Photo: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images via NASCAR

Danger Zone: Breaking Down the Playoff Bubble Leaving Kansas

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

With the conclusion of Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas, the first round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs is nearly complete, as the first elimination race looms large next weekend.

Here’s how the points standings look heading to Bristol Motor Speedway.

Only Christopher Bell is safe from whatever carnage may lie ahead at Bristol as the Playoff field is cut from 16 to 12, with the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota accumulating enough points to secure his passage into the next round

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

William Byron sits second in points with a 48-point advantage over the cut-off line and leads that group, which also includes Denny Hamlin (+47), Joey Logano (+40), Ryan Blaney (+36), Alex Bowman (+30), regular season champion Chase Elliott (+28), defending series champion Kyle Larson (+27), and Ross Chastain (+26)

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.

Daniel Suarez – No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet (+6 over cut-off line)

Daniel Suarez wasn’t happy with the way his car performed over the course of the day at Kansas, but he still came away with a top-10 finish by the end of the race, improving his points position from 12th, two points down to 10th, six points up with Bristol next up on the docket.

Suarez expressed his frustration with the team’s inconsistencies at Kansas and noted that they would have some work ahead to improve before next Saturday night.

“Today was very inconsistent,” Suarez said. “It was a long day. At times, we were OK and then some other times, we weren’t good. We had a couple of situations there on pit road and then we had a tire going down. We had an eventful day. But for a day like that and to finish in the top-10, I’m quite happy.

“We have some work to do. We are not where we need to be. At times, I felt like we were a top-five car; and at times, we were a 20th-place car. We have to be a little bit more consistent. We don’t really understand why it was so inconsistent, but we’re going to find some answers and move onto Bristol.”

Tyler Reddick – No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet (+2)

Tyler Reddick was doing Tyler Reddick things after starting on pole, riding the high line to the lead, where he had positioned himself as the driver to beat.

However, after 38 circuits up front, Reddick’s day took a turn as he was leading when his right-rear tire blew in Turn 2, sending him into the wall. The damage done by the impact was enough to end his day early and he would finish in 35th place.

While he came into Kansas with a 23-point cushion, he leaves with just a two-point advantage over the cut-off line, leading to a lot of uncertainty at the always unpredictable Bristol bullring.

“The right-rear tire just blew like we’ve had a few times,” Reddick said. “At Fontana (Auto Club Speedway), I was able to save it. But here, it snapped at the worst possible point and we just killed the wall. It broke the control arm on the right-front, so our day was over. We leave here with not a lot of points, so we’ll have to fight hard at Bristol (Motor Speedway).”

Austin Cindric – No. 2 Team Penske Ford (+2)

2022 Daytona 500 champion Austin Cindric hasn’t been lighting the world on fire in the first two races of the Playoffs, with a finish of 16th last weekend at Darlington and a finish just outside the top-10 in 12th Sunday at Kansas.

Coming into the day two points under the cut-off line, Cindric leaves two-points on the opposite side of the line heading to Bristol.

“We didn’t beat ourselves,” Cindric said. “We check that box the last two weeks. Bristol will be a big unknown and big challenge. We can’t take points for granted. I feel like we gave a few away today.

“A guarantee would be to win. I want to win at Bristol, that would be awesome. I have had a lot of heartache at Bristol, okay?. I would like to change that but maybe I will just take moving on to the next round. I have a lot of work ahead and a lot of really good guys I am going to have to beat.”

Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (-2 under cut-off line)

Kansas and Kyle Busch have never seemed to get along all that well and Sunday’s race was just another example of that.

Following a 20th place start, Busch rallied into the Top 10 during the first stage, only to have a pit road penalty erase his forward progress in the second stage. As he was climbing back through the field, his car broke loose off Turn 4 on lap 139, which set the stage for a grueling finish to the day.

Regaining the lap lost from the spin at the end of Stage 2, Busch was back on the lead lap for the final stage, but the damage had already been done as the drivability of his Toyota was shot and he just had to manhandle it to the finish – ending the race in 26th place.

“Just got really loose and it snapped around me,” Busch said. “Then I had damage from going through the grass. Kind of ruined the rest of our day, but it was whatever happened on that pit stop that set us backwards to get us back in traffic there. Tried to make an adjustment to the car to make it faster and it did make it faster, but definitely made it looser.”

Though Busch has won eight times previously at Bristol and scored the victory on the dirt at the track earlier this year, the two-time Cup champion expressed that he is not confident on how next weekend will turn out for him.

“Not with the luck of this year, nope. We’ll go and try hard and if what Bristol has always been to me occurs, we’ll be fine. With the way this year has been, if that occurs, it’s going to be ugly.”

Austin Dillon – No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet (-3)

After winning the final race of the regular season to punch his ticket to the Playoffs, Austin Dillon’s Cinderella story may be over next weekend at Bristol as he is currently one of the four drivers under the cut-off line – albeit by just three points.

The first two races of the Playoffs haven’t been great for the No. 3 team, with a 17th place result at Darlington and a 14th place finish Sunday at Kansas. If Dillon is going to continue on in the Playoffs, it will take more than a finish inside the top-20 to make it through elimination.

“We just fought balance on our No. 3 Get Bioethanol Camaro ZL1 all day,” Dillon said. “The same thing we’ve fought all year, really. We had high hopes because we qualified pretty decent. I’m proud of our guys, we fought hard. We kept ourselves in it and we have a shot at Bristol (Motor Speedway).

“Bristol is going to be wild and anything can happen. We’ve given ourselves a good shot. Nobody knows what to expect when we get there, but it’s a long race. If you’re there at the end of the day, you’ve got a good shot to make it.”

Chase Briscoe – No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (-9)

Since a top-five finish at Charlotte back in May, Briscoe hasn’t finished higher than 13th in the races since, which has continued on into the Playoffs.

Briscoe finished 27th at Darlington, leaving him in a 10-point deficit to the cut-off line and after finishing 13th at Kansas, he only improved his points standing by one-point with a wild race at Bristol coming up next.

“I feel like we had top-five speed we just needed the track position to go with it and we weren’t quite good enough to drive back through the field again,” Briscoe said. “Going to Bristol not in on points isn’t the end of the world. I would love to be nine points up, obviously, but being nine points out, I feel like we can go there and get some stage points and be in good shape.”

Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (-35)

If it wasn’t for bad luck, Kevin Harvick would have no luck at all.

After a late surge in the regular season to make the Playoffs with back-to-back wins at Michigan and Richmond, the first two races of the postseason have not been kind to the 2014 Cup champion.

Following a fire at Darlington that led to a 33rd place finish, things went from bad to worse just 35 laps into Sunday’s race at Kansas.

As he followed closely behind Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace battling for position in Turn 4, both cars washed up in front of his Ford, with the aerodynamic forces sending his car hard into the outside wall. Though he limped the car back to pit road, the damage was too severe to fix in the time allotted by the Damaged Vehicle Policy and he was done for the day, ending the race in 36th place.

“When those guys came up in front of me, the front end just took off,” Harvick explained. “I had a bunch of wheel into it and when I lifted to not hit the fence – I wasn’t expecting them to come up right here. I was so close to them that the front took off when I lifted and it snapped loose. Just way more push than I had anticipated.”

With a 35-point deficit to the cut-off line, Harvick acknowledged that the team is in a must-win position heading into Bristol, where he has won three times previously.

“Just go win,” Harvick said of the game plan for next Saturday night.

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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.