But while some priorities may change for Larson and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team over the next two weeks, others will not.
As Larson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, noted Sunday, while Hendrick may put a bigger effort into getting Chase Elliott into the title race, the No. 5 team remains focused on winning races.
For Larson’s team, Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the Oct. 31 race at Martinsville Speedway is about showing the seven other playoff drivers what exactly is waiting for them Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway.
A driver seemingly at the height of his powers. A crew chief successfully directing those powers. A pit crew knocking out one solid stop after another.
It’s a common trope in sports. Great teams find a way to beat you before you even meet them on the field – or in this case, one 312-lap, ‘winner-take-all’ race.
Sunday at Kansas is a golden opportunity for the No. 5 team to hammer that feeling home. They’ve already won three times on 1.5-mile tracks this season and Larson was the dominant driver this May at Kansas until a series of late restarts bit him.
At that point of the season, Larson had already clinched a playoff berth but then suffered multiple setbacks that kept him from returning to Victory Lane.
He and his team return to Kansas having learned how to finish the job and do it with ruthless efficiency. They are locked in on every level.
Now, they must show that while they have their tickets to Phoenix, they’re not letting up one bit.
Good times roll
Larson’s misfortune in the May race at Kansas allowed Kyle Busch to claim the first of his two wins this season.
It was Busch’s second career Cup win at Kansas, a place that was previously his worst track for many years. Over his first 14 starts there (2004-14), Busch’s best finish was seventh. In that span, he also suffered four DNFs, including three consecutive.
But in Busch’s 13 Kansas starts since, he’s earned nine top five and 11 top-10 finishes. Those two totals are the most among all drivers in that span. He also hasn’t posted a single DNF.
“Even the last few times before we won (at Kansas) for the first time in 2016, we had some really strong runs there,” Busch said in a team release. “We finished in the top 10 a lot there over the last 12 or 13 races.
“We seem to have gotten a setup or a hold of this place, I’d say, and hopefully we don’t screw that up this time around and we can continue our strong runs and our fast pace of being able to have a shot to win.”
Busch needs another strong result Sunday. An eighth-place finish at Texas pushed him above the cutline but only with an eight-point edge over Elliott.
Looking below the cutline, Elliott (-8) and Brad Keselowski (-15) have manageable deficits entering Kansas. But Martin Truex Jr. (-22) and Joey Logano (-43) face a critical Sunday after finding late-race disaster at Texas.
A win, of course, solves their problems. At the least, Truex and Logano must gain solid ground on the cutline to have a real shot of advancing in the Round of 8 eliminator at Martinsville.
The good news for Truex is Kansas has been a solid track for him.
He’s earned eight top-10 finishes in his last nine races there, a run that began with a sweep of the 2017 races on his way to a Cup title. Also important with his situation is that he’s scored stage points there more often than not (12 of 18 stages).
In a much deeper hole, Logano is a three-time winner at Kansas. He scored his most recent win there last fall to clinch a spot in the Championship 4.
But Logano’s been less consistent at Kansas than Truex in recent races. Over his last seven Kansas races, he’s earned three finishes of eighth or better (including the win last fall) but also took four finishes of 15th or worse.
In regards to stage points, Logano has scored in 9 of 18 points at Kansas. Every point gained is critical. But truthfully, a 43-point deficit puts him in “must win” territory.
Jonesin’ for a win
Another opportunity awaits Saturday at Kansas (3 p.m. ET, NBC) for one of the eight remaining NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff drivers to clinch a Championship 4 spot.
It may be the last real opportunity Brandon Jones has.
Jones’ 10th-place finish last week at Texas with zero stage points ended up costing him 18 points to the cutline. He now enters Kansas last in the Round of 8 with a 32-point deficit.
But Kansas may be Jones’ ace in the hole. He’s the only remaining playoff driver with a previous win there.
In fact, he has two.
In October 2019 at Kansas, Jones finally broke through for his first career Xfinity win in his 134th career series start. The following July, he went from seventh to first in double overtime – passing eventual series champion Austin Cindric on the final lap to take victory.
This year, Jones has been steady on 1.5-mile tracks (six top-10 finishes in eight starts). But steady isn’t what Jones and the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team are aiming for Saturday.
“Our team has a lot of confidence, and our mile-and-a-half program has been extremely competitive across the board this year,” Jones said in a team release. “This track fits my driving style and is fun because the groove constantly moves, so it allows you to adjust your line during the race to find speed.
“We need to buckle down, dig deep into our notebook, be aggressive and just go for it.”