NASCAR Cup playoffs: Round of 8 outlook

·5 min read

The first ticket to the Championship 4 will be on the line in Sunday’s Round of 8 opener for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs at Texas Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock Premium).

The Round of 8 begins with consecutive 1.5-mile tracks in Texas and Kansas Speedway (Oct. 24, NBCSN). It ends on Halloween at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway (NBC and Peacock Premium).

At the end of that race, four playoff drivers will have earned the treat of making the Nov. 7 title race at Phoenix Raceway.

The other four will feel like Charlie Brown.

Once again, Kyle Larson begins the round at the top. He holds a 42-point cushion above the cutline. That buffer nearly doubles the 22 points separating second-place Denny Hamlin from eighth-place Brad Keselowski.

Here’s a look at how the remaining eight contenders stack up going into their most critical stretch of the season.

Kyle Larson – 4,065 points (42 points above cutline)

  • Texas Cup career: Winless in 13 starts, avg. finish of 19.8, best finish of second (Apr. 2017)

  • Kansas Cup career: Winless in 13 starts, avg. finish of 16.6, best finish of second (Oct. 2014)

  • Martinsville Cup career: Winless in 13 starts, avg. finish of 21.1, best finish of third (Apr. 2016)

Larson is winless on all Round of 8 tracks, but this season, he has two wins on 1.5-mile tracks (Las Vegas, Charlotte) and another on a paved short track (Bristol). Martinsville has been historically tough for him, but this past spring, he earned his first top five there since 2016 with a fifth-place finish.

Denny Hamlin – 4,030 points (7 points above cutline)

  • Texas Cup career: Three wins in 30 starts (most recent win: March 2019), avg. finish of 13.8

  • Kansas Cup career: Three wins in 26 starts (most recent win: July 2020), avg. finish of 14.4

  • Martinsville Cup career: Five wins in 31 starts (most recent win: March 2015), avg. finish of 9.7

Hamlin has an average finish of 7.4 on 1.5-mile tracks this season and won the most recent race on a 1.5-mile track at Las Vegas during the Round of 12. This spring at Martinsville, he led a race-high 276 laps before finishing third.

Martin Truex Jr. – 4,029 points (6 points above cutline)

  • Texas Cup career: Winless in 31 starts, avg. finish of 13.6, best finish of second (three times)

  • Kansas Cup career: Two wins in 26 starts (most recent win: Oct. 2017), avg. finish of 13.0

  • Martinsville Cup career: Three wins in 31 starts (most recent win: April 2021), avg. finish of 16.5

Martinsville is the ace in the hole for Truex if he finds trouble in Texas or Kansas. He has won three of the last four races at the half-mile short track. During that span, he’s led 37.3% of the laps run (745 of 2,000).

Ryan Blaney – 4,024 points (1 point above cutline)

  • Texas Cup career: Winless in 12 starts, avg. finish of 17.3, best finish of second (Nov. 2018)

  • Kansas Cup career: Winless in 13 starts, avg. finish of 15.8, best finish of third (Oct. 2017)

  • Martinsville Cup career: Winless in 11 starts, avg. finish of 10.7, best finish of second (twice)

On 1.5-mile tracks this season, Blaney won at Atlanta in March and is coming off consecutive fifth-place finishes at Atlanta in July and Las Vegas last month. This spring at Martinsville, Blaney had a shot to win until he ran over pit equipment on his final stop. He could only recover for 11th after the ensuing penalty.

Kyle Busch – 4,023 points (1 point below cutline)

  • Texas Cup career: Four wins in 30 starts (most recent win: Oct. 2020), avg. finish of 11.0

  • Kansas Cup career: Two wins in 27 starts (most recent win: May 2021), avg. finish of 15.1

  • Martinsville Cup career: Two wins in 32 starts (most recent win: Oct. 2017), avg. finish of 12.1

A stellar average finish of 3.9 on the 1.5-mile tracks this season make Kyle Busch a particular threat at both Texas and Kansas. He won at Texas last fall and at Kansas this past spring.

Chase Elliott – 4,022 points (2 points below cutline)

  • Texas Cup career: Winless in 10 starts, avg. finish of 12.0, best finish of fourth (Nov. 2016)

  • Kansas Cup career: One win in 11 starts (Oct. 2018), avg. finish of 10.5

  • Martinsville Cup career: One win in 12 starts (Nov. 2020), avg. finish of 13.5

Elliott has earned four consecutive finishes of seventh or better on 1.5-mile tracks. He’s also been solid recently at Martinsville with three consecutive top-five finishes there, including a win last fall in the playoffs and a runner-up this spring.

Joey Logano – 4,013 points (11 points below cutline)

  • Texas Cup career: One win in 25 starts (Apr. 2014), avg. finish of 13.4

  • Kansas Cup career: Three wins in 24 starts (most recent win: Oct. 2020), avg. finish of 17.5

  • Martinsville Cup career: One win in 25 starts (Oct. 2018), avg. finish of 12.1

Texas and Kansas are both 550 horsepower package races, and those have been a challenge for Logano and Team Penske this season. But if Logano can grind out decent results and points in those races, he can strike at Martinsville, where he’s earned one win and six finishes of eighth or better in his last seven starts.

Brad Keselowski – 4,008 points (16 points below cutline)

  • Texas Cup career: Winless in 25 starts, avg. finish of 16.9, best finish of second (twice)

  • Kansas Cup career: Two wins in 23 starts (most recent win: May 2019), avg. finish of 11.3

  • Martinsville Cup career: Two wins in 23 starts (most recent win: March 2019), avg. finish of 11.2

Keselowski has been steady in recent races at all three Round of 8 tracks, but particularly so at Kansas and Martinsville. At Kansas, he’s earned one win and five finishes of sixth or better in his last six races. And while he crashed this spring at Martinsville, he had earned five consecutive top five and 10 consecutive top-10 finishes there before that setback.

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NASCAR Cup playoffs: Round of 8 outlook originally appeared on NBCSports.com