Three races remain to determine the four championship drivers in NASCAR’s Cup and Xfinity Series.
The Round of 8 begins for both series this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. The Xfinity Series races at 3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC. The Cup Series races at 2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC and Peacock.
“You get the field cut down to eight cars and you’re competing against really, really good teams and really good drivers, and a lot of them don’t make mistakes,” Ryan Blaney said.
What is likely to happen? Who will advance to the title race next month? Who won’t?
Here’s a look at those questions and more surrounding the final weeks of the NASCAR playoffs …
1. The Chase Elliott–Kevin Harvick saga is over for the rest of these playoffs
Chase Elliott gets the last laugh – for now – with his comment about wishing Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team a “merry offseason and happy Christmas” after last weekend’s race at the Charlotte Roval that saw Harvick eliminated.
NASCAR made it clear this week in a call to both drivers and team members that enough is enough. Elliott took his shot at Bristol by running Harvick’s lane in retaliation for contact cutting his tire. Harvick took his shot by wrecking Elliott at the Roval.
Series officials had to step in to protect the playoffs. After Harvick’s contact sent Elliott into the wall, Elliott’s car nearly hit the car of playoff driver Joey Logano.
NASCAR doesn’t want two feuding drivers to wreck one another and ruin another driver’s chances to win the championship. That’s why this conversation had to happen now. Not because someone was likely to try something at Texas with those high speeds, but to make it clear that there would be no ambush at Martinsville or Phoenix that could impact another playoff driver.
Now, is this feud over?
Logano, who has had his issues with Harvick in the past, said he would want a quick resolution if he was Elliott.
“I’ve been on the receiving end, and I don’t want to poke the bear,” Logano said this week.
Yet, that’s what Elliott did with his line about the offseason and Christmas. One can say it was good for him to stand up to Harvick, especially after Harvick recently said that trying to talk to Elliott was like “speaking to a 9-year-old.”
While this feud may be on ice for now, don’t be surprised to see the Roval incident in the promotion for the Feb. 6 NASCAR Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Just don’t expect retribution at that event. It does no good to retaliate in an exhibition race.
While payback can strike at any point, keep these dates in mind next year: March 27 (Circuit of the Americas), April 3 (Richmond) and April 9 (Martinsville).
2. Kyle Larson fails to reach the Championship 4 race
He enters this round with 65 playoff points. While Harvick entered this round last year with 67 playoff points and failed to advance, don’t expect history to repeat.
Larson appears on the way to one of the most memorable seasons in U.S. motorsports history provided he can win the Cup championship. He’s already won some of the country’s top dirt events, including the Knoxville Nationals and Chill Bowl Nationals.
It would take a lot for Larson not to be among the four drivers racing for the Cup title Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway.
Even if he has issues in this round, don’t expect those to unravel him. He often remains calm in stressful situations. That helped him through woes at Talladega and the Charlotte Roval in the last round.
“He thinks really quick in the moment,” crew chief Cliff Daniels said of Larson. “He can process a lot of thoughts really fast.”
Another key factor is that Larson and Daniels are still learning one another. That can help when they go to a track for the second time – which is what they’ll do for each of the remaining playoff races.
The first time they raced together at Darlington in May, Larson finished second and led no laps. In the playoff opener at Darlington, Larson finished second and led 156 laps.
The first time Daniels and Larson raced together at Richmond in April, Larson placed 18th and led no laps. In the playoff race there, Larson finished sixth and led eight laps.
Larson won the All-Star Race at Texas earlier this season but the rules package was different than what will be raced Sunday. He finished 19th at Kansas when he faltered late on restarts after leading 132 laps. He placed fifth at Martinsville in April.
Improvements at each of those races will lead to an easy path to Phoenix for Larson.
3. Team Penske is shut out of the Cup championship race at Phoenix
It’s easy to find ways for Team Penske’s three drivers – Brad Keselowski, Blaney and Logano – to be eliminated in this round.
Fords have been down on speed much of the season on the bigger tracks. With the first two races in this round at 1.5-mile tracks (Texas on Sunday and Kansas on Oct. 24), some might think the hole would be too deep for the Penske drivers, leading to a must-win situation at Martinsville to advance.
When one looks at the rest of the field, it’s easy to project Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin to the title race. That would leave two spots. Among those challenging the Penske drivers for those spots would be Martin Truex Jr., who won at Martinsville in April, Kyle Busch, who won at Kansas in May, and Chase Elliott the reigning champion.
Here are ways a Penske driver could advance:
Texas: A key could be how many cautions are at the end of the race. Keselowski is known for his restarts. If he is toward the front and there are some late cautions, this could help him. Same for his teammates. Blaney won at Michigan with the same 550 horsepower package despite an average running position of 9.3 in that race. Two cautions in the last 20 laps at Michigan allowed Blaney to go from fifth to the win.
Kansas: A similar formula as Texas. There’s also another way. Logano didn’t have the best car in last year’s race but he got the lead from Harvick on pit road and held Harvick off over the last 45 laps to win.
Martinsville: Blaney won both stages and led 157 laps (second to Hamlin’s 276 laps led). A pit road penalty for running over equipment with less than 50 laps left cost Blaney a shot at the win. Avoid such mistakes and maybe his fortune changes. Chase Elliott showed there can be hope for those below the cutline entering this race. He was 25 points below the cutline and won this event last year. He followed that by winning at Phoenix to claim his first Cup title.
4. Joe Gibbs Racing will have more than one driver in the championship race
Denny Hamlin won at Las Vegas in the most recent race on a 1.5-mile track. Teammate Kyle Busch looks to sweep this season’s Kansas Cup races next week. Truex seeks to sweep this season’s Martinsville races later this month.
It’s reasonable to think all three will make the championship race.
Of course, the Hendrick Motorsports cars are fast on the 1.5-mile tracks. Had it not been for a pit call that backfired at Las Vegas, one of the Hendrick cars might have won that race instead of Hamlin.
After a winless regular season, Hamlin has shown his strength in the playoffs. He’s the only driver to score a top 10 in each of the first six playoff races.
“I’m really excited about the way we’re running,” Hamlin said after last weekend’s Roval race.
Busch enters this round confident. It’s not just because of the Kansas win earlier this year. He won the Texas playoff race last year.
He has the best average finish on 1.5-mile tracks this season at 3.9. He’s followed by Hamlin (7.4 average finish), Larson (7.9) and Truex (8.6).
“The mile-and-a-half programs have been really strong for us,” Busch said.
This round has the potential to be big for Joe Gibbs Racing.
5. The Xfinity Championship 4 will feature Austin Cindric, AJ Allmendinger, Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson
In a round that may require winning to advance, Hemric, Haley, Burton and Jones have combined for one victory this season (Haley at Daytona).
Allmendinger and Cindric are in a more comfortable spot entering the round in points. Allgaier, Gragson, Hemric and Haley are within six points.
Hemric has run full-time in the series twice and made the title race both times without winning a race. He remains winless this season. Is he headed for a third trip to the championship race without a win? Hemric did score the most points in the previous round.