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Let NASCAR chaos reign: How upsets, looming eliminations have upended these playoffs

Aric Almirola’s victory at Talladega ensures himself a spot in the next round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs.
Aric Almirola’s victory at Talladega ensures himself a spot in the next round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs. AP

So, this wasn’t exactly the plan.

For the first, oh, 23 weeks of this NASCAR season, we had consistency. Dependability. We had a stable trio of winners — Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr., affectionately dubbed ‘The Big 3’ — who you knew would show up anywhere, anytime with a chance at a race win.

So... what the heck happened?

In the first 23 weeks of the season, those three drivers accounted for 17 total wins and another 11 second-place finishes.

Or in other words, they were the obvious, runaway, hands-down favorites to win week in and week out. Which, naturally, also made them three of the favorites to endure these NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and withstand until the championship race at Homestead in November.

But now? Since Harvick’s Week 23 win at Michigan, the Big 3 have only won one race: Kyle Busch at Richmond. And in the last five races, there have been five separate race winners, everyone from Busch to Aric Almirola, whose victory at Talladega snapped a 149-race drought. Not to mention, Truex has tumbled down the leaderboard and now is in jeopardy of being eliminated from the playoffs altogether.

Ladies and gentlemen, chaos.

Now, there’s absolutely a chance that the four drivers slated to be eliminated if the season ended today — Alex Bowman, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, and Brad Keselowski, in ascending order — won’t be the four who actually get axed this weekend at Kansas. It could very easily be Truex, just 18 points above the cutoff line. Or Clint Bowyer, three points above him. Heck, even with a little cushion, catastrophe could mean the end of the season for Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, or both.

The point is, who knows what’s going to happen?

And while that may not fit nicely with the organized plan we all had earlier this year, isn’t it even better?

Look, for as good as Truex was this year, there’s no reason whatsoever he deserves to be eliminated. Same with Brad Keselowski, who recently won three in a row... including the playoff opener. Even Ryan Blaney, whose victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s roval feels like forever ago, is on the chopping block.

The fact is, that’s the beauty of this current NASCAR playoff form. There’s too many talented drivers, not enough spots for them all. Sort of like musical chairs, only with more engine blowups and fighting afterward.

But in all seriousness, this playoff format forces tough and sometimes harsh eliminations... and that’s exactly what it should do. If these cutdowns were easy or as expected, they wouldn’t be captivating or worth watching in the slightest.

Instead, now we’ve got a reigning champ practically on the outs because Chase Elliott and Almirola won?

Yeah, I — and every NASCAR fan — will take those high stakes, winner-take-all races any day.

Well, everyone except Truex fans.

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

Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400.

Distance: 267 laps, or 400.5 miles.

Where: Kansas Speedway, a 1.5-mile asphalt tri-oval in Kansas City, Kansas.

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

TV: NBC.

Radio: MRN.

Last year’s winner: Martin Truex Jr.

Also this week: Kansas Lottery 300, Xfinity Series, Kansas Speedway, 3 p.m., Saturday, NBC.

Worth mentioning: Truex’s win at Kansas last fall came days after the death of one of his crew members, Jim Watson, and the team largely dedicated the victory to Watson.

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

HOT

Aric Almirola: His first win in nearly four years, after 149 other races, couldn’t have come at a better time — Almirola is safely through to the next stage of the playoffs and can only build from here.

Clint Bowyer: He narrowly missed out on his third win this season, but a second-place finish did wonders for his shot at advancing to the third round of the playoffs.

NOT

Alex Bowman: His 33rd-place finish at Talladega all but seals his playoff elimination this week, barring a miraculous win to salvage his season.

Martin Truex Jr.: He’s currently 18 points clear of being eliminated, which is... far too close for comfort for the defending Cup Series champion.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889; @brendanrmarks
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