Not much has changed through NASCAR’s first two rounds of playoffs: Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are still favored to race for the championship and the other two contenders are a crapshoot.
The path to the championship finale begins Sunday at Kansas Speedway, the first of three races in the title-setting third round. It’s a fairly straightforward series with ensuing stops at Texas Motor Speedway, like Kansas a 1.5-mile intermediate oval, then half-mile Martinsville Speedway, NASCAR’s shortest and oldest active track.
At stake are four slots in the winner-take-all Nov. 8 finale at Phoenix Raceway and no obvious indicators on who will be challenging Harvick and Hamlin. The two have combined for 16 wins in 32 races this season and have hoarded enough points that it would likely take some sort of sudden collapse to keep the favorites from advancing to the finale.
Harvick, the points leader, had a mediocre second round but doesn’t seem too concerned about these next three races.
“I think these racetracks are right up our alley, especially the first two,” Harvick said.
Hamlin has won NASCAR’s last two visits to Kansas, a turnaround after several so-so races. He’s the betting favorite to win Sunday and believes his Joe Gibbs Racing team has a strong database for winning three consecutive races.
It would certainly give Hamlin a head-start on championship preparations.
“We could go the next two weeks and really shift our focus from Texas and Martinsville to putting all of our resources towards Phoenix,” Hamlin said. “That would certainly be a benefit for whoever locks in right off the bat.”
The other six playoff drivers can earn an automatic berth in the finale by winning but otherwise have a tense stretch of three races ahead.
With four wins this season, including one in the first round of the playoffs, Keselowski has been the only driver close to competing with Harvick and Hamlin. He won the 2012 title under a different format and has never raced for the championship since the elimination rounds debuted in 2014.
“I think there are three or four drivers competing for the final two spots,” he said. “We’re all very similar. It’s probably going to come down to the wire at Martinsville.”
This is the fourth consecutive year Elliott has advanced into the semifinals and he’s again trying to advance to the finale. Earlier visits this season to Kansas and Texas were disappointing and Elliott knows he’s got to be steady to make it to Phoenix.
“We’re not going to try to reinvent the wheel. We don’t want to get too far off the beaten path,” Elliott said. “I feel like for us, when we’ve been at our best and as a team, myself included, performing at the level that we’re all capable of doing, I feel like we’ve contended with the best of the series this year.”
Logano has struggled on intermediate tracks since his February victory at Las Vegas and acknowledges that not practicing during COVID-19 protocols has hampered his ability to adapt to the high-downforce aerodynamic package.
He’s in his first season with crew chief Paul Wolfe and now, with a month to go, the duo believes they’ve found a rhythm.
“It just took a little bit for Paul and I to understand what makes the car tick,” Logano said. “What makes it tick with me? Without practice, that’s really hard to do.”