Column: Eight Drivers Left To Decide The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Title; News & Notes Heading To Kansas
Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – KANSAS CITY, KS – The eight drivers who have advanced to this three-race round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs likely feel a return-to-normalcy after an unprecedented season of schedule flux and the most recent Playoff round that included a superspeedway and a relatively new road course that forced teams to compete on rain tires for the first time in the Modern Era.
NASCAR Cup Series regular season champion Kevin Harvick, who leads the series with nine victories but was winless in this most recent Playoff round, holds a 13-point edge on seven-race winner Denny Hamlin atop the standings as the series moves to Kansas Speedway for Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
After Hamlin the points separation in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff standings is far greater. Brad Keselowski is ranked third, 32 points behind Harvick as the points reset for this penultimate group of races at Kansas, then Texas Motor Speedway, then Martinsville (Va.) Speedway before the Nov. 8 Championship 4 round at Phoenix Raceway.
Last week’s Charlotte ROVAL race winner Chase Elliott is currently in that fourth and final transfer spot, 40 points behind Harvick. Joey Logano (-45 points), Martin Truex Jr. (-50), Alex Bowman (-58) and Kurt Busch (-61) round out the Playoff field. Defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch was among those who did not advance in the Playoffs after the ROVAL race last weekend marking the earliest a reigning champ has been eliminated from title contention in the ‘elimination-style’ format.
Six of the Playoff drivers have won races at Kansas Speedway previously, with Hamlin and Harvick part of a four-way tie (also Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson) with three Kansas wins each. Hamlin won this July edging Keselowski by a half-second marking his second straight win a the 1.5-mile speedway dating back to last year’s Playoff race.
In all, six of the current eight Playoff drivers finished among the top-10 this summer at Kansas. Harvick, who has seven top 10s in the last nine Kansas races (including a pair of wins and a runner-up finish) leads a quartet of drivers particularly good at the track.
Hamlin has top-10 finishes in six of the last eight races, including wins in the last two. Keselowski has a win and a runner-up finish in the last three Kansas races and Truex has six top-10 finishes in the last seven races at the Kansas track, including a pair of wins and a runner-up showing.
Among these drivers, only Talladega, Ala. race winner Denny Hamlin owns a victory in the most recent three-race Playoff round. Harvick has set a career-high mark for single season victories in a year and earned a series-best 19 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes through the opening 32 races. He had only a single top-10 (10th at Las Vegas) in the last Playoff round, however.
“This wasn’t a great round for us, so we definitely need to do better,” said Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “We need to display that our cars are fast and do a good job on pit road and do the things we did all year. Definitely two good race tracks coming up for us with Kansas and Texas and hopefully, we can get a win at one of those two race tracks and go on with it.”
A return to some 1.5-mile tracks will be welcomed by many of the Playoff drivers. Harvick, Hamlin, Logano and Bowman are the only drivers with victories at both Kansas and next week’s venue, Texas Motor Speedway, however, seven of the eight drivers have won at one of the tracks. Only Bowman is still looking for his first career win at Kansas, Texas and Martinsville.
“I don’t’ know if we are necessarily taking a different approach,” the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Chase Elliott said of trying to earn his first Championship 4 opportunity.
“I think we’re just trying to build on what we’ve been working on over the past few years. I feel like every year we’ve been close we just haven’t been able to get over that hump and really assert ourselves among that top group. I feel like we’ve been right there. I feel like we’re very capable of it.
“Just those little inconsistencies and some bad race tracks have been our biggest problems. So we’re trying to be a little more consistent everywhere. I think it’s a goal. … You can’t have bad tracks at this level and the guys who win often and win all the time and run well don’t have any bad tracks. It’s certainly possible and that’s just where we have to get to. The reality is that’s the only way to contend with them and I think we’re capable of doing it.”
XFINITY KICKS OFF ROUND OF 8 AT KANSAS
After a winless opening round of the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs, regular season champion Austin Cindric is eager for the three race venues that comprise this all-important semifinal countdown portion of the Playoff schedule.
Cindric ties Ross Chastain with nine top-10 finishes in 10 races this season on 1.5-mile tracks such as Kansas Speedway, where the series resumes Playoff competition Saturday night in the Kansas Lottery 300 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
In fact, eight of Cindric’s nine top-10 efforts were top-five finishes- three of them wins (twice at Kentucky and once at Texas). The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford is putting up an impressive average finish of 4.35 on these 1.5-mile tracks and he’ll need every bit of that confidence this week as enters this Playoff round second in the standings, 10 points behind the season’s eight-race winner Chase Briscoe.
Among the eight drivers who have advanced this far – Briscoe, Cindric, Justin Allgaier, Noah Gragson, Justin Haley, Chastain and Ryan Sieg – the 1.5-mile tracks have predominantly been the highlights of their season work. Seven of those drivers have earned top-10 finishes in at least six of the 10 races at 1.5-milers. In addition to Cindric and Chastain, who have nine top-10s, Briscoe has eight and Justin Allgaier and Justin Haley have seven each.
Brandon Jones, who has won the last two races at Kansas Speedway, including a dramatic final lap pass for the win in July, is the only driver in the Playoff standings with a previous trip to Kansas’ Victory Lane. His win this summer was a nail-biting .405-second better than Cindric who had led a dominating 131 of the 175 laps – the most laps led at Kansas since Erik Jones paced the field for 186 laps in 2017 and finished 15th.
