Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

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.

Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin are safe from whatever carnage may lie ahead at the Last Great Colusseum 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 Bristol. Joey Logano, who sits fourth in points with a 51-point advantage over the cut-off line, leads that group, which also includes Martin Truex, Jr. (+38), Austin Dillon (+36), Chase Elliott (+28), Alex Bowman (+27), and defending champion Kyle Busch (+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.

Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch hold the 10th and 11th points positions, both sitting seven points above the cut-off line. With the unpredictable nature of the racing at Bristol, if they run into any kind of issue during the 500-lap race, it could spell trouble for their chances to advance.

Bristol has been the bane of Almirola’s existence as of late, with the Stewart-Haas Racing driver failing to finish higher than 29th in his last four starts at the track.

Meanwhile, Kurt Busch is a master at Bristol, scoring six wins over the years at the high-banked half-mile. In the first race of the year at the track, Busch finished seventh, marking his fourth-straight top-10 finish.

Almirola’s SHR teammate Clint Bowyer currently sits in the final transfer spot in the points, carrying just a three-point advantage over the cut-off line into Bristol after his top-10 Saturday night at Richmond.

Despite the slim points margin, Bowyer has run well at Bristol, finishing in the top-10 in the last five races at the track, including a runner-up finish earlier this year.

“We were just off a click,” Bowyer said of his Richmond finish. “Honestly, I thought we’d come to Richmond and run better than that.  We needed to run better than that.  Tenth place isn’t going to cut it when you get in the playoffs.  We’re looking for more than that on these short tracks in particular.

“We’ve still got one more.  It’s a lot of fun going to Bristol.  Being nervous about something there’s a sense of fun in that.  I’m looking forward to next weekend and seeing how it all shakes out.  We were good last time there and there’s no reason why we can’t be it again.”

The first driver below the cut-off line is William Byron, who has been riding a high the past two weeks, with a win at Daytona to punch his ticket into the Playoffs and a top-five finish last week at Darlington.

However, Saturday night at Richmond brought him back down to reality after a 21st place finish dropped him to 13th in points, with a three-point deficit to overcome next weekend to stay alive.

On the bright side, Byron scored his first career top-10 at Bristol earlier this season, so there is optimism that he and crew chief Chad Knaus can bounce back from his demoralizing Richmond finish.

“It is what it is – we ran horrible tonight and no excuse for that. It was really kind of a slow death the entire race, so we’ll go to Bristol and regroup for that one,” said Byron.

“It’s disappointing. We just have to put this one behind us and go to Bristol. I think we’ve ran OK at Bristol – top-10 in the spring and made the All-Star race. So, I think we just have to go there and hopefully have a good run.”

As the lone rookie to make the Playoffs, Cole Custer will have some work to do next weekend to advance, but doesn’t see himself in a win or go home situation. If he is able to play it smart and stay out of trouble, he could still point his way in, only having to make up eight points to move above the cut-off line.

“We’re not in a desperate position,” said Custer. “We’re in a position where we can control a lot of what happens and if we have a good day and run good and get stage points, we can point our way in.  It also depends on how the guys around us run a little bit, but I feel like if we have a good day out of Bristol, we can get ourselves into the next round.  I think we’re not in a bad spot.  It’s still manageable.

“I know I’m not going to be happy [with elimination]. If you get knocked out of the playoffs at any point, you’re not going to be happy with it, but we can probably look back and hang our heads high on whatever we’ve accomplished this year and how far we’ve come.

“I feel like we’ve grown enough as a team throughout this year and I think we’ve shown it in these last two races.  When we hit it right, we can go and compete with these guys it’s just a matter of getting that extra little bit of running in the top five or so and if you can do that, that moves you on to the next round and we’ve just got to find that at Bristol.”

The cinderella story of the Playoffs, Matt DiBenedetto and Wood Brothers Racing, will have their work cut out for them at Bristol, but if you believe in karma, the track certainly owes him one and next weekend would be a hell of a time for it to come to fruition.

Sitting 25 points back, DiBenedetto will have to win to be able to move on, looking to finish just one position better than he did in last year’s Bristol night race, where he led 93 laps before being passed late for the lead and having to settle for an emotional runner up finish.

“If there is one track to be in a must-win situation that I would choose it would definitely be Bristol. I think we have a good shot at it. It is one that I am excited about and have circled off in this round,” said Dibenedetto.

“We will go to Bristol and do the best we can. I think we definitely have a great shot at it. We won the Open earlier this year and have a lot to build off of. Our teammates were good and I feel good about our chances for sure. And I have some unfinished business I guess after last year as well.”

Last, but not least is Ryan Blaney, who came into the Playoffs as someone considered a dark horse to be able to make a deep run and be a contender down the stretch. However, things have gone from bad to worse for the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford.

A pre-race points penalty and an eventual 24th place finish at Darlington, dropped him to 15th in points and the hits just kept on coming at Richmond. Falling behind early due to an unplanned pit stop to fix a loose wheel, Blaney and his team never got the break they needed and finished the night in 19th, two laps down.

Blaney now sits last on the Playoff grid, 27 points in arrears and has one option to be able to advance next weekend – win.

“We have to win next weekend,” said Blaney. “It is pretty plain and simple. With the bad couple of races we have had here to start the playoffs off, we probably need to go out there and win Bristol. That is our mindset. That is our goal. It is our goal every week to win the race but now it is our season on the line. We will see if we can get it done. We have been pretty close at Bristol before, it is just a matter of trying to put a whole race together there.

“What happened at Darlington happened and what happened tonight is already done and gone, so all we can do is look for Bristol and go try to have a really good run and try to win the race and move on.  That’s our only hope, but we certainly picked a bad time to start running bad, but hopefully we can get it turned around.  We’ve got one week to do it.”

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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.