We’ve made it to the cutoff race for the Round of 12 already. Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (2:30 p.m. ET/NBC/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will mark the sixth race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Here’s the main storylines for this weekend’s race.
How To Tune In
Coverage – 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio – MRN
Distance 267 Laps/400.5 Miles
Stage Lengths – 80/80/107
Track – Kansas Speedway
Defending Race Winner – Chase Elliott
Playoffs – RD 2, Race 3
Sunday will mark the sixth race of the 2019 Cup Series postseason. So far, we’ve had five different winners from five different teams including four straight of such.
Martin Truex Jr. went back-to-back to start the playoffs off in his No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. He won at both Las Vegas and Richmond in the first round. But, from Richmond on, we’ve had a new race winner each week from a completely new organization.
Chase Elliott in his No. 9 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports won the next week in the Round of 16 cutoff race on the Charlotte ROVAL. Kyle Larson in his No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing was victorious a week later in Dover. On Monday, Ryan Blaney won the rain delayed 1000Bulbs.com 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway in his No. 12 Ford for Team Penske.
If trends are going to hold true, then expect a playoff driver to win Sunday’s race at the Kansas Speedway and expect that driver to be either Kevin Harvick or Clint Bowyer. They’re the only one left to keep this going as he nor Stewart-Haas Racing has won a race this postseason.
Spin And Win?
This has also been a wild postseason in terms of overcoming in race miscues. Martin Truex Jr. was spun by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the closing laps of the penultimate race of the opening round at Richmond and still was able to rebound and celebrate in victory lane for his second win in six days. A week later, Chase Elliott got into the first turn too hot on mid race restart on the Charlotte ROVAL and despite being in the race lead at the time, he went straight into the tire barriers. He’s come back and win the race outright not long after.
Then, Ryan Blaney spun while getting onto pit road on his opening pit sequence this past weekend in Talladega. He too was leading at the time. Blaney, would escape the typical Talladega carnage throughout the rain delayed event and end up celebrating in victory lane for the first time in over a year.
Three of the last four races have seen a race leader end up spinning/crashing then coming back to win later on. Will it happen again over the next five weeks?
Larson, Blaney Eyeing More Playoff Points
If both Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney don’t want to enter the Round of 8 with such a large gap and almost already be forced to a must-win situation over the three race third round, they need to accumulate as many playoff points as they can this weekend in Kansas.
See, we know both will be advancing to the next round via their victories in each of the last two weeks. Larson, won at Dover while Blaney won in Talladega. Throw in the advantage that the trio of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have currently as well as Kevin Harvick’s gap to the playoff bubble, and you pretty much know six of the eight driver who will be racing for the championship still starting next week in Martinsville.
But, look at their playoff points too.
Kyle Busch has the most scored at 46. Martin Truex Jr. would be next at 42. Denny Hamlin has 31. Kevin Harvick has 28. Should he advance, Joey Logano has 29.
Where this makes a difference is, the points are reset again once Sunday’s race ends. The eight remaining drivers will all start at the same amount of points (4,000). Then, the playoff points are bonus points added on top of that.
So, Busch, will be first with 4,046 points. Truex, would be second at 4,042. Hamlin would be third at 4,031. With only four spots moving onto the Championship 4, if Logano makes it by, he would hold onto it at 4,029. If he doesn’t, then that spot would go to Harvick at 4,028.
How many does Larson and Blaney have?
11 and nine respectively.
So, we know then that if they don’t get any stage wins or neither wins Sunday’s race, then they’d at the very least be 17 points down for Larson 19 arrears for Blaney.
That’s a lot of points to make up to championship caliber drivers in a three week span. So, for these two, with seven playoff points on the line this weekend, they need as many as they can get.
A race win nets someone five playoff points and a stage win gets an extra point for each. Larson and Blaney have to hope they can score those stage wins and one reach victory lane, or if Busch, Truex, Hamlin, Harvick or Logano score more, then that gap grows wider.
Top Teams Should Win, But Who?
To start 2019 off with, Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing combined to win the first nine races overall and 15 of the opening 16. But, over the next seven, they combined to win just once. Then, over the next five, they won four. But, over the last three, they’ve won just once – Talladega.
From 15 wins in the first 16 races to six of the last 15.
