The field of sixteen playoff drivers that advanced into the championship round of 10 races that will eventually crown this season’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion has now been cut in half as the finishing order from Kansas Speedway eliminated four more drivers.
Only eight drivers now remain going to Martinsville this weekend for a three-race stretch that also includes stops at Texas and Phoenix that still have the opportunity to be one of the four drivers that will advance to the final race at Homestead-Miami where the championship will be on the line.
Kansas was the second of three elimination races built into the playoff schedule and this one didn’t disappoint as the drama of which eight drivers would be advancing was in question until the final laps.
The day belonged to Denny Hamlin as he was the class of the field as he notched his fifth victory of the season but not until after surviving two overtime periods.
While Hamlin made his way to victory lane to pick up the trophy for winning the Hollywood Casino 400, the real celebration was taking place with Chase Elliott and his Hendrick Motorsports crew after their second place finish which was good enough for him to advance on to the Round of 8 by just three points.
He entered the second overtime period locked in a battle with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano for the last two playoff spots but it was Keselowski who got caught up in traffic after being 13th on the restart only to find himself in 19th when the checkered flag waved.
Logano took the green flag for the final overtime period in his damaged Ford in 20th but was able to pick up three spots to finish 17th in securing his transfer spot.
Logano was able to help his own cause by his performances in the first two stages of the race. He earned ten points in the opening stage by posting the win and was able to add to that total with four more points in the second stage by finishing seventh.
The elimination for Keselowski was especially painful as he entered the race with a 20-point lead over Elliott. William Byron, Alex Bowman and Clint Bowyer joined Keselowski as the four drivers eliminated after the round of 12.
Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney will now make up the field for the Round of 8 and each will have their point totals reset to 4000 before the earned playoff points are added. This is where drivers are rewarded for their success throughout the season as the newly reset point totals reflect on which drivers have had a dominant season up to this point.
Joe Gibbs Racing has been the dominate organization this season and it reflects in the standings going into Martinsville as all three JGR playoff drivers occupy the first three slots in the standings. Kyle Busch leads the way with a total of 4046, followed by teammates Martin Truex Jr. with 4042 and Denny Hamlin’s 4037.
Eighth place driver Ryan Blaney has a point total of 4009 and even though that is a wide margin, it does not guarantee a driver moving into the Championship 4 that will race for the title.
The just concluded Round of 12 showed that no point total is really safe as upset wins by Kyle Larson at Dover and Ryan Blaney’s win at Talladega had the rest of the field scrambling for the remaining six spots as those two drivers entered Kansas knowing that their spot in the next round was secure regardless of their point totals.
Win one of the next three races and you go to Homestead with the title within reach and this weekend the short track of Martinsville will give each of the eight drivers a chance to win his way into the final and removing the pressure of having to race their way in at Texas and Phoenix.
Steve Mickey writes about NASCAR for HD Media.