What's at Stake as NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Reaches Round of 8

·5 min read
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

Deep in his heart—and he’ll probably admit it—Kyle Busch is delighted that Texas Motor Speedway is up next as NASCAR opens Round 3 of its four-round Championship Playoff Series. Using almost any metric, Texas is his kind of place, especially when the stakes are so high.

The 2015 and 2019 NASCAR champion has the best record at TMS among the eight drivers still racing for this year’s Cup Series title. In Busch’s 30 career starts at the 1.5-mile track in Fort Worth he has four victories (more than any Playoff driver), 14 top-5 finishes (also more than anyone), and 17 top-10 finishes … yeah, more than anyone in the playoffs.

Two of the eight championship contenders advanced into Round 3 by winning a race in Round 2: seven-time winner Kyle Larson last weekend at Charlotte and two-time winner Denny Hamlin two weeks before at Las Vegas. Based on points, the other six hopefuls are four-time winner Martin Truex Jr., two-time winners Busch, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, and one-time winners Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.

Hamlin, Busch, and Truex Jr. drive Toyotas for Joe Gibbs Racing. Elliott and Larsons are in Chevrolets for Rick Hendrick, and Keselowski, Blaney, and Logano are in Fords for Roger Penske. Five of the eight are former champions: Busch, Truex Jr., Keselowski and Logano, with Elliott the defending champion. It’s been 11 years (2009-2010) since Jimmie Johnson was the last back-to-back champion.

NASCAR Cup Playoff Standings

  1. Kyle Larson, Chevrolet 4,065 points

  2. Denny Hamlin, Toyota 4,030

  3. Martin Truex Jr., Toyota 4,029

  4. Ryan Blaney, Ford 4,024

  5. Kyle Busch, Toyota 4,023

  6. Chase Elliott, Chevrolet 4,022

  7. Joey Logano, Ford 4,013

  8. Brad Keselowski, Ford 4,009

As for the 1.5-mile quad-oval in the Fort Worth/Denton suburbs: it seems an ideal place for Busch to break from what must seem to him like a slump. He’s won just twice this year, three times all told in the 68 races since the pandemic changed everything early last season. A fully involved, hands-on driver, Busch has struggled since NASCAR eliminated race-weekend practice and qualifying. Nobody is looking forward to 2022 more than Busch, who craves a return to practice and qualifying like things used to be.

But he’s balanced this year’s disappointment with a respectable 13 top-5 finishes and 19 top-10s. On the other hand, he’s been maddeningly inconsistent during the Playoffs. He crashed to a 35th at Darlington on Labor Day weekend, rebounded with ninth at Richmond, and struggled to 21st the next weekend at Bristol. The up-and-down trend continued with a third at Las Vegas and 27th at Talladega before a solid fourth on the Charlotte Roval last weekend.

He’s seeded fifth as the 10-race playoff series continues with Sunday’s 500-miler. Round 3 goes to Kansas Speedway on October 24 and ends on the Martinsville Speedway bullring on October 31. A week later, at Phoenix Raceway, the four finalists—based on Round 3 results and points—will race each other for the Cup. (Alas, as it always is, most of the 36 other drivers on the grid will seem irrelevant). It’s not exactly winner-take-all since the highest finisher among that foursome doesn’t have to win … he simply has to beat the other three, regardless of where they finish.

Photo credit: Jared C. Tilton - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jared C. Tilton - Getty Images

Larson leads the standings by 35 points over Hamlin. Truex Jr. is six points above the four-driver cut line and Blaney is one to the good. Busch is one below the line, Elliott is minus-2, Logano is 11 behind, and Keselowski is 16 points below the line.

Busch has good reason to think he can make it through this three-race set and race for his third Cup the first weekend in November. “We won both of them (Texas and Kansas) within the last year (Texas in ’20, Kansas this year), so that’s a good omen,” he said. “The mile-and-a-half programs have been really strong. We didn’t run so well at Texas in the (non-points) All-Star race in June, but that was different; just everything about it was different. We have to keep ourselves up front and hopefully we get to start up front, so that should be pretty good spot for us. We’re looking forward to this weekend.”

Interesting enough, everyone at Team Penske remains in the championship hunt for his series. In addition to Logano, Keselowski, and Blaney in Cup, defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric is among the eight drivers still in title contention for another title.

Xfinity Series Playoff Standings

  1. A.J. Allmendinger, Chevrolet 3,050 points

  2. Austin Cindric, Ford 3,044

  3. Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet 3,021

  4. Noah Gragson, Chevrolet 3,017

  5. Daniel Hemric, Toyota 3,016

  6. Justin Haley, Chevrolet 3,015

  7. Harrison Burton, Toyota 3,008

  8. Brandon Jones, Toyota 3,003

Cindric and A.J. Allmendinger are the only drivers entering Round 3 with double-digit leads in points over the cut line, as the bottom four drivers in points will be cut in three races. Allmendinger leads by 34 points and Cindric trails by only six. Third-ranked Justin Allgaier is five points above the elimination line and fourth-ranked Noah Gragson is one above. The other four still in contention are Daniel Hemric (minus-1), Justin Haley (-2), Harrison Burton (-9), and Brandon Jones, 14 points below the line.

Round 3 of the Xfinity playoffs mimics Round 3 of the Cup Series. After Texas this weekend the tour goes to Kansas on October 23 and Martinsville on October 30. The season finale at Phoenix on November 6 will crown the Xfinity Series champion from the four drivers still standing after the 33-race season.

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