NASCAR Cup playoffs: Round of 12 outlook


This year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoffs have reached the Round of 12.

Three different track types make up the schedule: Sunday’s opener at 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the middle race at 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway, and the eliminator at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, where the playoff field will be cut from 12 drivers to eight.

Kyle Larson, bolstered by 59 playoff points, will start the Round of 12 atop the leaderboard and with a healthy cushion above the cutline.

Meanwhile, three of the four drivers below the cutline to start the Round of 12 are past Cup champions: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick.

Let’s size up the remaining contenders to see where they could possibly win in this round and where they’ll have to step it up.

Kyle Larson (3,059 points – 46 points above cutline)

With a 1.5-mile track and a road course coming up, Larson appears to have two good shots to enter the Round of 8 with a win.

This season, Larson has earned two wins apiece on 1.5-mile tracks and road courses. One of his 1.5-mile track wins came in March at Las Vegas, where he led 103 laps on the way to his first victory with Hendrick Motorsports.

Larson seeks his first Cup superspeedway win, however. At Talladega specifically, he’s failed to finish in four of the last five races.

This past April, Larson and the No. 5 team were eliminated after just three laps due to an engine failure due to poor oversight. A piece of sheet metal surrounding the radiator was not removed prior to the race, leading the motor to overheat and blow up.

Martin Truex Jr. (3,029 points – 16 points above cutline)

Truex has been respectable on 1.5-mile tracks this season, posting five top-10 finishes in six races. He finished sixth in March at Las Vegas.

He’s also had his moments on road courses this season. Third-place showings at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen are his high-water marks.

But like Larson, Truex is still looking for his first superspeedway victory. He’s 0-for-33 in his Cup career at Talladega. Since the 2016 season, he’s finished no better than 20th there.

Denny Hamlin (3,024 points – 11 points above cutline)

The Round of 12 appears to set up nicely for Hamlin, who’s shown respectability at all three track types this season.

As a decorated superspeedway racer, Talladega may be his best shot to advance via winning. He won there last fall in the playoffs on his way to making the Championship 4.

But he’s also had consistent results on 1.5-milers and road courses. In March at Las Vegas, he led 47 laps and finished fourth, tied for his best result on 1.5-mile tracks this season.

On road courses, Hamlin’s turned in finishes of third (Daytona), eighth (Sonoma), and fifth (Road America and Watkins Glen). In the most recent road race at Indianapolis, he was leading on the final restart before an already penalized Chase Briscoe turned him around.

Ryan Blaney (3,024 points – 11 points above cutline)

Blaney has won on two Round of 12 tracks: Twice at Talladega (Fall 2019, Spring 2020), and in the inaugural Charlotte Roval race in 2018.

That puts emphasis on having a solid opener in Las Vegas. He’s winless there in his Cup career, but has an average finish of 9.2 over 10 Cup starts there.

In the March race at Las Vegas, he finished fifth and scored 46 points, 14 in the stages. A repeat of that effort on Sunday will serve him well.

Blaney’s won on a 1.5-mile track this season, but his March win at Atlanta was on a rough, worn-out surface that’s Vegas’ polar opposite. Or, at least it was.

Kyle Busch (3,022 points – 9 points above cutline)

The two-time Cup champion survived an obstacle-filled opening round. Will the Round of 12 be smoother?

The 1.5-mile tracks have been a sweet spot for Kyle Busch this season. He’s finished inside the top 10 in all six races on that track type and inside the top five in the last five. The latter streak includes a third in March at Las Vegas and a win in May at Kansas.

Kyle Busch has also posted top-10 runs in four of the six road course races this season, putting him in good shape for the Charlotte Roval.

Superspeedways have been troublesome, though. He’s failed to finish in five of the last seven superspeedway races. At Talladega, he’s earned one top-10 result in his last eight races.

Chase Elliott (3,021 points – 8 points above cutline)

Elliott’s best shot at a win in the Round of 12 is clear. The reigning Cup Series champion has won the last two races on the Charlotte Roval. Additionally, both of his victories this season have come on the road courses at Circuit of the Americas and Road America.

