NASCAR Playoff Preview: Round 2

Who’s in and What Challenges Lie Ahead?

By Brennen McCall, Racing Contributor

The first round in the NASCAR Playoffs has ended and it wasn’t short on excitement and drama. Crashes, tight point battles and hurt feelings kept the excitement alive right down to the final lap of Bristol. Twelve drivers have outlasted their competitors and live to compete for a championship for at least another three races.

Four drivers won’t be joining them. Michael McDowell, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola and Tyler Reddick all had their Playoff hopes dashed. Some by the slimmest of margins. Competition is fierce in NASCAR and they don’t care if you’re a longshot or a seasoned veteran.

All eyes are now fixed on Round 2. Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval all pose unique challenges for NASCAR’s best. Let’s find out where the competition stacks up in the standings:

Kyle Larson: +46 pts

Kyle Larson has retained his place at the top of the standings. A thrilling win at Bristol and remarkable consistency at Darlington and Richmond has only added to his status as a championship favorite. Round 2 begins at Las Vegas, a track Larson already won at early this season. One can only assume Larson will be a favorite to repeat. While Talladega and the Roval could bring trouble, Larson should be safe knowing he has the biggest point advantage over his competitors.

Martin Truex Jr.: +16 pts

Truex continues to impress with his front running capabilities. His win at Richmond proves that he’s a favorite to make it all the way to the championship finale at Phoenix. While there is never a guarantee, Truex does hold a decent point gap to the cutline. Truex’s best chance is to get a good finish at Las Vegas to avoid trying to survive Talladega and the Roval.

Denny Hamlin: +11 pts

After going winless for the entire regular season, the driver of the #11 Toyota showed everyone that he hasn’t lost his competitive edge. Winning the Round 1 opening at Darlington propelled his way into Round 2, making a statement that he belongs in the championship fight. Hamlin will need to retain his newfound success if he wants to make it to Round 3. Hamlin only sits 11pts above the cutline, hardly a comfortable gap with a round that includes Talladega and the Roval. Hamlin needs to just stay out of trouble to avoid cutting his 2021 story short.

Ryan Blaney: +11 pts

Ryan Blaney was the hottest driver in NASCAR heading into the Playoffs. His two wins bookended the regular season and many had him pegged to make a potential championship run. But, that same winning speed has not translated to the Playoffs. Sure, Blaney has been running solidly inside the top-10 and has crucially stayed ahead of the positions that count to stay in the hunt, but that will only get you so far. A poor finish of 22nd at Darlington and minimal Stage points have put Blaney only 11 points above the cutline. Blaney cannot afford another subpar finish if he wants to stay in the championship fight.

Kyle Busch: +9 pts

Any safety net Kyle Busch had to start the Playoffs was evaporated thanks to a rare mistake resulting in a crash at Darlington and a late race blown tire at Bristol. Busch sits just nine points about the cutline and can’t afford another race-ending mistake. The only thing that may have saved the 2-time champ was trouble striking his fellow competitors too. Busch needs to perform well in Round 2. Las Vegas is a track he usually preforms well at and should feel happy knowing he finished third in the Spring. He should try to match or better that result to avoid any must-win situations at Talladega and the Roval.

Chase Elliott: +8 pts

The defending champ had a frustrating start in Round 1. Two blown tires resulting in poor finishes, the latest coming last week at Bristol after attempting to pass Kevin Harvick for the win. Elliott has been fast, but has lacked the results. Just eight points above the cutline means there is no room for error. Elliott can take comfort that his #9 Chevy has been running up front. Talladega is a track that suits him and he has won the Roval the last two years in a row.

Alex Bowman: +2 pts

Bowman’s Playoff run have been a quiet. After a rough Darlington and a solid run at Richmond, “The Showman” managed a 5th place result in Bristol. The potential is there for a deep run, but with just 2 points above the cutline, there is zero room for any mistakes. The results need to happen if Bowman wants to consider himself a championship threat.

William Byron: +1 pt

Byron is the last man to sit above the cutoff line. A strong 3rd place at Bristol was overshadowed by a crash at Darlington and a subpar performance at Richmond. With just one point separating him from the cutline, Byron needs to do everything he can to build a gap. That means running up front and gaining stage points. Byron has speed. He just needs to harness it and avoid trouble.

Joey Logano: -1 pt

Logano’s performance has been very solid in Round 1. 8th, 5th and 11th place finishes place him just below the cutline, but that deficit can be made up. The Penske Fords are fast and Logano has proven time and time again that he can be a headache for his competitors. Las Vegas and Talladega are tracks where he usually flexes his muscles. If he can repeat what he did in Round 1 and stay out of trouble he should he a safe to advance.

