1. Will the Big 3 dominate this round?
They will at Dover. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex have combined to win four of the last six Dover races. Twice members of this group finished first and second at this track in that time. Truex has four consecutive top-five finishes there, including one win.
The question becomes Talladega, the middle race of the round. Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have combined to win five of the last seven races there.
The round ends at Kansas. The Big 3 have combined to win each of the last five races there.
So expect to see a lot of Harvick, Truex and Busch running toward the front, particularly at Dover and Kansas.
2. Are we seeing the emergence of Team Penske as a title threat?
Ryan Blaney’s surprise win at the Charlotte Roval gives Team Penske four victories in the last five races.
To put that into perspective: Team Penske had four wins in the 58 races before its recent streak.
That’s a nice run for Team Penske but let’s see what Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Blaney can do against the Big 3 this weekend at Dover and later in the round at Kansas Speedway. Those will be key tracks. If Team Penske can beat the Big 3 there, than it might be time to say this group could crash the Big 3’s get together in Miami.
3. What will happen next to Kyle Larson?
Larson looked to be one of the main title contenders last year until this round when a blown engine at Kansas prevented him from advancing. He wasn’t strong in this round last year, placing 10th on the Charlotte oval (he finished behind seven of the other 11 playoff drivers) and 13th at Talladega.
In a year where he’s winless but been the runner-up six times, he needed a wild set of circumstances — Jimmie Johnson spinning while battling for the lead on the last chicane and Jeffrey Earnhardt being spun and unable to continue less than 100 yards from the finish line — to advance to the second round.
Larson has lamented in the past how luck has not gone his way, particularly in the playoffs.
Will last week’s remarkable finish lead this team deeper into the playoffs, or will fate strike a cruel blow to the team’s playoff hopes in this round?
4. What type of warning sign would be apropos for this round?
Be careful in the final stage. In the opening round, six of the 13 cautions that took place in the final stage at Las Vegas, Richmond and the Charlotte Roval involved at least one playoff contender.
5. What’s something to keep an eye on for the rest of the playoffs?
Pit road. Penalties could play a key role in who advances.
Uncontrolled tire violations have been called seven times in the playoffs. Five of those infractions have been committed by playoff teams.
“I feel like if they stay in the box, what’s the big deal? I think our fans want to see hard racing,” said Martin Truex Jr., whose team was penalized for an uncontrolled tire at Richmond. “They want to see the guys that are up front battling, not going to the rear once every two or three weeks for a tire sitting there with a guy that’s a foot too far away from it. I don’t agree with it. I think we should look at it, but I don’t make the rules.”
6. Stewart-Haas Racing had all four of its drivers advance. How many can get to the next round?
Kevin Harvick is among the favorites to go all the way to Miami. Kurt Busch has been consistent. His 39 stage points in the playoffs rank second to Martin Truex Jr.’s 45 stage points.
Clint Bowyer was outside the cutline going into the race at the Charlotte Roval and advanced. Aric Almirola advanced via a tiebreaker. Almirola’s team has had speed at times but not been able to put together a whole race often. He enters this round seeded 11th of the 12 drivers.
Odds are against all four advancing. With the expectation that the Big 3 — Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — advance, that leaves a small margin for error for SHR to have all four teams move into the third round.
7. What about Hendrick Motorsports?
Jimmie Johnson is gone, but Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman remain in the playoffs.
Both Elliott (ninth) and Bowman (12th) start the round outside the cutoff to advance to the next round.
Elliott has eight top-10 finishes in the last eight races and is a good candidate to advance. Bowman has three top-10 finishes in the last 10 races. That won’t be good enough to keep going.
8. Who could be an X factor?
It’s remarkable how Jeffrey Earnhardt has played a key role lately.
In the regular-season finale, he was involved in a late-race incident with Landon Cassill that caused the final caution and allowed Brad Keselowski to pass Denny Hamlin for the win.
At Richmond, a caution for Earnhardt was the only yellow other than the two stage breaks. He spun after he was hit by Matt Kenseth. The caution came after Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney had pitted, putting them two laps down with less than 80 laps to go. None of those three drivers finished in the top 15.
At the Charlotte Roval, Earnhardt spun off the final turn of the final lap after contact from Daniel Hemric. Earnhardt was stalled less than 100 yards from the finish line but couldn’t get his car restarted. Kyle Larson, running well off the pace, blew a tire and hit the wall in Turn 4 of the oval and then hit the wall after exiting the final chicane before passing Earnhardt. That one position — and one point — was the difference in Larson advancing to this round.
9. An average of 15 cars was eliminated by accidents in the last three Talladega races. Do you take the over or under?
If it helps you decide, 24 cars were eliminated by accident in last year’s playoff race there. Take the over.
10. Will this round match the drama of the first round?
With Talladega coming up, it certainly could. No one expected Las Vegas to have such fireworks. Maybe that happens at Dover or Kansas in this round.
11. Who advances?
Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.
12. Who is eliminated?
Alex Bowman, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Aric Almirola.