NASCAR's playoffs have an uncomfortable structure this year. The four-round elimination system starts with three classic tracks, then closes with two intermediates, a true short track, and a short intermediate. In between, the Round of 12 eliminates four drivers with races at an intermediate, a pack racing superspeedway, and an infield road course. In other words, two of the next three races are effectively designed to create chaos with very little meaning and lead to shocking mid-playoff eliminations. That makes the only stable track in the round, this race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a crucial opportunity for contenders to set themselves up for safe passage through to the Round of 8.
The race itself looked a lot like just about every other intermediate race since the 550 horsepower, high downforce package was introduced for the "cookie cutter" ovals in 2019. The relative lack of difficulty again led to racing that discouraged on-track passing and rewarded track position, allowing elite teams Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing to again cycle their best drivers and teams to the front on strong pit strategy and smart decisions during restarts that create most of the day's opportunities to pass. Nobody illustrated the system better than Kyle Larson, who led 96 of 267 laps but finished just 10th when having one of the night's fastest cars proved to be unimportant in traffic after falling back into the field in the final stint.
It led to a fairly easy night for Denny Hamlin, who led a race-high 137 laps en route to his second straight win in the opening race of an elimination round. Hamlin was winless in the regular season, but he is now locked into the Round of 8 and will be guaranteed a shot to qualify for the Championship Four in a round that includes two more "cookie cutter" 550 hp intermediates and the flat half-mile at Martinsville, Hamlin's best track.
Chase Elliott, last year's champion, will feel relatively comfortable heading into Talladega, too. He finished as runner-up, completely unable to make a move on Hamlin late despite catching him in the closing laps, but he built a strong foundation of points before Talladega and will close the round with a race at the Charlotte roval that has proven to be one of surprise road course specialist's best tracks. Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Ryan Blaney round out the top five.
Only three of the twelve remaining playoff drivers finished outside of the top eleven. Willian Byron (18th), Alex Bowman (22nd), and Christopher Bell (24th) will go into Talladega in a more desperate position than most, but nobody remaining in the playoff field is heading into Talladega necessarily needing a win.
Byron (-4), Kevin Harvick (-7), Bowman (-13), and Bell (-25) find themselves on the wrong side of the cut line before Talladega, but all are well within reach of a Round of 8 bid on points alone and the damage from expected wrecks in the pack race is still likely to be the deciding factor in that battle. Penske teammates Brad Keslowski (+4) and Joey Logano (+9) are the only other drivers heading into next Sunday's race within 20 points of the cut line.
You Might Also Like