By Jared Turner
And then there were 12.
With three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff races in the books, only a dozen of the 16 original playoff drivers remain in the championship hunt. Leading the way as the series heads home to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the first of three races in the Round of 12 is Martin Truex Jr., whose 59 playoff points put him atop the standings.
Next is Kyle Busch, a winner of two of the first three playoff races. Busch has 41 playoff points — seven more than third-place Kyle Larson. Those three drivers began the playoffs widely considered the prohibitive championship favorites, and at least so far, nothing has happened to change that. It’s not farfetched to suggest, however, that Busch may have closed the performance gap on Truex, even if ever so slightly.
“You know, I don’t know that there’s necessarily a favorite,” Busch said after winning last Sunday’s playoff elimination race at Dover. “Maybe it closes our gap that the 78 (Truex) had on us a little bit where I still think it’s 78, 18 (Busch), 42 (Larson), and there’s different distances between us each and every week, I guess, depending on how we run and what all kind of goes on. So, it’s all about getting the stars to align and doing your job and having everything go your way.”
Busch captured the All-Star Race at Charlotte back in May and finished second in the following weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 at the 1.5-mile track, getting beat by Austin Dillon on a fuel strategy gamble.
Busch has never won a points-paying race at Charlotte, but, based on his performance during both May weekends, there’s no reason to think he won’t have one of the fastest cars in the field on Sunday afternoon.
“As far as the next round, any time you eliminate four drivers, the field gets thinner and the points you need to score to advance are even more,” said Busch’s crew chief, Adam Stevens. “You know, you’re going to have to be that much sharper, that much better, and that many fewer mistakes. Aside from winning, you just have to perform each and every week, and it just ramps up each time we go to a new round.”
Despite being slightly outperformed by Busch in the Round of 16, Truex remained rock-solid with finishes of first, fifth and fourth. Truex looks forward to returning to Charlotte, where he finished third in May and won last year’s Coca-Cola 600 in record-setting fashion. Talladega and Kansas are the other two tracks in the Round of 12.
“I feel good about it, you know?” Truex said of the upcoming playoff races. “I mean I thought we ran awful (at Dover), and finished fourth, so, I mean, that’s pretty good. Yeah, Charlotte, Talladega and Kansas, you never know. …. I feel good about Charlotte and Kansas, for sure. Talladega is a crapshoot.”
The Bank of America 500 at Charlotte has moved from a Saturday night race to a Sunday afternoon race, which will create a hot, slick track compared to the cooler, grippier surface that drivers are accustomed to seeing at Charlotte in the fall. While it’s hard to say whether the change from night to day plays to any particular driver’s advantage, Larson definitely prefers racing in the day.
“I always thought night racing was cool to watch,” the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said. “But now racing, I like day racing better just because the tracks seem to be hotter and slicker and the groove gets wider. You go to Charlotte, the day race there is awesome; the night race is horrible. I don’t know it’s definitely exciting for the fans and stuff like that, but I enjoy day racing.”