Brad Keselowski: -6 pts

In his swansong season at Team Penske, Brad Keselowski is looking to win a second Cup Series Championship. Keselowski has got his work cut out for him though. A solid effort in Round 1 has only gotten the #2 Ford within arm’s reach of the cutline. A six point gap is not terrible, but it does mean that Keselowski must be perfect if he wants to survive. Las Vegas and Talladega are tracks he can make up some much-needed ground. If he maintains solids runs like he did in the previous round, Keselowski will advance.

Christopher Bell: -9 pts

Aside from a 3rd place result at Richmond, Bell’s Playoff run has been brutal. Finishes of 20th and 29th has put him at a disadvantage heading into Round 2. While Bell has had some bad luck, he does have a fast car. Bell has had a decent summer stretch and he can look fondly at Las Vegas and the Roval has track he can make up valuable points. The big point to make is that he needs to avoid any more accidents. Bell has speed, but he hasn’t been fast enough to win races as of late.

Kevin Harvick: -12 pts

Harvick sits in the same position he was at the start of the Playoffs. A lack of points heading into this round puts him at the biggest disadvantage out of all eligible Playoff drivers. But, there is still plenty of hope for the #4 Ford. His performance in Round 1 was stellar compared to the position he found himself in all season. His car at Bristol in particular was a rocket ship and any handling issues suffered during the regular season looked to be solved. But, will this speed translate over the next three races? It’s tough to tell, but one thing is certain is that fiery spirit of the Kevin Harvick of old is back. Harvick was livid after his altercation with Chase Elliott and reminded fans of the bulldog he was. Harvick was always known for getting the best out of this car. If he’s given a good one over the next three races, you can count on Kevin to get it done.

Will the Harvick/Elliott Rivalry continue?

It’s been a long time since two top drivers had multiple run-ins that spilled over to the point of serious Playoff implications. The incident in question resulted in Chase Elliott cutting a tire down while attempting to pass Kevin Harvick for the lead and likely the race win. Harvick loses the rear of his car, washes Elliott up the track until the two leaders make contact. The touch was enough to cut down the left front tire on Elliott, forcing the #9 car to pit for new tires and go several laps down in the process. Elliott being understandably frustrated, exits the pits and tries to go for revenge by sideswiping Harvick who was still holding a several car-length lead over a fast Kyle Larson. Being on fresh tires, Elliott then proceeds to hold his position ahead of Harvick to halt any real progress he can make on Larson. Larson catches Harvick, makes the pass for the lead in the final laps and wins the race.

The action didn’t stop after the checkered flag. Elliott and Harvick parked nose to tail on the pit road and each then proceeded to confront the other. The two championship protagonists were clearly at odds. Each putting blame on the other and referencing past incidences in their tv interviews. Shortly after the two met for a second time attempting to reach some closure, but neither was successful due to an increasing media presence surrounding them. What happened next may have come to a bit of a shock to fans. Both drivers left the crowd of journalists and cameras and retreated into #9 team’s hauler to further their discussion.

Whether Harvick and Elliott buried the hatchet that night is inconclusive. Both drivers have had a history of standing up for themselves when a rival driver ruins their race and both drivers had a right to upset with the other for the incident in question. Elliot’s tire going down was Harvick’s fault and that mistake did cost Elliott a shot at a race win. Harvick also has a right to be upset at Elliott for his attempts to even the score with the sideswipe and attempts at holding Harvick up to eventually lose the race to Kyle Larson.

The actions of both drivers after the initial incident is up for debate and each driver has their fair share of incidents that beg a lot of criticism, but one thing is certain. Both drivers have a lot to lose when it comes to the Playoffs. Harvick undoubtedly had the race of the year at Bristol and he finally had a shot at beating the Hendrick Chevrolets which have been considered the fastest cars on the grid on average. Elliott is trying to retain his championship status and may still have something to prove to his older competition still only being at the young age of 25. Regardless, either driver cannot afford to have a rivalry boil over to the point where it prevents them from advancing in the Playoffs. We’ve seen what can happen when two drivers put everything else aside to take each other out of contention. Just revisit Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano in 2015 or Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer in 2012.

Will this run-in turn into rivalry that will span over multiple races? Maybe. The wide-open restarts at Las Vegas and the close-quarters bumping and banging action at the Roval may reopen these old wounds. Elliott and Harvick are both equally as capable to making it to Phoenix to race for a championship and both are just as capable of making the other’s time on track a living nightmare. Guess it all depends on what happens from here on out.

Keys to Surviving Round 2

Nobody wants to walk into Talladega or the Roval knowing they need a great run or even win to advance. There’s just too many factors out of the driver’s control that can rip away a chance to move on. That’s why Las Vegas is a critical race from for every driver. Stub your toe at Vegas and you’re then forced to race your heart out at Talladega and the Roval just to keep the championship dream alive.

Let’s have ourselves a race!

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