By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Seven drivers entered Kansas Speedway looking to punch their ticket to the championship finale and after the checkered flag fell on the Hollywood Casino 400, those same seven drivers are still looking.
Kyle Larson remains the only driver locked into the Championship 4 after sweeping the first two races of the Round of 8, paving the way for a showdown next weekend in Martinsville to fill the three remaining spots.
Among the drivers still vying for the championship, defending Cup champion Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin are in the best position going forward, sitting 34 and 32 points above the cut-off line. Barring disaster, the double-digit points buffer that each of them hold should be enough to see them through.
“As you saw today, I am not sure that any amount of points is safe,” Elliott said. “I think anyone in this Round can win next week. So, we are really going to have to be on it, but looking forward to the opportunity and excited for the challenge.”
“Nice, solid day next week will be okay,” Hamlin added. “You just never know what can happen. Just need to make sure I get some stage points and don’t give it away early and I think we’ll be alright.”
The same cannot be said for the drivers situated from fourth to eighth in points, with a fierce battle ahead to see which of those drivers will be moving on and which ones will be on the outside looking in next week.
Here’s how the points standings break down among those drivers:
Kyle Busch – Fourth in Points (+1 over cut-off)
After starting the day in fourth place, Busch’s day went sideways just 24 laps into Sunday’s race when he got into the Turn 1 wall, causing damage to the right side of his No. 18 Toyota and cutting down a tire in the process.
Though Busch would be able to limp his car to pit road under caution and returned to the track, eventually finishing the first stage in ninth, his troubles weren’t over yet.
On lap 133, he tagged the wall in Turn 4, damaging the right-rear quarter panel. This time around he wouldn’t have the luxury of a caution to save him, dropping to 32nd on the leaderboard. From then on, it was all about salvaging the best finish possible and by the end of the race, Busch would be scored in 28th place, six laps down.
“Loose and a lot of wind,” Busch said of his Kansas struggles. “Just could not get the handle on it with entry or exit. Knew it on the get-go within the first 10 laps or so or whatever it was on that first yellow with the weather. Just really, really up on top of the right rear all day and couldn’t feel it on entry and exit. Bit me twice. The first time it was tolerable and the second time, it was just over.
“I was expecting much worse. Still a shot, it’s just going to be tough. Just going to be a hard-fought dog fight for that final spot.”
Ryan Blaney – Fifth in Points (-1 under cut-off)
Blaney entered Kansas in the best position among the drivers that have yet to lock themselves into the season finale, holding a 17-point advantage over the cut-off line, but with 44 laps to go Sunday, it all came tumbling down.
As the field was getting sorted out following a restart, Austin Dillon got loose and washed up the track in Turn 2, making contact with Blaney and sending him into the wall. The damage was too much for the team to be able to get repaired, leaving Blaney to finish 37th on the day.
“We got run into from two lanes below me,” Blaney said. “I have no idea. Obviously, it hurts. Finishing 37th is not prime. We didn’t have a great day but we did a good job of fighting back and getting back into the top-10 but then just got wiped out when we had plenty of room. That sucks. It is very unfortunate.”
“Late in the race I got into a Playoff contender and I hate it for everyone involved,” Dillon added of the incident with Blaney. “It was side-drafting. It’s part of what we do, but I still hate that it happened. I tried to save it the first time, and the second time I just lost it.”
Martin Truex Jr. – Sixth in Points (-3)
Much like his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, contact with the outside wall in Stage 1 also caused trouble for Truex.
After scrubbing the wall while battling with Brad Keselowski, Truex would have to make an unscheduled stop on lap 53, dropping him out of the top-10 and off the lead lap.
Despite the setback, Truex and his team never gave up, eventually getting his laps back and climbing back into mix late in the race, bringing his No. 19 Toyota home in seventh-place to move within striking distance of the top-four in points heading to Martinsville.
“It was a long day,” Truex said. “You never quit fighting in these things and all you can do is the best you can do. Just kept working on it and kept making adjustments and do what we could. We were able to get back on the lead lap there and take the wave around with the quick caution and battle from there. All the guys did a great job on this Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry and it was pretty fast.
“Just sixth or seventh, where we finished was about where we were going to be. I would have liked to have done without that damage; it was pretty fast before that. Unfortunate the way that deal worked out, but we’re still in it and we’re still fighting and we look forward to next weekend.
“[Martinsville] has been good to us. If we can get up there and win a couple stages and battle for the win, I think we’ll be able to get ourselves in. We’ll wait and see how it goes; you never know how these things are going to play out. Excited for the opportunity and thankful for everybody for all their hard work.”
Brad Keselowski – Seventh in Points (-6)
Coming into Kansas with a double-digit points deficit to make up, things didn’t get any better for Keselowski early in the race when the contact with Truex in Stage 1 would send him into the wall and force him to pit road for repairs.
Falling two laps down, Keselowski would be able to get one of those laps back as the race played out, finishing the day in 17th place. Even with his troubles at Kansas, he gained nine-points on the cut-off line, giving him a fighting chance to point his way in next weekend at Martinsville.
“That was a heck of a race,” said Keselowski. “We are all just fighting too hard. I am bummed I didn’t get more out of it. I had a heck of an opportunity to score a lot of points and make next week easy. We still aren’t in a bad spot but not as good as spot as we could be.
“We will do all we can do and that is all we can do. Winning would obviously lock our way in but as you saw this week, as crazy as these races get, I am not sure that isn’t what you have to do.”
Joey Logano – Eighth in Points (-26)
Following a blown engine last weekend at Texas, Logano started the Round of 8 in the hole, coming into Kansas some 43 points in arears of the cut-off line, which put him in a must-win position right out of the gate.
Logano ran around the top-10 for much of the day Sunday, eventually driving his No. 22 Team Penske Ford to a ninth-place finish to gain a bit of ground in the points race. However, among the drivers that have yet to lock themselves in, the 2018 series champion is still in a double-digit points disadvantage, meaning it’s likely win or bust next weekend at Martinsville.
“On to Martinsville. One more shot to do it,” Logano said. “It is crazy watching this thing. They are trying to give it away it seems like. I have never seen so many issues in this round. Yeah, it seems like survival was the key in this round so far.
“It is pretty far out still. All things considered, it isn’t just that it is 20-something points out, but I am still eighth. I have three or four cars in front of me that I have to get in front of, assuming there isn’t a different winner. It is still pretty much a must-win situation. It would be far-fetched for it to happen. But hey, look at today. Maybe it could happen.”