With four of the 10 playoff races down let’s take a look at the playoff field so far. Doing it now makes a bit more sense than after Talladega, which is probably going to be a random race.
12. Alex Bowman
Bowman was in a decent position to hang with the drivers ahead of him but got caught in the final crash at Dover. He finished 28th. Without any bonus points or any consistent ability to run up front, Bowman looks like the surest bet — if there is one — to miss out on the third round of the playoffs.
“I thought [Brad Keselowski] was going to get to the bottom of the race track faster than he did,” Bowman said. “Dover is typically so self-cleaning, but he slid a little longer than I thought he would and I kind of just center-punched him. Watching the replay there was really nowhere to go. I wish I would have at least tried to go left, but part of it.”
11. Aric Almirola
Another race where Almirola had a car capable of winning and another race where everything went wrong. Almirola was running away with the victory until teammate Clint Bowyer crashed. Then Almirola crashed on the restart after he lost control of his car off turn 2 and tagged Keselowski. Almirola is just 10 points back of eighth so if he makes it through Talladega and a couple of drivers ahead of him crash, he’s in good shape at Kansas.
10. Kyle Larson
Larson’s 11th in the standings after finishing 12th. Thank his lack of bonus points entering the playoffs. Heck, Larson’s just happy to be here after a wild last lap that saw him get into the second round at the Roval two weeks ago. If Larson gets through Talladega in striking position to advance, his team better make sure the engine in his car is super reliable.
9. Ryan Blaney
Blaney became just the second driver of the NASCAR elimination playoff era to get his first win of the season in the playoffs. Only Jeff Gordon, who got his first victory at Martinsville in 2015, had done it before Blaney swiped a win away from the spun cars of Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. at the Roval. Sunday’s race was a success for Blaney. He finished 11th at a track that he’s typically pretty awful at.
8. Clint Bowyer
It’s very easy to second-guess Bowyer’s team’s decision to send his car back out on the track after he pitted with a major problem. Stewart-Haas Racing cars were running one-two at the time and ended up fifth, sixth and 13th. Bowyer was 35th after the crash.
Bowyer was four laps down when he hit the wall on lap 392. Had he not lost another lap through the final eight scheduled laps of the race he would have finished 31st or 32nd. That’s a gain of three or four points. Those points sure seemed worth it at the time, especially with Talladega looming. Bowyer’s car didn’t comply.
“When we pitted it was something in the rear, obviously, the right-rear, the left-rear was loose, it was all out of control, and then all of a sudden we went back out it was fine, so I took back off and then I think something in the left-front broke, it just went straight – whether I ran over something, I don’t know,” Bowyer said. “I’m just sick for Aric. He had that race won. It was his win and unfortunately his teammate had trouble and took him out of it.”
7. Joey Logano
Logano was third on Sunday and heads to the track where he won at in the spring. And he’s finished first, first and fourth in each of the last three fall races at Talladega. It’s hard to be confident about anyone’s chances at Talladega, but it’s easy to envision Logano or teammate Keselowski locking themselves into the third round with a win.
6. Kurt Busch
Las Vegas and Richmond are looking like aberrations for Busch. He better hope they are. Busch entered the playoffs with eight-straight top-10 finishes. He was then 21st at Vegas and 18th at Richmond. He’s finished fifth at the Roval and at Dover. Top fives are going to get Busch very far in the playoffs. A wreck at Talladega could screw all that up.
Points: Doesn’t matter, he won at Dover
Don’t let anyone try to convince you that Elliott is now the guy best equipped to challenge the top three in the points standings. He’s simply not by any metric other than recency bias.
And that’s nothing against him. It’s not often a team gets to steal a win via strategy the year after losing a race late at the same track. And Elliott and his team have shown that they are far and away the best Chevrolet team this season.
But the No. 9 team is still a tick behind on intermediate tracks and there’s Kansas, Texas and Homestead left this season. The last time Elliott led laps at an intermediate track was all the way back at Texas in April.
“I was shocked that those other guys didn’t stay out there with only seven laps to go,” Elliott said about many leaders hitting pit road late in the race while he stayed out. “I just felt like ‑‑ I thought staying out was the right thing to do if you have a few rows of cars behind you. If that’s the case, I think you can make it happen if you do all the other things right. But yeah, I was shocked that at least one of the two of them didn’t stay out there at the end.”
As we said Sunday night, Keselowski’s two-tire gamble was worth it even if he ultimately got crashed by Almirola. Keselowski has a 21-point advantage on ninth place after finishing 14th at Dover. With three wins and the bonus points that go along with them, Keselowski is still in a pretty good position. Getting through Talladega will be key.
3. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex was also caught in that late-race crash. He finished 15th. He may have the most fears of anyone in the top four or five heading to Talladega. He hasn’t finished in the top 10 at the track since the fall race of 2015. He’s also failed to finish the last four races at Talladega. Famously with an engine failure in the fall race of 2016 and then three-straight crashes after that.
2. Kyle Busch
Busch started first and led 21 laps Sunday. He finished eighth. Busch is no fan of Talladega either, but he’s more than a full race ahead of ninth in the points standings. He has a ton of cushion. It’ll be fun watching Busch and Harvick go toe-to-toe at Kansas in two weeks in a battle for more playoff points for the third round.
1. Kevin Harvick
Harvick is now the points leader after his sixth-place finish. It should be fun to see how the cunning driver handles Talladega. Does he run up front for most of the race? Wait in the back to see if the field wrecks ahead of him? Try to get as many stage points as possible to clinch a berth in the third round before Kansas?
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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