It’s time for another elimination race in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs when the number of remaining championship contenders shrinks from 12 drivers to eight.
And just in case there wasn’t enough pressure, NASCAR is racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s unpredictable half-oval, half-road course this weekend to determine who advances.
The 10-race playoffs began with 16 drivers, and after three races in the Round of 16, four were eliminated. Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte is the third race in the Round of 12, following races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
Winning is the most simple way to advance, but also, obviously, the most difficult. The remaining drivers will advance based on points earned in the playoff standings.
So ahead of the Round of 12 elimination race at Charlotte, here’s a look at the playoff picture.
Who’s won a playoff race and advanced to the Round of 8?
Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch won at Talladega and Las Vegas, respectively, so they automatically advance to the Round of 8.
Busch — for the first time in his two-decade NASCAR career — won at his “home” Las Vegas track in September in the Round of 12’s opening race. It was his first checkered flag of the 2020 season and 32nd career win, and it guaranteed him a spot in the next round.
At Talladega, a track famous for its chaos, Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team employed a conservative strategy, and it helped him survive a ridiculous, crash-filled day for his second career win at the 2.66-mile track. Hamlin now has seven checkered flags this season and is at the top of the playoff standings.
Have any other drivers locked themselves into the Round of 8 on points?
Not at this point. Following Hamlin and Busch in the playoff standings, Kevin Harvick is next with a comfortable lead on the rest of the field. And although he hasn’t clinched yet, he should have no problem advancing to the next round, even with a poor finish.
Who’s in trouble on the outside looking in?
The big one here is Kyle Busch, NASCAR’s defending champion who’s sitting on the wrong side of the cutoff bubble. To be fair, after the Round of 16 ended, Busch was asked about his feelings on the tracks included in the Round of 12, and said:
“We’ll be eliminated next round, so don’t care.”
Busch is 21 points below the cutoff mark, as is Austin Dillon. Other drivers in trouble include Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola, who are at the bottom of the playoff standings. In positions No. 9 through 12, they likely need to win at the Roval or to finish significantly higher than their fellow playoff drivers to advance to the next round.
There have only been two Cup Series races at the Roval, and Ryan Blaney won the first in 2018 and Chase Elliott won the second in 2019. Bowyer has the best finishes among the bottom-4 drivers, coming in third and fourth, respectively. Almirola was 19th and 14th in his two starts, while Dillon didn’t finish his first and was 23rd last season.
But if Sunday goes like Busch’s previous two Roval races, he’ll be knocked out of the playoffs. He crashed out of the 2018 race and had a suspension issue that kept him from finishing last year.
Who should be feeling good going into the Roval race?
Well, no one really when NASCAR’s only had two races there before. But beyond Harvick, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski are both in solid positions and more than 20 points above the cutoff line. Now, that could easily change during the race, but it would probably take a disaster for these two not to advance.
That seems unlikely for at least Elliott. Before winning the 2019 Roval race, Elliott finished sixth in the track’s Cup Series debut. And although Keselowski crashed out of the 2018 Roval race, he finished fifth last year.
What about the middle of the playoff pack?
Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman and Joey Logano are fifth, sixth and seventh in the playoff standings, respectively. Truex, who’s had two strong Roval races, has a slight cushion in the standings over Bowman and Logano, but it’s not enough to be in the same category as Keselowski and Elliott.
But expect Truex to contend for a win in this race with his road course skills. In addition to finishing seventh in 2019 and almost won in 2018, Truex has three wins at Sonoma Raceway and one win, plus a bunch of top-5s, at Watkins Glen International — two road courses on NASCAR’s schedule. He was also third on Daytona International Speedway’s road course race in August.