Chase Elliott speaks to the media as one of the 16 drivers eligible to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship during the 2017 NASCAR Playoffs Production Media Day at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on September 13, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR)
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 top eight drivers currently stand:
Martin Truex, Jr. (+76 ahead of cutoff, 1 win): As the defending race winner and the regular season champion, it should come as no surprise that Truex was massive in Chicago on Sunday. No one has been better on the intermediate tracks than he has this season. He didn’t even particularly need to win with the 53 playoff points he bagged before this weekend, but now the energies of Furniture Row Racing can go solely towards winning at Charlotte and/ or Kansas in the Round of 12 (where it may be of much more benefit to Truex than this win will be, since his numbers at Talladega are horrendous).
Larson (+49): His Chicagoland statistics indicated that he would do exactly what he did on Sunday: never be in contention to win the race, but be solidly in the top 10. He went a bit better than that, even, coming home fifth at day’s end. Larson should be okay with that result, given that the next two tracks on the calendar, New Hampshire and Dover, are tracks where he has recently been much better at in comparison (he was second to Denny Hamlin in the July race in Loudon and has been second at Dover in two of the last three races there).
Kevin Harvick (+41): Steve LeTarte made the point on Sunday’s broadcast that Harvick’s run on Sunday represented the required step-up in performance that championship contenders make, and it’s hard to argue against that point when looking back on the race. Harvick finished second in Stages 1 and 2 and earned more points (52) than anyone outside of Chase Elliott. The timing was excellent for his first top-five finish since Pocono in August, and he goes to New Hampshire as the defending race winner from a year ago. No issues, then, with the No. 4 team as Harvick begins his pursuit of a second series championship.
Brad Keselowski (+35): He was not the priority at Team Penske this weekend, but he still did what he needed to. This weekend was always going to be about Penske’s IndyCar efforts (which went swimmingly, as Simon Pagenaud won the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma and Josef Newgarden won the 2017 series championship). In the meantime, Brad quietly went about his business and finished sixth. At this point in the playoffs, top-10 finishes will be good enough to lock himself into the Round of 12. Expect that trend to continue this weekend at Loudon, where he has nine top-10s in his last 12 starts there, and a win in the 2014 Fall race to boot.
Kyle Busch (+35): If ever there were a disappointment from the top five in points, this is it. He had a loose wheel that forced him to come back down pit road right after the start of Stage 2, and then got hit with a pass-through penalty because his crew members jumped over the pit wall too soon. That penalty was made worse by the fact that Joe Gibbs Racing swapped pit crews between Busch and Daniel Suarez for the playoffs specifically because Suarez’ crew had been faster than Busch’s throughout the regular season, and the team wanted to give Busch the best chance possible at winning. After those penalties, he was running 30th in the field and two laps down to the leaders; he could only climb back to 15th before the race ended. He was terse in his post-race interview, focusing on the need to “move on”. After the speed he showed in Stage 1, that probably isn’t a bad idea, since he was one of the few drivers that had the speed to run with Martin Truex, Jr. at the front of the field. He still is 35 points clear of the elimination cutoff, thanks to the playoff points he earned in the regular season, so he still should be set to advance to the Round of 12, but some of the momentum he came into Chicagoland with might have been taken away this weekend.
Denny Hamlin (+32): His focus in the first three races was going to be on New Hampshire, given his history there, but to come away with a fourth-place finish is almost a better-than-expected setup to the upcoming weekend in Loudon. Hamlin should be Las Vegas’ favorite to win this weekend: at the Magic Mile, he has three wins, nine top-fives and 14 top-10s for his career there, with an average finish of 10.0. It is his best track in the playoffs, and it would take a massive surprise for him not to be in contention late in the going come Sunday.
Jimmie Johnson (+20): Johnson’s game plan for this first round is similar to Hamlin’s, with the focus on Dover instead of New Hampshire. For him, “holding serve” will do just fine in the opening two races, and his eighth-place finish absolutely qualifies as that kind of run. By the way, his numbers in recent races at New Hampshire shouldn’t be overlooked: three top-10s in his last four races there with no finish lower than 12th means that Johnson may well end up in a position where he doesn’t even need to win at Dover to advance.
Chase Elliott (+18): The Dawsonville, Georgia native did everything but win this weekend and put on a much-needed display of excellence for the No. 24 team. He was fast all day, won Stage 2, didn’t beat himself on pit road, and came out of Chicagoland with a second-place finish and more points (53) than anyone else. Or so it was, until he and his team were hit with a L1 infraction on Tuesday for illegally modifing the rear spoiler on his car before the race. That penalty completely changed the tone of the weekend: instead of being 33 points ahead of the cutoff, he was docked 15 points, and now is only 18 points clear. He also lost the playoff point earned for winning Stage 2, and he lost crew chief Alan Gufstason for a race, as NASCAR suspended Gustafson for this weekend’s event at New Hampshire. What was supposed to be the kind of run that all but locked him into the Round of 12 now has the value of a 17th-place finish, which isn’t great when Elliott’s history at New Hampshire is considered. Gone too is the points buffer that he would have had to protect himself against a poor run in New England. Though he has improved his finishing position with each successive race he has run there, his best career finish is still only an 11th, in the July race a few months ago. He should still be okay to make the Round of 12, but these are the sorts of mistakes that he can get away with only in this round: should it happen again in the Round of 12 or the Round of 8, Elliott will likely need to win to advance.