But, out of those six wins since late June, five have been by JGR. Penske’s win in Talladega by Ryan Blaney was their first since June 10. We didn’t know it then, but when Brad Keselowski won the spring race at Kansas, Joey Logano’s victory at the Michigan International Speedway in June would be the only other time that Penske would score a victory over the next 18 races.
Kyle Busch has also only won once since then too. Who would have thought that?
Stewart-Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports have since picked up the slack. They’ve won six of the last 15 races. Throw in JGR’s five wins and and that trio of teams have won 11 of the last 15 races overall.
The only other teams to have won in that time frame is Chip Ganassi Racing (twice) and Spire (once).
But, look for the big teams to shine again this weekend in Kansas. Each of the last five playoff races at Kansas has been won by either JGR or an affiliate, SHR or HMS. The last 11 Kansas races overall have been won by the same three teams. 15 of the last 17 have been won by them.
The only two races that they didn’t win was Kevin Harvick when he was with RCR in 2013 and Matt Kenseth when he was with RFR in 2012. RCR not RFR isn’t winning on Sunday.
Ganassi, has never won at Kansas before but would be the only other team that I would bet on that would.
To me, SHR, Hendrick or Truex Jr. in my opinion would be the ones to beat.
Can Busch/Logano Get Going?
Kyle Busch looks good on making it to the Round of 8. Joey Logano needs a little bit of help but he realistically can get there. No defending Cup Series champion has been bounced before the Round of 8 before, so Logano is hoping to not become the first.
But, if either Logano or Busch want to win the title next month, then they really need to start turning things around quickly.
Busch, has only scored four top five finishes in his last 14 starts on the season. He hasn’t won a race since June 2 at Pocono.
Logano, hasn’t won a race since June 10 at Michigan. He’s only had one top five finish in the last 14 starts himself.
Maybe they can change things around this weekend in Kansas.
Busch, came home runner-up in this race last year as that’s his only top five in his last four starts on the 1.5-mile track. He does have eight top 10’s in his last nine tries overall there, six of which being in the top five, but he was 30th back in May though. He was quickest in every long run metric in practice on Friday.
Logano, finished 15th in the spring race and has three finishes of 15th or worse in his last five Kansas tries.
Hendrick Motorsports Needing A Win
It appears that Hendrick Motorsports is hoping to key in on some new found speed on their intermediate program. Sunday’s race at Kansas would be another place they could spotlight it. Their championship hopes may depend on it.
On a similar 1.5-mile track at Las Vegas last month, they finished 4-6-7-11. At Kansas back in May, they came home 2-4-6-20.
Other than his crash in Talladega, Jimmie Johnson hasn’t finished worse than 11th since the playoffs started in Vegas. He was sixth at Kansas back in May. From 2007 through 2016, he had 14 top 10 finishes in 16 tries there. On 1.5-mile tracks this season, Johnson has scored a top 11 in five of his last six tries.
William Byron hasn’t had a ton of success at Kansas but does have three top seven finishes in his last six tries on the season and four top 10 finishes in his last six tries on 1.5-mile tracks this season as well.
Alex Bowman was runner-up in the spring race. He was ninth in the playoff race last year. He also has three top six finishes in five playoff races run in 2019 too. On 1.5-mile tracks, Bowman has four top seven finishes in his last five tries on them this season.
That leaves Chase Elliott who won this race last year and has six top 10 finishes in his last nine starts on the season. Also, Elliott has three top four finishes in his last four Kansas starts.
The problem is, three of the four spots in the drop zone are held by the HMS playoff drivers. Bowman is 18 points out, Elliott 22 and Byron 27. That’s likely too much to make up on points alone. They need to win but none of the four cars this weekend have shown much speed in any metric.
Penske Feast or Famine Lately At Kansas
Team Penske has won just one race since June 10. That’s worrisome for their championship hopes. If you want to win the title, you need to start winning races ago. While Brad Keselowski won the spring race at Kansas, I don’t feel good about them this weekend.
Keselowski, has only two top five finishes at Kansas since 2012. He does have five top five finishes in his last eight starts on the season and eight top 10’s in his last 12, but this may not be the weekend for a win. He’s failed to get a top 10 in both races this round, so a solid day would suffice. He has a good short run car as evident in practice on Friday.
