ThatsRacin

NASCAR: With playoff eliminations underway, time to separate contenders and pretenders

Kurt Busch (41) remains a contender for the NASCAR Cup series title, even if he doesn’t fit into NASCAR’s trending marketing campaigns.
Kurt Busch (41) remains a contender for the NASCAR Cup series title, even if he doesn’t fit into NASCAR’s trending marketing campaigns. AP

While everyone in the NASCAR industry was busy drooling over the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway — and to be fair, the early indications of TV ratings say they had every right to be — something else got lost in the shuffle.

We’re just seven races away from crowning the next Cup Series champion.

And while Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin and Austin Dillon were all eliminated Sunday during the first round of playoff cutdowns, there are still 12 very capable, very hungry drivers gunning for that title.

Which of those 12 are true contenders? And which are merely hanging on for dear life?

We’ll excuse the Big 3 of Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick for the purpose of this exercise, as it’s clear from their performances this season that they’re all worthy of a second Cup Series championship. But as for everyone else? Well, let’s sort through some of the biggest names:

Pretenders

Clint Bowyer: Before Bowyer’s third-place finish on the Roval at Charlotte — again, with two serious collisions in the last 10 laps — he’d only recorded one Top-5 finish since the first weekend in July. That’s... not awesome. And on top of that, his second win of the year at Michigan only came because the race was called on account of weather. That race keeps going, and Harvick’s easily stealing that win from his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate.

Has this been a redemption season of sorts for Bowyer, who hadn’t won a race since 2012? Yes, absolutely. But the consistency of contending for race wins just hasn’t been there over the second half of the season. Bowyer was a great feel-good story earlier in the year, but now that we’re getting down to the best of the best, he might be caught on the outside looking in.

Joey Logano: Logano’s one win this season? Talladega. And which race comes right after Dover this weekend? That’s right — Talladega.

But counting on consecutive wins at Talladega is about as reliable as expecting to win the lottery twice in a year. Just ain’t happening. On top of that, Logano’s been around the front of the pack at several recent races, including Darlington, Bristol and Las Vegas, but never with a true chance to win. It’s starting to feel like another good-not-great year from the No. 22 car... but of course, that could change if he doubles down at ‘Dega.

Ryan Blaney: Listing the most-recent race winner as a pretender may seem harsh, but even Blaney acknowledged after his win Sunday night that he had mixed feelings about his first victory this year. Knowing that two other drivers spun out and he just happened to be in the right place at the right time, he said, wasn’t how you’d want to win a race.

But the truth is, that victory is one of the few things giving buoyancy to Blaney’s championship hopes. He was in danger of missing the cut going into the Roval, and even with that win he’s still ninth in the points standings. Blaney has had a winning car at several races this year, but ultimately wasn’t able to put things together. Did Sunday’s come-from-behind victory really do anything to change that?

Contenders

Brad Keselowski: OK, so maybe this is cheating a little bit. Keselowski won three straight races to end the regular season and open the playoffs, putting him right there in the conversation with Truex, Busch and Harvick. Some people even contemplated changing the Big 3 to the Big 4 to accommodate a new contender.

And while Keselowski has finished ninth and 31st the last two weekends, even those results aren’t fully representative of his runs in those events. There’s something to be said for the power of momentum, and while Keselowski may be coming back to level after three electrifying wins in a row, he’s clearly the hottest driver in the Cup Series right now. That has to count for something.

Kyle Larson: You’ve got to feel for Larson at this point. The man has five runner-up finishes this year and still no victories to show for it — and that doesn’t even include the Roval, when he was among the leaders before a late crash torpedoed his afternoon.

Larson needed a last-lap dash at Charlotte just to pass the finish line and eek out a tiebreaker with Aric Almirola and Jimmie Johnson, which may not seem like something befitting of a contender. But given his excellence all season, there’s reason to believe Larson and his No. 42 team are on the verge of a breakthrough. Put his previous playoff failures aside, and Larson still has the goods to make a championship run.

Kurt Busch: Busch may not fit into the trendy groups currently dominating NASCAR’s marketing campaigns — at 40 years old and with just one win, he doesn’t fit into the young guns or the Big 3 — but his results speak for themselves.

A pole at the Roval demonstrates his savvy and raw speed still, and dating back to Daytona in July, he only has two finishes outside the Top 10. That’s dependability, even if he doesn’t get the hype or attention those results deserve. Replace Kurt Busch’s name with someone more flashy, and you’d be talking about a legitimate title contender. But just being Kurt Busch, a one-time Cup Series champ already, with those results is enough to know he won’t bow out of this season easily.

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

Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Gander Outdoors 400.

Distance: 400 laps, or 400 miles.

Where: Dover International Speedway, a 1-mile concrete oval in Dover, Delaware.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday.

TV: NBCSN.

Radio: MRN.

Last year’s winner: Kyle Busch.

Also this week: Bar Harbor 200 presented by Sea Watch International, Xfinity Series, Dover International Speedway, 3 p.m., Saturday, NBCSN.

Worth mentioning: Chase Elliott almost won his first Cup Series race in this event last year, dominating most of the third stage until Kyle Busch passed him with a lap to go.

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

HOT

Ryan Blaney: Maybe he didn’t quite deserve his first win of the season on the Roval, but come-from-behind still gets you the same thing as domination: a checkered flag.

Martin Truex Jr.: If you’re talking about who should have won at the inaugural Roval, it’s easily Truex — and even though he got spun out 100 yards from the finish, he’s still third in the overall points standings.

NOT

Aric Almirola: Part of a three-way tie for the final playoff elimination, Almirola is lucky just to have survived to the next playoff round — and at 11th in the points standings, he’ll need some more luck to advance again.

Kyle Larson: Larson has had bad playoff luck for years, but Sunday’s disaster at the Roval has to come near the top of the list. Somehow, he still hasn’t won this season.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889; @brendanrmarks
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