Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Danger Zone: Breaking Down the Cup Series Playoff Bubble After Richmond

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

Two races down, one to go.

With the conclusion of Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond, the first round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs is nearly complete, with Bristol Motor Speedway and the first elimination race looming large next weekend for those drivers who have yet to lock themselves into the next round.

Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Larson are safe from whatever carnage may lie ahead at Bristol as the Playoff field is cut from 16 to 12.

Following that trio are the drivers that are far from safe, but have the advantage of carrying a double-digit points buffer into the half-mile bullring.

Joey Logano, who sits fourth in points with a 40-point advantage over the cut-off line, leads that group, which also includes Ryan Blaney (+28), Kevin Harvick (+25), defending Cup champion Chase Elliott (+19), Christopher Bell (+17), and Brad Keselowski (+18).

From 10th place on back, it’s going to be a long week of sleepless nights before heading to Thunder Valley, where four drivers will see their championship dreams end when the checkered flag falls.

Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (+8 points over cut-off line)

The start of the Playoffs wasn’t kind to Kyle Busch, with a crash at Darlington relegating him to a 35th place finish and leaving him with a two-point deficit heading into Richmond. Not to mention a $50,000 fine for a safety violation at Darlington for the way he entered the garage after his crash.

Despite all that, Busch was back in fighting form at Richmond, battling his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates for the lead throughout the night. On lap 306, Busch took over the lead for a 39-lap stint up front before making his way to pit road during a round of green flag pit stops.

However, Busch would be busted for speeding on pit road, causing him to have to serve a pass-through penalty, dropping him out of contention for the win.

He would be able to rebound back up to ninth place by the finish, salvaging what could have been a disastrous turn of events for the two-time Cup champion heading to one of his best tracks next week at Bristol.

Aric Almirola – No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (+3)

Almirola came into Richmond with a three-point advantage over the cut-off line and despite running into problems during the race, he was able to maintain the status quo, leaving with the same points buffer.

After finishing the first two stages in the top-10, Almirola continued to run in the top-10 during the final stage before a loose lug nut during a round of green flag pit stops forced him to have to make a second trip down pit road, losing valuable track position.

As a result, Almirola would end the night a lap down in 14th place instead of the top-10 finish he seemed to be bound for.

“We didn’t have a race-winning car, but I thought we could have run fifth to eighth, so I’m a little frustrated but it’s a team sport and we’ll go to Bristol and keep fighting,” Almirola said.

“I think we’re competitive.  We’re in the hunt.  Like I said, today we should have ran fifth to eighth.  We had a loose lugnut and I had to pit again under green, and then got us behind.  I don’t know where we finished.  I think we finished 14th instead of sixth or seventh, which is about where we were running, so frustrating that we gave up those points. 

“This situation we can’t really give up any points.  It would have been a lot nicer to go to Bristol plus 12 instead of plus three or four, but it is what it is.  It’s no big deal.  We’ve got to put our head down and go race.  It’s the same situation.  We’ve just got to go racing and score as many points as we can.  You just hate to five up six, seven, eight points.”

Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet (Tied with 13th)

In the Playoffs, all it takes is one bad race to erase any points advantage a driver may have. Through the first two races of the postseason, Kurt Busch is proof of that.

After a sixth-place finish at Darlington allowed Busch to carry a 26-point advantage into Richmond, it all evaporated when a flat left-rear tire on lap 42 sent his car for a spin into the Turn 1 wall, bringing his night to an early end and leaving him with a last-place finish in 37th.

Now Busch will have to have a mistake free race at Bristol in order to move on and keep his championship hopes alive.

“I was just impressed with our speed and the way we unloaded and (the speed) we had in that first 30-lap run,” Busch said. “After the pit stop, something in the left rear wasn’t right. The guys said they got the tire tight. They made an adjustment and there was no rub and the left rear let go. I just radioed to them how loose the car was. Something happened with that left rear. It let go. It let go of our points and it let go of our whole season right now. I don’t know what we’re going to have to do at Bristol other than win.”

“Hats off to everybody at Ganassi. Family, I’m alright. But that left rear took off on me and now we’ve got to dig out of this hole and give it our best. Thanks to Monster. Thanks to Chevy and Ganassi. It kind of sucks.”

Alex Bowman – No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (Tied with 12th)

A rough go of things in the Playoff opener at Darlington with a 26th place finish left Bowman teetering on the edge of elimination heading into Richmond, where he won at in the spring. However, Saturday night’s race wouldn’t be a repeat of his success from earlier in the year.

