The playoffs are here for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The 10 race postseason will begin this weekend at the Chicagoland Speedway. Here are the five storylines to follow for this weekend’s Tales of the Turtles 400 (3 p.m. ET/NBCSN/MRN).
Opening Playoff Race
This is quite frankly the top story of the weekend. Nothing else matters for the 16 playoff eligible drivers than getting through this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway with a top 10 finish. Granted, there’s 16 drivers going for 10 spots, so it’s going to make things very interesting on Sunday. You don’t want to leave Chicagoland this weekend with a bad result. With just three races in each round, playing catch up over the next two races is never easy.
With that being said, with playoff points already accumulated this year, for those at the bottom of the standings, they can’t afford a finish outside of the top 10 this weekend.
That should raise the intensity up even more, especially with the added stages.
It seems like every year, playoff contenders have problems during pit stops in the opening playoff race. I don’t know whether it’s nerves, a lot of the line, or what, but problems on pit road seem to be a big story at Chicago. With stages and playoff points, a problem on pit road at Chicago can really push drivers to the brink of elimination.
This is a big thing to watch on Sunday.
NASCAR officiating has really gotten a bad rap the last few weeks, and that will be even more magnified this weekend. For some reason, there always seems to be a late race caution. Unfortunately, that always shakes up the leaders. A driver that was running away with a win, may see his chances of victory go from great to relying on a pit stop.
Martin Truex Jr. called NASCAR out last weekend after a 35th place car got into the wall lightly bringing out a yellow with just three laps-to-go. But, Truex got into the wall at Darlington in the same situation and no caution was brought out. He’s questioning the consistency of the cautions.
Plus, NASCAR threw a caution for “smoke” on Lap 89 of the Richmond race and even saw an ambulance on the track at a key time during pit stops at pit entry. It nearly cost Matt Kenseth a playoff spot.
So, all these problems need cleaned up and can’t happen during a playoff race. This is a developing story that’s going to be a key thing to watch. Will a late race fluke caution for a driver not contending for the win wreck havoc on the playoff race? Will there be more bizarre moments?
Toyota’s Dominance Again?
Over the last three races, Toyota drivers have led 75-percent of the overall laps (955 out of 1,271). In fact, over the last nine races in general, Toyota drivers have led 77-percent of the laps (1,928 out of 2,505). So, why would that stat change this weekend on a 1.5-mile track?
Last Saturday night at Richmond, Toyota drivers combined to lead 325 of the 404 laps. The week prior at Darlington, they led 206 of the 367 laps. Three weeks ago at Bristol, Toyota drivers led 427 of the 500 laps. The week prior to that in Michigan, they led 95 of the 202 laps. Then, at Watkins Glen, they tallied 59 laps led in 90 laps completed on the New York road course. Before that at Pocono as well as Indy, they combined to lead 262 out of the 367 laps possible. Even before that, they led 290 of the 301 laps at New Hampshire and 264 of the 274 laps at Kentucky.
So, they are clearly the class of the field.
Denny Hamlin may be driving as good as anyone right now though as he has eight top five finishes over his last 11 races including two of them being wins.
Kyle Busch has had three top two finishes over his last five starts including six straight top 10 finishes. But, if you go back to Pocono in June, if Busch doesn’t have some bad luck, he would by far have been the class of the field.
Matt Kenseth now has six top 10’s over his last seven races five of which are in the top six.
Martin Truex Jr. just clinched the regular season championship and will go the playoffs with 53 playoff points. He’s had five top three finishes over the last eight races and was a sixth and seventh top three away if not for getting into the Turn 3 SAFER barrier while leading the Southern 500 coming to the stripe for two laps-to-go. Then, he could have won the Federated Auto Parts 400 if not for a late race caution while he was way far up front.
Erik Jones has six straight 10 results and eight over the last 10 races.
I would think all five of these drivers, four of which are in the playoffs, are up front contending for the win on Sunday.
Can Kurt Busch/Ryan Newman Keep Hot Streaks Going?
Ryan Newman has four straight top seven finishes. He was third at Richmond, seventh at Darlington as well as also fourth at Michigan and sixth at Bristol three weeks ago. On top of that, the Indiana native was third in the Brickyard 400 back in July to give him five top seven finishes over his last seven starts on the season.
Can he keep that up on Sunday in Chicago?
Newman, has an average finishing position of 14.13 at the 1.5-mile track. In fact, just twice of his last 10 starts at Chicagoland Speedway has he finished outside the top 15. He has seven top 10’s in that same time frame, including four of his last six.
Then there’s Kurt Busch too.
Busch, hasn’t won a race since his season opening win at Daytona. Plus, through the first 21 races of this season, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver had just three total top six finishes in his No. 41 Ford.
Busch, has four top six finishes over the last five races on the season.
The Las Vegas native finished fourth in last Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at the Richmond Raceway for his third straight top five effort. He came home third in last Sunday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington and fifth the race before that at Bristol.
He was also sixth at the beginning of August at Watkins Glen. In fact, since that sixth place finish on the upstate New York road course, Busch’s worst finish in an 11th place result Michigan.
He doesn’t want to end that streak in the opening race of the playoffs. That momentum, mixed with a great run on the 1.5-mile track this weekend, would certainly boost this teams confidence even more. With literally half of the 10 playoff races being on 1.5-mile circuits, seven straight top 11 finishes, including one on a 1.5-mile track in the playoffs, would give this No. 41 Ford team the confidence it takes to win this season’s championship.
Busch, has led 104 laps during the course of his career at Chicago and has an average finishing spot of 15.44. But, over the last six Chicagoland starts, Busch has one finish worse than 13th. His results are, sixth, 32nd, fourth, eighth, third and 13th respectively.