In Kansas Speedway’s first year of hosting an elimination race in the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs, there is drama aplenty.
Just 12 drivers remain alive for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship; four of those will see their title hopes end Sunday.
The only drivers who are safe from facing the cut are Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski.
Truex advanced to the next round of the playoffs with his win two weeks ago at Charlotte, while Keselowski escaped the mayhem at Talladega to secure his spot in the next round with a victory.
Both can now run Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 bubble-stress free, and work at gaining points for the next round.
Kyle Larson is third in points and has a fairly comfortable 29-point cushion on the cut line. Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Chase Elliott are in the same boat as Larson. With decent leads to protect, all four need a solid finish on Sunday to advance.
The drama lies with positions 7-10, which are separated by just 10 points. With the top eight advancing, the race for the final spots will likely be bitterly close and may not be decided until the final laps.
Ryan Blaney holds a nine-point advantage on the cut line, while defending champion Jimmie Johnson holds a seven-point advantage for the final transfer spot. Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth currently sit ninth and 10th, seven and eight points behind Johnson respectively.
“We need to hit the track with the mind-set of winning largely because of the two, speaking of Matt and Kyle,” Johnson said. “Those guys are both capable of winning here and shifting the points all around.”
A win by any of the drivers currently below the cut line would knock the eighth-place driver in the standings out of the playoffs.
However, with NASCAR’s new stage format, there are more opportunities to make up ground on your opponents. Instead of only awarding points at the end of the race, drivers are able to earn up to 10 points at the end of the first two stages, and up to 40 points at the conclusion of the race. This gives Busch and Kenseth the opportunity to gain ground on Johnson before the halfway mark of the race.
“Think about it in the stages,” said Kenseth. “It’s half the points that you get for the race. It’s a lot. It’s a ton of points.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. sits 22 points behind the cut line in 11th and Joplin’s Jamie McMurray is 29 points back in 12th. Both drivers are in a must-win situation for Kansas.
“Nobody on this team would say ‘Hey, we’re trying to make it on points,’ ” said Stenhouse. “We know we need to win.”