Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

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

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

One wild card race down, one to go.

A crazy afternoon at Talladega, as expected, wreaked havoc on the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field, putting a number of championship contenders in dire straits with just one race remaining before the postseason field is cut from 12 drivers to eight.

Heading into the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, only Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin are truly safe having already clinched their spots in the next round. Busch automatically advanced with his win at Las Vegas, while Hamlin punched his ticket to the Round of 8 with his victory Sunday at Talladega.

Behind the two winners, Kevin Harvick has all but locked up his spot in the next round, sitting 68 points above the cut-off line, with the remainder of the top-eight in a good position to advance. Chase Elliott leads that group with a 44-point advantage, after getting his post-race penalty for going below the yellow line revoked, followed by Brad Keselowski (+41), Martin Truex, Jr. (+32), Alex Bowman (+22), and Joey Logano (+21).

For the remaining four drivers, they’ve got their work cut out for them in the Queen City, with double digit points deficits to erase if they are to advance.

When the season started, no one would have guessed Kyle Busch would find himself on the chopping block, but it’s 2020 and we’ve seen some things this year. Busch has struggled since the return to racing in May and continues to ride a career long winless streak, which now sits at 31 races.

Sunday at Talladega, Busch found himself caught up in three different wrecks on lap 59, 110, and finally a crash in overtime on lap 189, which ended his race for good.

Busch prognosticated at Bristol two weeks ago that he wouldn’t make it past the second round of the Playoffs, saying “We’ll be eliminated in the next round.” Turns out that may actually come true, with the defending Cup Series champion 21 points below the cut-off line heading to Charlotte.

The two-time Cup champion has won at the Charlotte oval before, but the Roval layout hasn’t been kind to him, finishing 32nd and 37th in his two starts there.

“The car was just real slow due to all of the damage, obviously, so I’m just holding up the line,” Busch said. “I was trying to draft off the guys in front of me and I’m pushing too much backwards on the guys that are trying to push me forwards and it creates a wreck. Oh, well. The M&M’s Camry guys did a great job and just wish there was more for it. I just hate it when I’m right.”

Austin Dillon also heads to Charlotte with 21 points to make up on the top-eight, having had two bad races in a row at Las Vegas and Talladega. Dillon had issues with his power steering and overheating in Las Vegas that dropped him to 32nd at the finish and things didn’t get much better at Talladega, where he was also involved in three different crashes at lap 59, 110, and 194.

Despite the three crashes, Dillon put up a valiant fight to mitigate some of the damage in the points race, eventually getting back on the lead lap and finishing 12th when the checkered flag flew.

“This team has a never-give-up-attitude and that is how we were able to finish so solid today in the No. 3 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Off Road/E-Z-GO Chevrolet,” said Dillon. “Last week was a real bummer, but we kept fighting and only lost eight laps changing a belt. Tonight, we changed an oil cooler behind the wall and only lost two laps, so this RCR team is special. They are true professionals.

“That was a fun race. We got our stage points in the first stage even with a little bit of damage. In the second stage, we just couldn’t keep up with the damage we had gotten, but to come back to 12th says a lot. This car is killed. I had a huge run down the backstretch at the end of the race. I pushed Brandon Poole way up there. Once I shoved him, I got to the bottom and then I don’t know what happened. The No. 2 car came across my nose and we lost a couple more spots at the end. It was probably a wild race for the fans to watch.

“I hope that we can make something happen at the ROVAL. We’re a little too far back in points, but we’ll see what we can do. A lot of things can happen. It’s easy to miss a shift. It’s easy to jump a curb and wreck. We need those guys in front of us to help us out, and see if we can help ourselves out a little bit, too.”

Stewart-Haas Racing could be down to one bullet after the Charlotte Roval, with both Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer in virtual must-win positions after getting swept up in crashes on lap 59 and 110, respectively. Bowyer heads into Charlotte 11th in the standings, 37 points in arears, while Almirola is last on the Playoff grid, 48 points behind the cut-off position.

Bowyer played it safe at the end of the first stage, bailing out of the pack before an inevitable crash broke out, but as the second stage entered its final laps, the driver of the No. 14 car was right in the mix, trying to get as many stage points as possible.

Pushing Jimmie Johnson through the tri-oval, contact between the two would get Johnson out of shape, collecting Bowyer and nine other cars in the process, bringing out a 10 minute, 27 second red flag to clean up the mess.

“You’ve got to go.  You’ve got to push him,” Bowyer said of the crash.  “The 22 and the 21 were trying and obviously they gave up on it for some reason.  As soon as I got to him I push him in the front and the whole rear of the car went down and I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and before I know it he was tank swapping all over the place.  I don’t know if that was how they had their cars built or whatever, but as soon as you got close to him he was all over the place.

“Obviously didn’t mean to wreck him, but you’re going hard and three-wide and people are behind you pushing.  I was hoping he would save it, but he didn’t and we all wrecked.”

So, what will Bowyer’s game plan be heading into the Roval?

“Same thing we always do. Go to win.”

As for his SHR teammate, Almirola was running near the front of the field when contact from Alex Bowman hooked his car into the outside wall on the backstretch, causing too much damage to repair under the Damaged Vehicle Policy, ending his day before the end of the first stage.

“I’m okay.  I honestly haven’t seen the replay, so it’s hard to say, but I got hit from behind and turned in the outside fence,” said Almirola. “It’s such a shame.  We had such a fast Smithfield Power Bites Ford Mustang.  I’m just disappointed.

“We were doing everything we needed to do.  We were closing in to the end of stage one and it looked like we were going to score a lot of points there, which is exactly what we needed to do.  It looks like he got to my outside and my car started to turn to the right, so it’s unfortunate.  I don’t know if he got in the back of me and hooked me or how that played out, but my car just made a hard right into the fence.

“It’s unfortunate.  I had a lot of confidence going into today.  I thought we were going to have a good shot to win.  Our car was so fast, but unfortunately the Good Lord had different plans for us today.  We’ll go onto the Roval and try one more time.”

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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.