Sixteen entered, and now only twelve remain in the quest for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
Following last Saturday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, we know four drivers who will not lift the big trophy in Phoenix. Cole Custer, William Byron, Ryan Blaney, and Matt Dibenedetto all bid farewell to their playoff aspirations. They will have to wait till next year.
The opening round was mostly calm, with all three tracks less than one and a half miles in length. In the round of 12, the smallest track is that size. This Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the track will be equal in size.
Before the green flag this weekend, let us examine what we know through three of ten playoff races. Also, these next three races may be the most unpredictable of the entire postseason.
First, Kevin Harvick is still really good. The driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won the opening race of the first round at Darlington. He won through 20 years of experience and being in the right place at the right time.
That was his eighth win of this season. Two weeks later he held off defending series champion Kyle Busch for his ninth win this year, at Bristol.
In what is without question the best year of his career, the 44-year old is over a full race’s worth of points ahead of the next cutline. This shows no sign of slowing down in the pursuit of the title.
Anything short of putting the 2020 championship next to his lone 2014 cup on the mantle, would be a disappointment, for both the driver and the team.
Second, Austin Dillon is better than we thought. Many expected the 2018 Daytona 500 champion to be a one and done this year. His summer win at Texas Motor Speedway was just the third in his seventh full-time season.
It earned him his fourth career postseason appearance. The grandson of team owner Richard Childress finished second at Darlington. He also finished fourth at Richmond. Both races were his personal best finishes.
It was a great step forward in removing the “Silver Spoon Kid” stigma that has followed him his whole career. Dillon has had more speed than expected, and his Cinderella run is fun to watch. Whether it continues, or if the clock strikes midnight in three weeks is one of the main storylines this round.
Third, where is Denny Hamlin? While he made big news off-track this week announcing his partnership with Michael Jordan. This partnership is to start a new team for Bubba Wallace in 2021.
Hamlin was an afterthought in round one. With six wins in the regular season, Hamlin had a big enough cushion not to worry about elimination, but he did have zero top fives or top tens last round.
For much of the summer months it seemed like he and Kevin Harvick were both well ahead of the competition. Hamlin still has a great shot to reach Phoenix and finally win his first Championship. If anything else his betting odds went down just a bit after the last few weeks.
Lastly, let’s look at the tracks: Las Vegas, Talladega, and the Charlotte Roval. Many drivers eye Vegas as a must-win, it’s the only “normal” track, or “cookie cutter” in the round of 12. You can’t afford a bad race here, or really anywhere. If so, you leave much of your season up to fate and luck in the next two races.
Talladega is a 2.67 mile superspeedway where anything can happen. In the blink of an eye you could go from leading to caught up in the ‘Big One,’ and headed to the garage. Some drivers are exceptional at pack racing here like Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. I promise though, the only driver sleeping easy during Dega week, will have won Vegas, and locked in to the next round.
The closing race in the round of 12 is the Charlotte Roval. A 2.28 mile hybrid of the standard 1.5 mile Charlotte Motor Speedway oval with an added infield road course section.
See, Road Course plus Oval, Roval, get it?
This is just the third year this configuration has been used, and both races have had unique outcomes. Last year’s winner Chase Elliott, and Martin Truex Jr. are two of the top road-course drivers today and should be up at the front.
In 2018, Truex led at the white flag, yet crossed the finish line in 14th. If one thing is a guarantee at the Roval, it is never over until the very end, for both the race, and many drivers’ playoff dreams.
There you have it. Three weeks from now twelve will reduce to eight, and the 2020 Cup series playoff picture will be even clearer.
Fall has arrived, and though the temperature is cooling down, the drama of the NASCAR championship is just heating up.