Martin Truex Jr. is the only driver to sweep both Kansas races in the same season (2017), so odds are for Keselowski to do so this weekend.
His teammates may struggle too.
Logano, finished 15th in the spring race and has three finishes of 15th or worse in his last five Kansas tries. He also hasn’t won a race since June 10 at Michigan. Furthermore, Logano only has one top five finish in the last 14 starts himself. He’s on the playoff bubble. Logano, was just 13th and 16th respectively on short run speed on Friday but his car unlike Keselowski’s was quicker as a run goes on.
Then there’s Ryan Blaney. He is somewhat good at Kansas with a span of four top seven finishes in his first six Cup starts on the 1.5-mile track, but his last three were 37th, seventh and 32nd respectively. Blaney’s, also only scored three top 10 finishes in his last 11 starts on the season as well. Six of his eight starts on 1.5-mile tracks in 2019 have been 13th or worse with four of them being 22nd or worse. Luckily for him, his win on Monday has him into the next round though. He does seem to have the best car this weekend as shown in practice with great short run and very good long run speed.
Joe Gibbs Racing Has Struggled In Past, Have Quick Cars This Weekend
It seemed odd, but coming into the weekend, I wouldn’t count on Joe Gibbs Racing vying for the win Sunday either. JGR drivers struggled at Kansas back in May as well as on 1.5-mile tracks lately too. JGR may have won Vegas with Martin Truex Jr. but also went 15-19-36 too.
In the spring race, they finished 3-16-19-30 at Kansas.
So, what happens this weekend?
The top three drivers in the playoff standings that haven’t won this round belong to them. They have such a large lead, they just need to be conservative and move onto the Round of 8.
Kyle Busch at one point would be considered a favorite. But, he’s struggled lately. Busch, has only scored four top five finishes in his last 14 starts on the season. He hasn’t won a race since June 2 at Pocono. He came home runner-up in this race last year as that’s his only top five in his last four starts on the 1.5-mile track. He does have eight top 10’s in his last nine tries overall there, six of which being in the top five, but he was 30th back in May though. On 1.5-mile tracks this season, Busch has three finishes of 19th or worse in his last five tries. But, this weekend, he led the way in every long run metric in practice.
Denny Hamlin has just five top 10 finishes at Kansas since 2012. He hasn’t been better than fifth in his last seven Kansas starts overall and has been 15th or worse in four of his last five starts on intermediate tracks. What he has going for him in three top five finishes in his last four tries on the season. He also was eighth, fourth and third on long run speed.
Truex Jr. won both races in 2017, was second and fifth respectively last year but only 19th in the spring race. He won two races on 1.5-mile tracks in 2019 but those are his only top fives in his last seven starts on intermediate tracks. He was fourth, third, eighth and seventh on long run speed himself.
Erik Jones could be the spoiler with three straight top seven finishes on the Kansas City area race track. He also has five top seven finishes in eight starts on 1.5-mile tracks himself.
While it will be very hard for a non playoff driver to win on Sunday, it is possible for some spoilers to steal top 10’s though. Jimmie Johnson enters hot with four straight top 11 finishes. He was sixth at Kansas back in May. From 2007 through 2016, he had 14 top 10 finishes in 16 tries there.
Jones, has three straight top seven finishes on the 1.5-mile track and drives a JGR car too.
Aric Almirola was ninth in the fall race of 2017, ninth and 10th respectively last year and 12th back in May.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has finished 11th in three of his last five Kansas starts.
Austin Dillon has three top 11 finishes in his last six tries.
4 Harvick – Trends say he will win. We’ve had four straight different winners from four different teams. Harvick, also has a car capable of winning (9th, 2nd on short run, 3rd, 5th, 4th and 1st long run) to go along with a good past history on this race track.
12 Blaney – He has one of the better cars this weekend (5th in both practices on short run, 2nd on both practices on every long run metric). He has pretty good stats on this track too.
18 KyBusch – He has the best speed long run. He also has eight top 10 finishes in his last nine Kansas starts including being runner-up in this race last year.
11 Hamlin – He has three top five finishes in his last four starts on the season. He was quick in every metric in practice on Friday.
1 KuBusch – Here’s a sleeper for a top five. Busch, was sixth and third in both practices on single lap speed. He was also ninth, ninth, sixth and fifth respectively on long run speed too.