After starting 12th, it was just a mediocre night for Bowman, who finished the first two stages in 15th and ninth, respectively before falling back into the top-15, where he would stay for the remainder of the night. By the time the checkered flag flew, he would be finish exactly where he started in 12th place, one lap down to race winner Martin Truex, Jr.

If he’s going to move on to the next round of the Playoffs, he’ll have to have a stellar night at Bristol – a track where he has only finished inside the top-10 twice.

“Tonight, I don’t really feel like we did anything bad,” Bowman said. “We had an OK night, especially for us at Richmond. We’ve had way worse nights; all except for really two races here. It could have been way worse for us. But Darlington is just on me. I tried to let the 8 (Tyler Reddick) go and I drove it straight into the fence instead on lap seven. When you put yourself in a hole like that, it’s tough to overcome. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a night capable of overcoming that tonight and we’re going to have to go do that next week.”

“It’s a bummer. It puts us in a really tough spot. But when you have these three round deals, that’s what happens.”

Tyler Reddick – No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet (-5)

Though Reddick found himself in the top-10 early on Saturday night in Richmond, handling issues would quickly come into play, taking him out of contention for the remainder of the night as the driver and team struggled to get a handle on the No. 8 Chevrolet.

Reddick would finish the first stage in 11th, followed by a 19th place finish in stage two. When the checkered flag flew, Reddick was scored in 15th, dropping him from a tie on the cut-off line to a five-point deficit heading to Bristol.

“We just didn’t have the opportunities to fix our car and not pay the penalty for it with the green flag runs,” Reddick said. “We didn’t get it fixed until it was too late and the rest of the race ran green. It’s nice knowing that we can make the right adjustments, but we didn’t make them in time to make anything out of it.”

In last year’s Bristol Night Race, Reddick finished in fourth, giving the second-year Cup Series driver some hope for next weekend’s race.

“I feel good about going to Bristol because there’s been shining moments of hope that we can do it,” Reddick said. “There’s just going to be no room for error from the drop of the green flag to lap 500. We’re just going to have to have it together. We’re just going to have to be right from the start, score the points that we’re going to need and be running up front in the position to make it into the Round of 12.”

William Byron – No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (-18)

A hard crash at Darlington last weekend left Byron with a points deficit heading into Saturday night’s race and he and his No. 24 team did not do themselves any favors in the points race at Richmond, finishing the night in 19th place.

Byron was never a factor, struggling with the handling on his Chevrolet throughout the night, only increasing his points deficit from nine points to 18 as Bristol comes calling next weekend.

“We were just really bad. We finished seventh here in the spring and felt like we had something decent. We tweaked some stuff to try and get a little better. I think the best we got was we got to eleventh one time.

“We just had a lack of grip. Some runs I could run with the 2 (Brad Keselowski) and the 12 (Ryan Blaney). Some runs I was way off the pace. I don’t know. I fought both; tight center at the start of the race. I thought we got some more drive in the car. I thought that was kind of making us faster, but that kind of ran out too.”

With a double-digit deficit to make up, Byron acknowledged that his team is pretty much in a must-win mindset heading into Bristol.

“Just try to race hard and see if we can win it. That’s pretty much what we probably have to do.”

“Bristol is an OK track for me. I feel like we’ll have a much better car there. We just have to get there and race as hard as we can.”

Michael McDowell – No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford (-38)

For Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell, being able to advance out of the first round of the Playoffs was already going to be a tall task, but add in two disappointing races at Darlington and Richmond and he’s in must-win mode next week at Bristol.

A crash early in the going forced his early exit at Darlington and Saturday night at Richmond, it was self-inflicted speeding penalties that was McDowell’s demise.

Three different speeding penalties on lap 132, 295, and 298 would leave McDowell five laps down in 28th by the end of the race.

“Just another missed opportunity,” McDowell said. “We’re just making too many mistakes.  We sped on pit road.  The first time I thought, ‘Maybe it was close.’  And then I sped on my sped and it was not close, so obviously we missed the configuration on the lights, and then I backed it down again and still sped again.  It’s unfortunate. 

“Everybody did a really good job.  We actually had good speed.  We had a fast Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang and we just lost all those laps with penalties and unfortunately, I didn’t adjust enough or quick enough.  I thought I knocked enough speed off, but obviously it wasn’t enough.  It’s really unfortunate.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.