By Jared Turner
After the chaos and carnage of Talladega — host to the only restrictor plate race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs — it’s back to regular business this weekend at Kansas Speedway. And, rest assured, there is some real business to be had.
Ten drivers will battle it out for six remaining positions in the next round as the playoff field is whittled from 12 drivers to eight. Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski have already secured berths in the Round of 8 by virtue of winning the past two weekends at Charlotte and Talladega, respectively.
The drivers currently in position to join them are Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Jimmie Johnson. Johnson holds the final transfer spot over Kyle Busch (-7 points), Matt Kenseth (-8 points), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-22 points) and Jamie McMurray (-29 points).
Of the 12 remaining championship contenders, only race winner Keselowski and Hamlin managed to avoid being involved in one of last weekend’s numerous wrecks at Talladega, which jumbled up the championship standings and set the stage for an intriguing elimination race on Sunday afternoon in Kansas City.
Realistically given the points deficit they face, McMurray and Stenhouse need to win at Kansas to advance. Everyone else has at least a chance of advancing on points. As the driver in the best position to move on, Larson feels reasonably confident about his chances of securing a spot in the Round of 8.
“We just need to go to Kansas and have a solid race,” said Larson, who is 29 points ahead of the cutoff spot. “A top-10 run will be all we need to do, probably.”
Seven-time champion Johnson, currently clinging to the eighth and final transfer spot, would be in an even more precarious position were it not for the 15 playoff points he amassed for this three wins during the regular season.
“Definitely valuable,” Johnson said of his playoff points. “That was part of the plan coming (to Talladega), and I think the whole field kind of had that same mindset. We had a very fast Lowe’s Chevrolet even with it torn up after a couple of little incidents on the track. We were still in there mixing it up for the win.”
Also mixing it for the win but somehow managing to avoid the carnage that swallowed up so many playoff drivers was Hamlin, who thanks to a sixth-place finish, is fifth in the standings and has a 21-point buffer on teammate Kyle Busch in ninth.
Hamlin was grateful to finish his afternoon at Talladega on the track instead of sitting in the garage with a battered race car — even if he admittedly was disappointed about not winning.
“There’s so few race cars out there, my chances were pretty good to win, especially given the circumstances we were (about) the only ones with no damage,” Hamlin said. “It certainly could’ve been worse. There were guys around us that got caught up in wrecks and so that part of it was good for us, but you just want to have a shot to win, and we had a shot to win and just didn’t quite have all everything just right.”
McMurray would gladly trade places with Hamlin and several others. As one of the first drivers to exit the race at Talladega due to an accident, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver finds himself in a major hole entering Sunday’s elimination race.
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” McMurray said. “It’s part of Talladega. We know you can come out of Talladega with a lot of points and be a winner, or you can be in the position we are right now. We’ll go to Kansas and do our best.”