The semifinal round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begins Sunday afternoon (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC) at Kansas Speedway, and eight drivers remain eligible for the championship. Or, in theory, eight drivers are fighting for four spots in the title race next month.
With the buffer Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin have on their fellow playoff contenders, their respective paths to Phoenix remain comfortable. However, when the playoffs started, Brad Keselowski was one of those unconvinced anyone was penciled into a spot for Phoenix, given an unpredictable second round featuring Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.
His outlook is different now that the round is over, and Harvick and Hamlin escaped unscathed. Asked this week if it feels like six drivers are competing for two spots, Keselowski said, “it feels that way.”
Keselowski starts this round third on the playoff grid, 13 points above the cutline. He sits behind Kevin Harvick (45 points above the cutline) and Denny Hamlin (32 points above the cutline).
“Denny is not completely out of my reach,” Keselowski said. “I think he’s 19 points or something in front of me, so I think I’ve got a shot at legitimately racing him on points, but probably the others don’t. With respect to that, I think Kevin’s a pretty good way away from everybody.”
Below the cutline are Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, and Kurt Busch. Logano (five points behind) and Truex (10 points back) could erase their points deficits through two Kansas stages. Bowman (18 points behind) could do the same with two strong stages, while it’s not impossible but slightly tougher for Busch (21 points back) to completely erase his deficit, at least through stage points.
For Keselowski, he would much rather be 13 points up than behind going into the round. A two-time winner at Kansas, Keselowski finished second at the track in the first race there earlier this year. The driver who beat him? Hamlin, who heads into Kansas having won the last two races there.
But Keselowski is confident that Kansas and Martinsville will be strengths of his No. 2 Team Penske team. Texas, the middle race in the round, is likely their weakness. Regardless, the Round of 8 shapes up better for Keselowski and his fellow championship contenders than the unknowns of the round before it.
“If I looked at the last round, the tracks were certainly less easy to predict where this round the tracks should be a lot more straightforward,” said Keselowski. “Because of that, in some ways, it’s less stressful because you feel like you can control more of your own destiny. You can never control all of it, but more of it.
“That said, there are some really good teams, really good performers. On the other side, I guess, if you’re playing Devil’s advocate, ‘Hey, I’m really going to have to step up and deliver in this round because nothing by chance is going to work in my favor.’”
Of the eight remaining drivers, six of them have a combined 13 wins at Kansas (Keselowski, Hamlin, Harvick, Logano, Truex, and Elliott).
Four of the eight have previously won at Texas. Busch, Hamlin, Logano, and Harvick have eight wins between them.
At Martinsville, six of the eight have won before. Harvick, Hamlin, Keselowski, Logano, Truex, and Busch have combined for 13 wins there.
“I think there are three or four drivers competed for the final two spots,” said Keselowski. “We’re all very similar. It’s probably going to come down to the wire at Martinsville.”