ThatsRacin

Twists, turns remain (at Sonoma, elsewhere), but final NASCAR playoff spot down to 3

Matt Kenseth has been uncharacteristically mediocre this season but is still in contention for a NASCAR Cup Series playoff spot.
Matt Kenseth has been uncharacteristically mediocre this season but is still in contention for a NASCAR Cup Series playoff spot. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Matt Kenseth has entered 17 races at Sonoma Raceway, site of this weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race, and turned 1,822 laps there. Not one of them has been from the lead – it is the only track at which he has never led.

He has just one top 10 (eighth in 2008) at the road course in northern California and hasn’t finished better than 13th since then. Based on average finish (21.9), it is his worst track by three full positions. He was asked once what the cause of his problems were there, and he answered, with characteristic bluntness, “the whole thing.”

Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 looms large in the fight for the 16th and final playoff spot, which appears to be coming down to a battle among three drivers – Kenseth, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. A good finish at Sonoma could play a huge factor in one of them solidifying his spot in the playoffs – if not guaranteeing it with a win – but it seems safe to say Kenseth won’t be guaranteed of anything after this race.

JoeyLogano
Joey Logano finished third at Michigan last week, ending a horrible five-race stretch in which he finished no better than 21st. Carlos Osorio AP

With wins factored into the points, Logano and Kenseth are tied at 15th, with 298 points. A victory by a driver below them would knock one of them out; Logano holds the tiebreaker.

Kenseth has been uncharacteristically mediocre this season. He has led laps in only two races, at Richmond and Talladega, and has just three top-five and six top-10 finishes. He is part of a perplexing team of drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle Busch has been fast everywhere but hasn’t won, while Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and rookie Daniel Suarez have all been inconsistent.

Logano has a remarkable seven top-five finishes this season, including a victory, but the win was deemed “encumbered” because of a rules violation and therefore does not grant him automatic entrance into the postseason. Of the three, Logano is the most likely to win between now and the start of the playoffs.

ClintBowyer
Clint Bowyer, who trails Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano by seven points, is having a resurgent season. Carlos Osorio AP

He finished third at Michigan last week, ending a horrible five-race stretch in which he finished no better than 21st. Before that, he was one of the fastest drivers in the series, leading laps in nine of the first 10 races. Logano has been solid at Sonoma. He has yet to win there, but he led laps in three of his eight starts and has four top 10s and an average finish of 12.9.

Bowyer, who trails Kenseth and Logano by seven points and would miss the playoffs if they started today, is having a resurgent season after finishing 27th in points last year.

As such, he has the least to lose by not making the playoffs. He hasn’t won since 2013, but at least a win seems possible, which wasn’t true last year when he drove for a lower-tier team before moving to Stewart-Haas Racing.

Based on his average finish (11.5), Sonoma is his best track. In fact, among active drivers, Bowyer has the best average finish there, and in the last 10 races there, nobody has scored more points than he has. He has a win, six top-fives and eight top-10s, a sterling record marred only by a last place finish last year because of an electrical failure.

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