Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #17 Fastenal Ford, practices for the 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 24, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
JOLIET, Ill. – Martin Truex came away victorious in the opening race of the NASCAR Playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway, but there was plenty of movement behind him in the playoff standings. Over the next ten weeks, Sports Gazette will analyse every playoff contender’s position as the NASCAR playoffs progress. After one race of ten, here are individual looks at where the playoff chances of the bottom eight drivers currently stand:
Matt Kenseth (+13): Three top-10s in a row will all but lock drivers into the Round of 12, even if they don’t win one of those three races. Kenseth completed the first leg successfully on Sunday, finishing ninth. Don’t expect that to change next week, because Kenseth has learned a lot from Denny Hamlin after he moved to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. Since then, he has only finished outside of the top 10 at New Hampshire once, and has posted four straight top-fives going into this weekend. Kenseth will go hunting for his third win in the last five New Hampshire races on Sunday, when he will make his final Loudon start driving a Gibbs Toyota.
Ryan Blaney (+8): After finishing fourth at Chicagoland a season ago, his eleventh-place finish is okay at best, especially when taking into account his numbers at New Hampshire and Dover. He only has one top-10 at both tracks combined, and at Dover, he’s been outside of the top 30 in the last two races. His other finish in Delaware was an eighth-place finish in the Spring of 2016, so he at least has one decent finish between the next two tracks on the schedule. But if he can’t improve on his history at New Hampshire, he may be in the high-pressure position of needing a top-10 at Dover to advance.
Jamie McMurray (+5): What a huge, huge weekend for the No. 1 team. McMurray may have helped his chances at advancing to the next round more than anyone else with his finish on Sunday, after he rallied from spinning and causing the third yellow of the race to finish in 10th. Chicagoland was one of his worst tracks in the playoffs, and that top-10 finish (his first in the Windy City in three years) will go a long way towards ensuring that he makes it to the Round of 12. New Hampshire isn’t a great place for McMurray (he only has one top-10 in his last five starts there), but with the way he performed this past Sunday, it may not matter. He could be okay in Loudon and then roll on to Dover, where the only thing keeping him from a record of four top-10s in the last five races at that track was a blown motor that knocked him out of the playoffs a year ago.
Austin Dillon (+0): An okay-leaning-towards-not-good weekend for Dillon, who was 16th in the final running order at Chicagoland. At the moment, he sits in the top 12 in points on a tiebreaker over Kurt Busch, but there’s no question that his runs will need to be a bit better if he wants to be assured of a place in the Round of 12. His average finish at New Hampshire (14.1) is better than it is at Dover (22.6), but Dover has been the better track for him in the two most recent races (he finished eighth in the Fall race a year ago to advance). If he can get his first top-10 at New Hampshire this weekend, it will be immensely helpful in his quest to advance.
Kurt Busch (-0 behind cutoff): A nineteenth-place finish has him technically out of the top 12 in points at the moment, so in that light, his Sunday was not a good one. The good news for Busch is that he’s been solid in the last two races at New Hampshire, finishing in the top 10 both times. That makes him one of the best drivers in recent New Hampshire races of the group hovering around the cutoff line; he’ll need a similar performance on Sunday to keep his playoff chances in decent shape.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (-4): It was a miserable race weekend for Stenhouse, who was the worst of all the playoff contenders. He clipped the wall early, then got hit with a commitment line violation coming down pit road to fix the damage. Add to that a late-race pit road penalty for speeding while exiting pit road, and it equaled a 25th-place finish for the No. 17. Given that his New Hampshire and Dover statistics are not great, Stenhouse now faces a massive battle to make it into the Round of 12 altogether. His lone top-10 finish at New Hampshire came in the July race a year ago; he’ll need to climb back into contention with a similar run on Sunday.
Kasey Kahne (-5): His finish of 21st was mostly indicative of what he has been doing all season: turning in runs that haven’t been all that impressive. In the playoffs, finishes like that are not good enough to make it into the Round of 12. If he finishes outside of the top 20 again at New Hampshire this weekend (something he’s done in two of the last three races there), Dover will become a must-win for him to advance.
Ryan Newman (-7): His story is largely the same as Kasey Kahne’s, though he does have the mental advantage of his 2014 playoff run, when he finished second in points without winning a single race. But his 23rd-place finish has him last in the playoff standings after the first race in 2017. His outlook for New Hampshire isn’t great, but it’s definitely better than Kahne’s: Newman has two top-10s in his last four races there. The problem is that he’s finished 20th and 27 in the other two of those four races, so Newman will need Sunday’s finish to fall in the former of those two categories.
The second race of the playoffs for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is the ISM Connect 300, to be run on 24 September at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (19:00, Premier Sports, PRN).