Brandon Jones has finished 11th or better in four of his last five Kansas starts and has been solid in the early Playoff run with three finishes of 11th or better.
With back-to-back 1.5-mile Playoff venues – Kansas and then Texas Motor Speedway next week – this is the bread-and-butter of these drivers’ championship hopes. And the statistics indicate there should be some tightly-contested races – in particular at these venues – to decide which four drivers will ultimately advance to earn a shot at the Championship 4 in the Nov. 7 Phoenix Raceway season finale.
With their work on the 1.5-mile tracks, Briscoe and Cindric have to be considered the heavy favorites coming into the weekend. Briscoe has already collected a Playoff win (at the Las Vegas Playoff opener) but didn’t score a top-10 in the two races afterward at Talladega, Ala. and the Charlotte ROVAL. His best finish in three Kansas starts is third in last year’s Playoff race.
“Our first trip there [to Kansas] was one of the worst races of the year,” Briscoe said of his 14th-place finish in the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford at Kansas this summer. “We just missed the balance, but we’ve run well there in the past and we’ve come so far since then.
“I’m confident we we’ll be good this time going back. We know we need to win early in this round and lock ourselves into Phoenix, but we can’t make any huge mistakes to give away our points lead, so we went back and found some things to work on for this race. We’re taking the car we won with at Vegas, so I feel really good about our chances of taking our Ford Performance Racing School Mustang to Victory Lane again.”
Cindric finished sixth at both Las Vegas and on the ROVAL road course, but 34th at Talladega. His last wins were back-to-back in August at the Daytona Road Course and Road America. His best showing in three Kansas starts was that runner-up effort in July.
Although Briscoe’s win at Las Vegas and Haley’s win at Talladega earned them automatic berths to this part of the Playoff schedule, JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson has actually put together the best three-race run among the championship contenders. Gragson shows up in Kansas ranked fourth, 35 points behind Briscoe, but he scored top-five finishes at every race in this opening round of Playoff competition.
The 22-year old was runner-up to A.J. Allmendinger at the ROVAL last week and also second to Briscoe at Las Vegas. He finished third in the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet at Talladega. He has finishes of 13th and 15th in two previous Xfinity Series starts at Kansas and is still looking for his first career top 10 at Texas.
Gragson’s veteran JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier, who sits third in the championship, 27 points behind Briscoe, boasts seven top-10 finishes in 10 Kansas starts, including three career-best fifth-place finishes at the track. He has 10 top-10 finishes in 20 Texas starts with a career-best of third there in July.
GANDER TRUCKS RETURN AT KANSAS
The penultimate round of the 2020 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series Playoffs begins Saturday afternoon at Kansas Speedway with the Clean Harbors 200 (4 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and a tightly-ranked field of championship-eligible drivers ready to earn an automatic ticket into the Championship 4 round to determine who hoists that season trophy.
NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series regular season champion Austin Hill and three-race winner Sheldon Creed are tied in the points standings heading into this weekend’s race at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway. Two-race winner, rookie Zane Smith and three-race winner, veteran Grant Enfinger are six and nine points behind, the leading pair respectively.
Brett Moffitt, the 2018 series champion, is ranked fifth only 12 points back from the series lead, followed by Ben Rhodes (-14 points), reigning series champ Matt Crafton (-19) and rookie Tyler Ankrum (-25 points). Moffitt and Ankrum are the only two drivers among the eight who have not won a race in 2020.
Of the Playoff drivers, Crafton has multiple wins at all three tracks in this Playoff round (Kansas Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway). He is the only driver among those eight championship eligible competitors with victories at all three stops.
Crafton has an all-time series best mark of three victories at Kansas – the last coming in July. Hill won the opening half of the July doubleheader weekend and is the only other racer among the Playoff eight who has a previous win at one of the upcoming tracks in this round.
Both Hill, driver of the No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota, and Creed, driver of the No. 2 GMS Racing Chevrolet, would like to raise their Playoff game. Hill – who leads the series in top 10s (15) and top fives (nine) – won at Las Vegas to guarantee his spot in this round. But it was the only top-10 finish he earned in the three races. He crashed out of the last Playoff race – in Talladega, Ala. two weeks ago – and finished 19th. Kansas Speedway has been good to him, however. He is the most recent winner and has accumulated three top-10 finishes at in four starts there, leading 85 laps.
Creed, who boasts the most stage wins (seven) in the series this season, has struggled in the last month with only a single top 10 in the last five races (runner-up to Hill at Las Vegas). His best finish in three previous Kansas starts was eighth-place in the race Hill won this summer.
If Crafton is looking to make a bold statement in his quest to tie NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. as the series’ only four-time champions, this may well be the round of Playoffs he does that.
Not only does the driver of the No. 88 ThorSport Racing Ford easily boast the best track record among the Playoff drivers for these upcoming three tracks, he shows up in Kansas this weekend riding a four-race streak of top-10 finishes, including a runner-up at Richmond Raceway. He’s finished top-10 at Kansas in eight of the last nine races there, posting three victories and another two runner-up finishes in that span.
Among the eight with a championship on the line, Enfinger is enjoying a stellar season – his three wins in 2020, a career high. He’s earned top-10 finishes in the last six races in the No. 98 ThorSport Ford and has four top-10 finishes in five Kansas Speedway races. His best work – third place – came at both races this July.