By Jared Turner
The regular season is over. It’s playoff time.
The playoffs begin Sunday afternoon with the Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile track that will host the first of three races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Round of 16.
By the time the Round of 16 concludes at Dover on October 1, four drivers will have been eliminated from championship contention. While it’s not too hard to predict who among the 16 playoff drivers will advance to the next round, there are no guarantees. A bad race in the playoff opener could change everything — even for the drivers expected to move on and make a deep playoff run.
So when the green flag waves on Sunday afternoon, it’s almost like starting all over again — even for the drivers who have an advantage due to the playoff points they amassed during the regular season.
“I hope we don’t need them,” said points leader and title favorite Martin Truex Jr., who heads to Chicagoland with a 20-point buffer on second-place Kyle Larson. “Obviously I think it’s a good thing that we have them, and I think we could have used them last year, obviously, with the way the playoffs worked for us. But I think for us, we’ll just focus on running as strong as we possibly can and keep the momentum going that we’ve had here lately. The cars have been just lightning fast, and the team’s been doing a great job.”
The same is true for Larson, who enters the playoffs fresh off a huge victory in last weekend’s regular season finale at Richmond where the Chip Ganassi Racing driver scored his first career win on a short track.
“To get a win right before the playoffs start, I really hope it helps the momentum and the confidence, especially. I know there’s confidence with our team,” Larson said. “There always has been. We’ve just got to keep working hard throughout the playoffs, at the race shop and at the racetrack, making sure we’re improving our cars, which we have been all season long. I feel like we bring better and better cars every week. Just got to make no mistakes in these final races, and hopefully we’ll give ourselves a shot at the championship.”
Kyle Busch begins the playoffs as the No. 3 seed, just four points behind Larson. While certainly cognizant of the challenge he faces in Truex and Larson, the 2015 Monster Energy Series champion is upbeat about his prospects of being one of the four drivers who square off for the championship in the winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“We’ve been real fast all year long,” Busch said. “The 78 (Truex) has been the best car all year long. Then, arguably, it’s Kyle (Larson) or myself for P2, depending on the week. Fourth on back, it’s pretty much everybody else. Hopefully we can keep it that way through these next nine weeks and make it to the last one at Homestead.”
Although Truex, Larson and Busch are the clear heavyweights, there are 13 other drivers with championship dreams. The foundation for a surprising championship run could no doubt be laid with a victory or otherwise strong performance at Chicagoland in this weekend’s kickoff to the playoffs.
“Anything is possible,” said second-year Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott, one of three drivers who reached the playoffs without a victory. “I know that everyone is really going to start pushing it next week, and I hope our group is leading the pack when it comes to performance and the things that we need to do. Now is the time of the year to get in the right direction if we are going to do it. So, we will see.”