Four Above, Four Below: Who Has the Best Chance of Salvaging Their Season in Kansas?

Credit: Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

By Summer Bedgood, Managing Editor

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races heads closer and closer to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, all eyes are going to be on one thing during this weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway: the “bubble”.

More specifically, the cutoff line that will seal the fate of four drivers who will see their chances for the 2017 MENCS championship — perhaps quite literally — go up in smoke.

As expected, last weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway shook up the points, setting up for a stressful situation for drivers who were otherwise expected to advance to the Round of 8.

Kansas Speedway is one of a handful of intermediate racetracks in the playoffs, and it’s not necessarily difficult to figure out which drivers have shown strength on these types of tracks.

But what about the drivers on the outside looking in? Or those who are in jeopardy of falling out? Their fate certainly doesn’t seem as obvious.

Let’s take a look at the drivers who have their season at stake come Sunday afternoon.

Denny Hamlin +21

While not locked in, Hamlin sits a fairly comfortable 21 points ahead of the cutoff line. However, 21 points could easily swing in the other direction based depending on how well the No. 11 finishes in the first two stages and the performance of those around him.

While Hamlin does have two victories this season, neither are on the traditional D-shaped intermediate tracks. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has won previously at Kansas (back in 2012), but has only finished in the top 10 at this track twice since then.

On the bright side, five of Hamlin’s 13 top-five finishes this season have been at intermediate racetracks and teammate Kyle Busch has been extremely competitive on those configurations as well.

A “just good enough” day should be sufficient for Hamlin to make it into the Round of 8. But, as this new format has shown  time and time again, nothing is ever guaranteed.

Chase Elliott +20

If asked at the beginning of the season if Elliott would win before the start of the playoffs, most people would have responded in the affirmative. The sophomore driver’s nine top-fives and 17 top 10s show the speed necessary to get to Victory Lane, but for a variety of reasons it just hasn’t happened yet.

If Elliott maintains the results he has been earning as of late, he’ll easily and comfortably move onto the next round. Three second-place finishes in the last five races shows Elliott is right on the cusp of earning his first career victory.

The only points of concern are Elliott’s results at Kansas. His only top 10 finish at the track happened in his first career Cup Series race at the speedway. His other two results were outside of the top 25.

Keep in mind, however, that both results had more to do with bad luck and less to do with performance. The No. 24 car had speed prior to experiencing a cut tire in the fall race last season and damage from another car on pit road earlier this spring. The performance up until both incidents and up to this point in the season indicates Elliott will be a strong contender this Sunday.

Ryan Blaney +9

Arguably the most popular underdog story this season, Blaney and Wood Brothers Racing’s participation in this year’s playoffs was a welcome surprise to many in NASCAR — fans and competitors alike. For them to have made it this far can easily be labeled a successful year for this team.

Like any other race team out there, however, they want more.

Blaney is anything but comfortable heading into the weekend, especially looking at some of the drivers who are trying to race their way into the Round of 8. Though Blaney has had some speed this year, the Fords in general seem to be lagging behind the Toyotas at downforce racetracks, and if that continues this weekend, Blaney may unfortunately be on the outside looking in.

It’s not yet time to count him out, though. Blaney earned the pole earlier this spring in Kansas and finished fourth in the race. In fact, two top fives and three top 10s in five starts at this track certainly shows some potential. His playoff hopes will be dependent on whether or not the No. 21 is able to show the same speed this weekend, and keep the competitors below him in the standings at bay.

Jimmie Johnson +7

A recurring theme in the Cup Series in recent years is concern for the No. 48 of Johnson before and during the playoffs. This time last year, many thought it realistic that this team may not even advance to the Round of 8, let alone make it to the Championship 4. Not only did he race for the championship, but went on to win the race and clinch his seventh Cup Series championship.

Yet again, we are having a similar conversation about Johnson, the last driver currently inside the top eight. Johnson has the best statistics at Kansas Speedway of the bottom four above the cutoff line. The No. 48 driver has three victories at Kansas Speedway, and an average finish of 10th in 22 starts.

Johnson’s finishes this season haven’t been terrible, either. Three wins, four top fives, and 11 top 10s are certainly decent, but they aren’t what has been expected of the No. 48 team.

Now, would anyone be surprised if Johnson came to life this week and locked himself into the Round of 8 with a win? Absolutely not.

Kyle Busch -7

Kyle Busch has been considered by many to be a virtual lock into the Championship 4, so this is perhaps the biggest surprise and biggest area of interest for the Hollywood Casino 400 on Sunday.

For the longest time, Kansas Speedway was a thorn in Busch’s side. He went winless in the first 16 races of his career and was one of only a few racetracks left in which Busch had yet to make it to Victory Lane. Now, including the victory, Busch has finished in the top five in his last five visits to this track.

Busch has also been one of the strongest drivers overall in 2017. Four wins, five top 12s, 18 top 10s, and multiple stage and playoff points have made this driver one of the most formidable competitors both before and during the playoffs. It will be surprising if Busch is not able to race his way in, either by victory or performance.

Matt Kenseth -8

Kenseth will not be returning to Joe Gibbs Racing next season, as Erik Jones will take his place in the No. 20. At this point, the 45-year-old driver is potentially racing for his career — or at least a competitive ride in 2018.

Kenseth has been “okay” in 2017. He hasn’t yet won yet this season, but has led 330 laps and earned an average finish of 15th.

Kenseth does have two victories at Kansas Speedway, but not since 2013. However, he has led over 100 laps in two of the last four races there, so he could easily be a contender this Sunday.

It may take more than just contending to advance to the next round, though. It’s difficult to say one way or the other what to expect from the No. 20 car this weekend but it’s within reason they could still make something happen.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -22

Not much was expected from Roush Fenway Racing drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne. Based on their performance in recent years, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone had they missed the playoffs entirely.

Then Stenhouse went on to win two of the three restrictor plate races before the playoffs, including his first career Cup Series victory at Talladega Superspeedway. The wins earned him a spot in the playoffs and a solid performance in the Round of 16 allowed him to stay in contention all the way until now.

Unfortunately for this team, this newfound “magic” may be coming to an end. The No. 17 team hasn’t been putting up the type of numbers to show the ability to make a 22 point swing, especially with drivers like Kenseth, Busch, and Johnson ahead of him.

Stenhouse hasn’t had a top-10 finish since his victory at Daytona International Speedway in July and has only led 17 laps since then.

His stats in Kansas aren’t much better. In nine starts at this racetrack, he has never finished inside the top 10 and hasn’t led a single lap since his first race at this track in 2013.

It’s reasonable to call this season a success regardless of whether Stenhouse advances to the Round of 8 this Sunday or not. Going by the numbers, it looks as if this dark horse is going to fade away as the series heads to Martinsville Speedway to start the Round of 8.

Jamie McMurray -29

McMurray’s teammate Kyle Larson has been one of the three strongest drivers in 2017 (other than Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch). While McMurray has had some decent results, the No. 1 car has not shown the same speed as consistently as the No. 42.

McMurray has only led 20 laps all season and earned just three top fives. The 16 top 10s he has earned are certainly good, but not the “great” that is needed to make a legitimate run for the championship.

In 21 career starts at Kansas Speedway, McMurray has only four top 10s. He has never finished inside the top five at this track. Unless something drastically changes this weekend, the No. 1 team will see their championship hopes come to a close on Sunday.

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