NASCAR Cup playoffs: Round of 12 outlook

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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.

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”

Matt DiBenedetto wins NASCAR Truck race at Talladega

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Matt DiBenedetto won Saturday’s 250-mile NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway on a day pockmarked by numerous accidents, including a major one at the finish.

As the field swept to the finish line in overtime, a multi-car crash developed as Corey Heim lost control of his truck in the trioval. Several trucks crashed approaching the finish as the caution flag flew.

NASCAR officials studied video of the final lap to determine that DiBenedetto was in front when the caution lights were turned on, although Bret Holmes appeared to beat him to the finish line by inches. When caution lights appear, the field is frozen at that point, so any position changes after the caution are irrelevant.

MORE: TalladeTalladega Truck results

MORE: Talladega Truck driver points

The last lap was the only one led by DiBenedetto, who has been racing in NASCAR national series since 2009 but scored his first win.

Following DiBenedetto, a non-playoff driver, at the finish were Ben Rhodes, Holmes, Ryan Preece and Christian Eckes.

With one race remaining in the Round of 8, Ty Majeski has locked in a spot in the final four at Phoenix. Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Rhodes are above the cutline. Below the line are Stewart Friesen, Eckes, John Hunter Nemechek and Grant Enfinger.

MORE: Denny Hamlin says NASCAR needs leadership changes

A string of accidents left only two playoff drivers — Eckes and Rhodes — in the top 10 with 10 laps remaining.

Carson Hocevar dropped out of the lead group with five laps to go when he lost a tire, prompting a caution flag and pushing the race into overtime.

The race was marred by a fiery crash in the early going as Jordan Anderson‘s truck exploded in flames while running in the top five in a tight draft.

Anderson steered the truck to the inside as flames fired up on both sides of the vehicle. The truck crashed into the inside wall even as Anderson climbed from the driver-side window. He was transported to an area hospital.

On Lap 35, Lawless Alan hit the wall hard after his right front tire blew. He was evaluated and released from the infield medical center.

Another dangerous situation developed on Lap 63 as numerous trucks pitted at the same time under green. As Hailie Deegan attempted to stop in her pit, one of the crew members lost control of a tire, and it rolled into traffic and onto the grass area separating pit road from the track. A Deegan crew member chased down the tire in the grass and later was ejected from the track by NASCAR officials for a safety violation.

On Lap 79, Enfinger’s truck blew a tire and slammed the wall, starting a crash that collected Tanner Gray, Johnny Sauter and Austin Wayne Self.

Stage 1 winner: John Hunter Nemechek

Stage 2 winner: Chandler Smith

Who had a good race: Matt DiBenedetto had been waiting a very long time for this winning moment. … Alabama driver Bret Holmes almost won in front of the home crowd. He finished third.

Who had a bad race: Jordan Anderson had one of the most frightening crashes of the season, bailing out of his flaming truck after it caught fire in the middle of a pack of drafting trucks. … Playoff drivers John Hunter Nemechek (finished 24th) and Grant Enfinger (29th) had rough outings.

Next: The Truck Series is off for three weeks before racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway Oct. 22. The series’ final race is scheduled Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.