Las Vegas has seen Elliott turn in up-and-down results. His 13th-place finish there in March was his best since a fourth-place run in the 2019 playoffs.

Elliott is a past winner at Talladega, and may be close to earning another superspeedway win. He’s had four finishes of eighth or better in his last five Cup superspeedway races, including two second-place finishes. However, the blemish came this past April at Talladega, where he finished 24th.

Alex Bowman (3,015 points – 2 points above cutline)

Keep an eye on Bowman at the Charlotte Roval.

He’s finished no worse than eighth in the three Cup races there. That’s good for an average finish of 4.7, which is tied with Ryan Blaney for second-best among all drivers at the Roval. Only Chase Elliott has a better mark (2.7).

Bowman has earned three top-five finishes on 1.5-mile tracks this season. But Las Vegas isn’t one of his better intermediates. In seven races there with Hendrick Motorsports, he’s only earned an average finish of 13.9 and led just five laps.

Talladega is also a potential weak spot. He’s earned one top-five finish there in 12 Cup starts, finishing second behind Elliott in April 2019.

William Byron (3,014 points – 1 point above cutline)

Byron, who finished eighth in March at Las Vegas, has been steady on 1.5-milers this season. He won in February at Homestead-Miami, and if you throw out his 20th-place finish in July at Atlanta, he’s posted an average finish of sixth on this track type.

Talladega could also be a solid opportunity. He’s finished fourth and second there in his last two tries.

But if his hopes of advancing come down to the Charlotte Roval, things could be dicey. Byron has suffered four finishes of 33rd or worse in this season’s six road course races. However, he’s finished sixth the last two times out on the Charlotte Roval.

Joey Logano (3,013 points – 1 point below cutline)

Logano and Team Penske’s focus on 750-horsepower tracks may have played a role in his mid-pack performance this season on 1.5-mile tracks with the 550-horsepower package. As such, while Logano’s won before at Las Vegas, he wouldn’t seem to be a threat Sunday.

Talladega gives him a better chance, even though he’s crashed out in his last two ‘Dega starts. A three-time winner at NASCAR’s biggest track, Logano can certainly strike here.

But the Charlotte Roval may be his best bet. Logano’s earned three top-five finishes on road courses this season. He also finished runner-up at the Charlotte Roval in last year’s playoffs.

Brad Keselowski (3,008 points – 6 points below cutline)

Keselowski earned his sixth career Talladega victory back in April, and as such, the superspeedway would appear to be his best chance to win in the Round of 12.

Being another Team Penske driver, Keselowski’s also grappled with the 550-horsepower package this season. But he’s had some solid days on 1.5-mile tracks as well. He finished second in March at Las Vegas, where he’s won three times in his career. He also chipped in a third in May at Kansas.

His chances on the Charlotte Roval don’t figure to be as good. Since finishing fifth on the Daytona road course, Keselowski’s finished no better than 13th in his last five road course races.

Christopher Bell (3,005 points – 9 points below cutline)

Bell’s best chance appears to be on the Charlotte Roval.

His first career Cup win in February came on the Daytona road course, another oval-road course hybrid. While Bell’s road course results have been mixed since then, the sprint car ace has earned recognition for quickly adapting to road racing.

Bell’s performance this season on 1.5-mile tracks has been a bit more muted, although he showed speed in finishing seventh in March at Las Vegas.

Talladega is clearly his worst track of the three. His 17th-place finish in April is his best there so far in Cup.

Kevin Harvick (3,002 points – 12 points below cutline)

Sunday’s race at Las Vegas sets up as a big one for Harvick and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team. That’s not just because he’s at the bottom of the reset Round of 12.

In the March race there, Harvick finished 20th as SHR struggled across the board. It was an early sign that 2021 would be a much tougher go than the nine-win campaign he enjoyed in 2020.

But while he’s missed his usual pace on 1.5-mile tracks this season, he’s still managed four top-10 finishes in the six races on this track type.

Harvick has flashed on superspeedways as well, posting fourth-place finishes in the Daytona 500 and the April race at Talladega.

Road courses have been hit-and-miss. His season-best finish on this track type came in February at Daytona, where he placed sixth. He’s also had three finishes of 22nd or worse.