By David Morgan, Associate Editor
TALLADEGA, Ala. – Two wild card races down, one to go.
The finish line of the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs is in sight now that the Yellawood 500 at Talladega is complete and only the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL remains to determine which eight drivers will be moving on to the next round with their title hopes still intact.
Chase Elliott is the only driver that is truly safe in the Queen City next weekend, having won Sunday at Talladega to secure his placement in the next round. The same cannot be said for the remainder of the Playoff contenders.
From second to seventh in the standings, those drivers hold double-digit points advantages over the cut-off line, but even that might not be enough when it comes to the chaotic nature of Cup Series road course racing.
Ryan Blaney is in the best position of those drivers, carrying a 32-point surplus into next week, followed by Ross Chastain (+28), Denny Hamlin (+21), Joey Logano (+18), Kyle Larson (+18), and Daniel Suarez (+12).
From eighth on back, it’s a free-for all.
Here’s how it all breaks down:
Chase Briscoe – No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (Tied for eighth and final transfer spot)
Briscoe held a seven-point advantage coming into Talladega and while he lost that advantage to fall into a tie with Austin Cindric for the final transfer spot, it’s almost like a win for the driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing Ford as Charlotte lies ahead to settle which of the two will be moving on.
Briscoe is no slouch on road courses, explaining that he and Cindric have had their battles on track, dating back to the Xfinity days and next weekend should be another one for the books between the two.
“Almost every Xfinity race at the ROVAL, it was me or him that was going to win and then Allmendinger came in there,” Briscoe said. “I’m used to racing him. I know it will be a fair, clean fight there.
“He’s not the only guy we’re racing. We’re racing the 24 [Byron]. If one of those guys below us wins, it’s going to obviously be hard to move on. We’re going to go there and score as many points as we can. Hopefully win the race. Whatever the points are at the end is what they are.”
Austin Cindric – No. 2 Team Penske Ford (Tied with Briscoe)
The 2022 Daytona 500 champion is still in the hunt after Sunday’s race at Talladega as the series heads to a track that is one of his specialties – the Charlotte ROVAL.
Coming into the day just seven points below the cut-off line, he leaves NASCAR’s biggest track in a draw, as he is tied with Chase Briscoe for the final transfer spot into the Round of 8.
Securing valuable stage points in the first round, Cindric hung around in the top-10 as the checkered flag closed in on Sunday, eventually crossing the line in ninth to keep his Playoff hopes alive.
Cindric has finished in the top-10 in all but one road course this season, which includes a runner-up finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, so there is no doubt he will be a contender again next weekend.
“Stage points are a big deal,” Cindric said. “Obviously, helping the 12 car get a stage win was big and recovery from the wreck, damage control and driving back up through the field, I think when everybody kind of scatters to try and do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive and I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved.
“Call it 50/50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck, but, overall, it certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the Roval, so we’ll put our best foot forward and have some fun next week.”
William Byron – No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (-11)
Starting the day in ninth at Talladega, Byron had missed opportunities throughout the race, finishing outside the top-10 in both stages and losing out on valuable stage points. When the checkered flag fell, he would be scored in 12th place, which leaves him with an 11-point deficit to make up at Charlotte.
“We just struggled to get to the front,” Byron said of his day at Talladega. “Kind of boxed in there at the end and ended up where we did. It’s unfortunate, because I felt good coming in here and felt like we’d have a good opportunity, but just could never get the track position to stay up front.”
Leaving Talladega, Byron will now be fighting a battle on two fronts, both on-track and off. On-track he will have to put his best foot forward, while off-track his team will be working to overturn a penalty handed down by NASCAR last week, which docked him 25 points and caused him to fall under the cut-off line.
The team has an appeal set for this week that will go a long way in determining whether Byron will be one of the eight drivers moving on in the Playoffs.
“Road courses this year have been a little up and down,” Byron said. “Certainly, I feel like it’s a pretty good track for me. We had a good run going last year. Just have to keep it up. Still puzzled by today. Couldn’t really get towards the front. To come home 12th is disappointing, but we’ll go forward.”
Asked about Byron’s points situation, team owner Rick Hendrick expressed confidence that no matter whether he gets in via the team’s appeal or if Byron races his way in, they’ll be in a good position next weekend.
“William is a good little road racer,” Hendrick said. “He’s a really good plate racer. 25 points in the Playoffs is a ton. I mean, in regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.
“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.
“That’s like saying you’re going to tell everybody who won the race next week. That’s a little strange. I think it was excessive. We’ll just see what happens.”
Christopher Bell – No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (-33)
Bell started Sunday’s race at Talladega from the pole, but unfortunately for him, that would be the highlight of his day as it was all downhill from there.
Coming off a Texas race in which a blown tire brought his race to an early end and left him in a 25-point hole heading to Talladega, he needed to try and make up some ground this week to keep from falling any further behind, but on lap 99, hopes of having a decent day went out the window.
As he came to pit road with his teammates, Bell’s car spun sideways under braking, blowing out a tire as he slid down the asphalt. Though he was able to keep his car off the wall, he would be handed a speeding penalty for the incident, dropping him off the lead lap.
While he would get his lap back as a result of the free pass at the end of the second stage, he wasn’t able to take advantage of it, finishing the race in 17th – leaving him in a must-win position at Charlotte.
“Just a very disappointing finish,” Bell said. “Needed to score a lot of points and unfortunately, we didn’t get enough today. So we’ll have to go to the Roval and do our best. I feel okay about our chances there. I think we’ll be competitive and just have to go there and try to win.”
Alex Bowman – No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (-54)
The second round of the Playoffs have not been kind to Bowman, as a blown tire caused him to crash at Texas, which in turn left him on the sidelines for Talladega while he recovers from concussion-like symptoms stemming from the crash.
Should he be well enough to return next weekend at Charlotte, NASCAR has granted him a medical waiver to stay eligible, but to continue on in the Playoffs, it will be win or go home.
Asked about Bowman after the race at Talladega, team owner Rick Hendrick seemed optimistic that his driver would return at Charlotte, but a medical re-evaluation this coming week will determine whether Bowman is back behind the wheel on the infield road course.
“I think hopefully he’ll be back next week,” Hendrick said. “I think he will. He’s feeling good today and yesterday. I guess he’ll go back and get evaluated here midweek.”