Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Danger Zone: Breaking Down the Playoff Bubble After Talladega

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

One wild card race down, one to go.

After getting through Monday’s rain-delayed Yellawood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff drivers aren’t through with the gauntlet that makes up the final two races of the Round of 12 just yet.

Now that the checkered flag has flown on the final superspeedway race of the season, the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval lies ahead, with the unpredictable nature of racing on the oval/road course hybrid. When all is said and done next Sunday, four more drivers will see their championship hopes disappear.

Of the Playoff eligible drivers, only Denny Hamlin is safe from what may transpire at Charlotte, courtesy of a free pass through to the Round of 8 due to his win at Las Vegas. For the remaining 11 drivers, elimination still lies within the realm of possibility next weekend.

Though not safe from the chaos, regular season champion Kyle Larson is in the best position, with a 22-point advantage over the cut off line. Despite a 37th place finish at Talladega, the war chest of points that Larson brought into the Playoffs is paying dividends with elimination right around the corner.

“It could have been worse; could have been worse,” Larson said. “I haven’t seen the point total yet, but it seems like a lot of us are around the same spot. I think at times it looked worse; so like I said, it could have been worse.”

Joining Larson with a double-digit points advantage after Talladega is the Team Penske duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski at +21 and +20, respectively after their top-three finishes Monday. Martin Truex, Jr. is tied with Keselowski at 20 points above the cut-off, with the third Team Penske driver, Ryan Blaney, holding a 15-point advantage.

From seventh-place in points on back, anything goes, with either single digit point spreads separating those on the good side of the line to those on the outside looking in. Then there are those who will likely have to win on Sunday to keep their championship hopes alive.

Chase Elliott – Seventh in Points (+9 Over Cut-Off)

The defending Cup Series champion finished the first stage at Talladega in the top-10, but got a piece of the lap 99 pileup on the backstretch, finishing the day in 18th place after getting shuffled out in the final run before the rain came.

Despite the disappointing finish on Monday, things are still looking up for Elliott with the Charlotte Roval up next, with back-to-back wins at the track over the past two seasons, as well as two road course wins earlier this year.

“Well, the A SHOC team survived the day,” Elliott said. “I just got into the wrong lane there in the closing laps. Once that got sorted back out, I didn’t have a ton of options and we just ran out of time with the rain. Not the finish we needed, but we will head onto the ROVAL.”

Kyle Busch – Eighth in Points (+9)

Like Elliott, Busch found himself caught up in the Lap 99 crash at Talladega, leading to a 27th place finish on the day, but for the two-time Cup champion to be able to move on, he’ll need a career day next weekend at Charlotte – a track that has not been kind to him recently.

In three starts at the track, Busch’s best finish came with a 30th place finish last season – the only race he has finished there so far, following a crash and a 32nd place finish in 2018 and a suspension failure and a 37th place finish in 2019.

“Just go to Charlotte and have a 10th place day, that’s all we need,” Busch said. “You look at the guys that you’re racing around a little bit. A couple of the Hendrick cars are right around us. They’re out right now, but they’re fast on the road courses so any one of them could possibly win. We just have to keep ourselves above the cut line.”

Kevin Harvick – Ninth in Points (-9 Below Cut-Off)

Though Harvick came out of Talladega with a top-10 finish, he’ll have some work to do next weekend in Charlotte, needing to make up a nine-point deficit in order to advance on to the Round of 8.

Harvick does have a history of running well at the Charlotte Roval, finishing all three races in the top-11, with his best finish coming two years ago with a third-place run after leading 34 laps on the day.

Looking back at previous road course races this season, Harvick’s record is hit or miss, with top-10 finishes at Daytona and Watkins Glen, but finishes of 14th, 22nd, 27th, and 37th at the remaining road course races.

Christopher Bell – 10th in Points (-28)

Bell leads the way among the drivers that are in a must-win position for Charlotte, with a double-digit points deficit after Monday’s top-five finish at Talladega.

The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota scored his lone Cup Series win on the Daytona road course early in the season, so he has shown he can get it done on road courses, and will need a repeat performance this coming weekend.

“Just disappointing not to get stage points in stage one, that was a big turning point, but the guys that we’re racing all had good days. We’ve got a long way to go and we’ll head to the Roval, which is a good track for us, but it’s going to take a little bit of luck.

“We can for sure race for a win at the Roval and that’s what it’s going to take.”

William Byron – 11th in Points (-44)

Byron will need to put on a show in front of his hometown fans this weekend if he wants to keep his championship hopes alive following a Lap 116 crash at Talladega that left him with a 36th place finish.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver has been in this position before, making up a points deficit to advance through in the first round of the Playoffs, but this weekend will be on a whole new level given the ground he has to make up to move above the cut-off line.

Byron scored sixth place finishes in each of the past two seasons at Charlotte, leading 23 and 27 laps, respectively, so he has shown speed there, the only question that remains is can he take the next step up and win at his home track.

“Just like we did at Bristol,” Byron said of his mindset heading to Charlotte. “Try to do the best we can. We tried to win last week and it didn’t work out. We tried to win today and it didn’t work out. We’ll approach it like we do every week.

“Thank you to Axalta, Chevrolet and everybody back at the shop. We’ll have a really fast car for the ROVAL, so we’ll just have to go and perform there.”

Alex Bowman – 12th in Points (-52)

The Round of 12 has not been kind to the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet, with a 22nd place finish at Las Vegas, coupled with a 38th place finish on Monday at Talladega after getting wrecked out in the Lap 99 crash.

Bowman acknowledged his points predicament afterwards, noting the need to win at Charlotte to be able to advance on to the next round next weekend.

“We were pretty buried anyway and everyone is going to run pretty good,” Bowman said. “So, it was a must run really well situation anyways. It doesn’t really change much. We know we’re going to need to win. We’ll go do our best to make that happen.”

Tags : , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.