NASCAR & Auto Racing

Has Denny Hamlin’s time finally come to win the NASCAR Cup championship?

Denny Hamlin won last week’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway.
Denny Hamlin won last week’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway. AP

The third round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs get cranked up this weekend at Martinsville Speedway after what can only be described as a scintillating end of the second round at Kansas.

There are plenty of story lines to follow heading into the third round, which also includes races at Texas and Phoenix. Here are five of them:

Hamlin’s hot

Kansas winner Denny Hamlin, who’s the third seed, has won five times this season. He was incredibly consistently in the second round, also finishing fifth at Dover and third at Talladega. He probably wears the mantle of “best driver to never have won the championship.” He was close in 2010, when he finished second behind Jimmie Johnson. He’s poised to take that next step now.

Elliott squeezes in

Sixth-seed Chase Elliott, who finished second at Kansas, is the only driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ four-driver stable to qualify for the eight-driver third round (William Byron and Alex Bowman didn’t make the cut; Johnson didn’t qualify for the playoffs). And Elliott almost didn’t make it to the next round. He racked up 50 points with a runner-up finish at Kansas, enough to “point” his way into the next round. But he also needed Brad Keselowski to lose places (and drop points) late in the race, which Keselowski obliged Elliott by doing.

Time for Busch to step up?

Kyle Busch is the top seed in the third round. But Busch, the 2015 champion and a four-time winner this season, hasn’t won in the playoffs. His last trip to victory lane was at Pocono in early June. Busch has stayed comfortably near, or at, the top of the standings throughout the playoffs. He’s going to need to win again though to show he’s a contender for the title.

Can they do it again?

Seventh-seed Kyle Larson and No. 8 Ryan Blaney are in the third round thanks to second-round victories (Larson at Dover; Blaney at Talladega). They both start the round with a points deficit, but that didn’t stop them in the second round, when their victories also cost perennial contender Keselowski a spot.

Usual suspects

The remainder of the third round’s field contains former champs Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick. Second-seed Truex is the season’s victory leader (six), and he dominated the first round with two wins. No. 4 Logano is the defending champ. And fifth-seed Harvick, always in the mix, will never be out of the conversation (especially because of his career history at Phoenix, where he has won nine times).

David Scott: @davidscott14

This week’s NASCAR race at Martinsville: What you need to know.

Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series First Data 500.

Distance: 500 laps, or 263 miles.

Where: Martinsville Speedway, a .526-mile asphalt (concrete in turns) paper-clip shaped oval in Martinsville, Va.

When: 3 p.m., Sunday.

TV: NBCSN.

Radio: MRN.

Last year’s winner: Joey Logano.

Also this week: NASCAR Hall of Fame 200, Truck Series, Martinsville Speedway, Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1.

Worth mentioning: The Cup Series playoffs’ third round begins. ... The Xfinity Series is off this week. ... Brett Moffitt has a 23-point lead over Stewart Friesen in the Truck standings.

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

HOT

Denny Hamlin: Kansas victory gives him plenty of momentum heading into the third round.

Chase Elliott: Needed everything to go right at Kansas, and it did.

NOT

Brad Keselowski: Needed everything to go right at Kansas, and it didn’t.

Ryan Newman: Was in the mix earlier in the playoffs, didn’t last 72 laps at Kansas before a wreck took him out of the race and a last-place finish.

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