The good news for the eight remaining NASCAR Cup Series playoff drivers is that Homestead is within arm’s reach: only three races stand in the way of somebody claiming the 2018 title, which has been the goal since the green flag waved over the Daytona 500 back on Feb. 18.
Now for some bad news: for those not named Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr., the chances of making it to Homestead aren’t that great. Looking at the playoff grid, there is only one spot available, because the Big 3 have built up such a point advantage over the rest of the playoff contenders that it’s unlikely they’ll fall out of transfer spots.
At least, not unless something drastic happens. But the first 32 races of the season have shown that Busch, Harvick, and Truex hardly have bad weeks, let alone three of them in a row.
Starting the Round of 8, the playoff grid looks like this:
Kyle Busch +40
Chase Elliott +3
Clint Bowyer -3
Joey Logano -3
Kurt Busch -3
Aric Almirola -12
Go ahead and pencil in 18-4-78 on the printable playoff grid, advancing either through points or a victory. Busch has won at all three of the upcoming tracks – at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix – and won at Martinsville a year ago. Harvick also has wins at all three races. While Truex doesn’t have a victory at any of those three places, he finished second at Martinsville, second at Texas and third at Phoenix to his way into Homestead a year ago. Of course, he went on to win the championship.
If you’re Elliott, Bowyer, Logano, Kurt Busch or Almirola and don’t like hearing that, the solution is simple. Just win, baby!
“We did a great job this round with two top fives and a top 10,” said Logano after Kansas. “A stage win [last Sunday], and we finished third in the other stage. We were scoring points, which is good enough to get you through these rounds, but I feel like this next round we are going to have to get a win to get through. Maybe they will have enough issues that you can build up enough points, but I think we need to win.”
To take away spots from the Big 3, the easiest route would be for multiple winners to emerge from Elliott on back on the playoff grid. For example, Bowyer goes and sweeps Martinsville. Logano takes the Texas race. Kurt Busch finishes the round with a Phoenix victory. All three punch a ticket to the title race, leaving the fourth spot up for grabs and the Big 3 suddenly in perilous position.
Easier said than done, of course. Numerous scenarios can play out over the next three weeks. Again, current trends make it hard to believe much is going to change at the top of the playoff grid to keep the three drivers who have dominated the headlines all season from being part of the big dance.
“The 18 [Kyle Busch] and the 4 [Harvick] have a pretty significant point advantage,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Elliott, said. “As well as they run, getting past them via points is probably a stretch. It’s possible, but probably a stretch.
“Before [Kansas], I felt like we were going to have to win one of those three to move on. I don’t know that my opinions changed a lot. Certainly, going to have to be in contention to win one of those three.”
Kyle Busch, Harvick, and Truex can claim spots at Homestead because their body of work throughout the season matters. By gobbling up playoff points, the three have had a relatively easy six races thus far, and when something has gone wrong, those same playoff points have been the safety net – which is precisely why they were created.
With their competition getting better each week and stage racing in play, it’s possible Kyle Busch, Harvick and Truex could be eliminated in the Round of 8. Just don’t count on it.