Welcome to the third round of the playoffs. Or, if you’re counting, the final four races of the year. Just one-ninth of the 2019 Cup Series season to go!
1. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin may be third in the points standings following the third-round points reset but he should be the favorite to make it to Homestead. He has five wins and 20 top-10 finishes in 27 starts at Martinsville, he’s the defending winner at Texas and he’s finished outside the top 13 just once at Phoenix since the start of the 2016 season.
“Even though the next few weeks there's a variance of you got a short track, a mile‑and‑a‑half, then you kind of got a short track hybrid in Phoenix, we feel like we can win at every single one of them,” Hamlin said Sunday after winning at Kansas.
“That's one thing that not a lot of drivers can probably say, they feel like they can win at every single track they go to. That's been the case for us this year.”
2. Kyle Busch
Busch wasn’t too happy after Sunday’s race despite finishing third and driving his way through the field to do that after suffering some damage. He’s also starting the third round of the playoffs as the top seed. Even though Busch is in a “slump” because he hasn’t won for 18 races — and hasn’t been as good as he was for the first 14 — he’s still a near-lock to be racing for the title.
“I think what you see, I think the top drivers, you can kind of go through a little bit of a slump,” Joe Gibbs said. “I call him on the phone, he has a great sense of humor at night when I call him, ‘When are you going to give me the good car,’ stuff like that.
“Yeah, third doesn't get it for him, I'm afraid. But I think his competitive spirit and everything, I think he's made a lot out of what happened [Sunday], so we're excited about that.”
3. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex is in a slump too! Just kidding. He finished sixth at Kansas on Sunday after he crashed out of the race at Talladega. That Talladega race is Truex’s only finish outside the top seven in the first six races of the playoffs. That’s pretty good.
Truex said he had some bad restart luck on Sunday and also dealt with a car that drove differently when the sun wasn’t out.
“We got it freed up towards the end of the race there and those last couple runs felt good,” Truex said. “Just seemed that whatever lane we restarted in, we fell backwards. Had to battle back from those a few times, but overall a good day for us and the guys did what they needed to do and a good, solid day here at Kansas after struggling in the spring.”
Harvick’s ninth-place finish at Kansas was his second-worst of the playoffs and only better than his 17th at Talladega. It’s weird that Harvick has finishes of second, third, and fourth so far in the postseason and his playoff run feels a little anonymous. That’s what happens when you’re as good as Harvick has been in the elimination playoff era.
“I just didn’t have a very good car today and didn’t have a very good day on pit road,” Harvick said. “Nothing went right all weekend. It was definitely one of the worst weekends we have had in awhile. We had to start in the back and had a tough day getting through traffic. A couple times we got up there and then had bad stops and got mired in traffic.”
See what we were saying before the quote? “Nothing went right all weekend” for Harvick and he still got a top 10.
5. Kyle Larson
Larson finished 14th after appearing to have one of the fastest cars early in the race. But he had a pit road penalty and also sent Joey Gase spinning at one point when Gase’s slow car was clogging up the high line in turns 3 and 4.
“I was just trying to get a big run up top,” Larson said. “There were a lot of us. I was hoping I could get a lane and I didn’t get one. I was already to his back bumper, so yeah. It wasn’t really a message, I was just in a hurry and he was doing his best to get out of the way of the guys below. It was more so impatience on my part.”
Elliott from being forced to win the race to advance to the third round to advancing with a second-place finish over the last two laps of the race thanks to Brad Keselowski’s freefall.
“Obviously, three points is three positions, two points is two positions and one is one position,” Elliott said. “That’s pretty simple, but obviously it’s just about trying to get as many as you can get. In our case, I was under the impression that we had to win all the way up to the end of the race. It was a lot of good fortune for us there at the end, a lot of luck and just being in the right place at the right time. There was a great pit stop there at the end to put us into position.”
7. Joey Logano
Logano spent those final two laps a little too close to the cut line for comfort because he was involved in that final caution of the race. Had NASCAR hit the caution button a fraction of a second later, Logano would have comfortably made the third round. Instead, he had to sweat it out a little bit.
The defending Cup Series champion won the fall race at Martinsville a year ago to advance to the final round. Can he do it again in similar circumstances? After all, Logano advanced to the final round and beat three drivers with more season-long success and more wins at Homestead a year ago...
8. Ryan Blaney
Blaney was running fourth with 17 laps to go when he hit the wall in turns 3 and 4. That contact led to a flat tire and eventually the caution that set up all the other cautions that led to his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski finishing 19th and out of the third round of the playoffs. Blaney ended up finishing 21st.
9. Brad Keselowski
The No. 2 team’s failure to maintain a 20-point gap in the standings without a mechanical failure or a crash is surprising. But it’s also worth noting that Keselowski’s winless streak is two races longer than Kyle Busch’s this season. And his second round was very bad. Keselowski was 11th at Dover and had a good car at Talladega. But, like what happens at Talladega, Keselowski got crashed at the front of the field and finished 25th.
And then he simply wasn’t fast over the second half of Sunday’s race. Damage from multiple incidents of contact didn’t help, but that’s not much of an excuse. While Keselowski is, overall, a more deserving third-round participant than Blaney is based on season success, Blaney’s in because he got that win at Talladega. And it’s hard to argue against a race winner.
10. William Byron
Byron turned in a nice fifth-place run on Sunday but it wasn’t enough for playoff advancement because he was so far buried in the points standings after that Talladega crash.
11. Kurt Busch
Maybe Busch is getting back toward the form that got him into the playoffs. Busch’s average finish in the first round was outside the top 25 but he finished ninth at Dover and fourth on Sunday at Kansas.
12. Erik Jones
Since winning at Darlington, Jones’ finishes have gone 39th, 36th, 38th (DQ), 40th, 15th, 34th and, on Sunday, seventh. He gets the 12th spot here because both Clint Bowyer and Alex Bowman finished outside the top 10.
The Lucky Dog: This is the perfect spot for Jimmie Johnson after his 10th-place finish. That was made possible by Hamlin slowing down at the end of stage 2 to let Johnson by and stay on the lead lap.
After the race, Johnson admitted that wouldn’t have happened if Hamlin viewed him as a threat to win. Hamlin, meanwhile, simply said he was doing something nice for a future withdrawal.
“Just trying to be a nice guy,” Hamlin said. “Never can have too many friends out there, especially this point of the season. You go a lap down, it changes your race. Obviously he was up there racing in the top five there towards the end.
“Just putting another coin in the deposit box.”
The DNF: While the obvious choice here is Ryan Newman after his last-place finish, we’re not going with the obvious. The No. 77 car was incredibly slow all weekend. It was so slow that NASCAR ordered that Timmy Hill park it for not meeting minimum speed. That makes two races this year where the No. 77 car has been parked for being too slow. That’s one more parking than win this season.
That Daytona finish is going to go down as one of the flukiest Cup Series wins in history.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports
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