The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver will get a much needed week off this week, but when they return to action next week in Sonoma, there’s going to be an intense battle on both ends of the playoff grid. First off, the battle between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch will be one for the ages. Combined, they’ve won nine of the 15 races in 2018 including six of the last eight.
Busch, has four wins to his credit with nine top three finishes in his No. 18 Toyota in the last 13 races on the year. Harvick, has five wins of his own and has 11 top five finishes over the last 14 races in 2018. Harvick, has led a series leading 958 laps this year. Busch is second with 888 laps led himself. The next best has only 444 laps led, meaning that both have doubled the laps led compared to everyone else.
Due to that, they sit 1-2 in the overall Cup standings. Busch leads Harvick by 75 points heading into next weekend’s race in Sonoma. That’s a big battle to watch moving forward because currently, Harvick has 26 playoff points to Busch’s 25. The top driver in the points standings leaving Indy in September will be the regular season “champion.” That distinction nets you another 15 playoff points. That would be huge for either because it gives them that much more of an advantage in terms of how far they can advance through the playoffs on the basis of points.
Plus, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of either winning during this regular season. They’ve proven they can win on any given track with any given package on any given day. So, each win gains five more playoff points. That means it’s going to be a battle between these two for stage points and race wins because those 15 points at the end of the tunnel are crucial.
It’s not just the top of the playoff standings that there’s a battle, the bottom portion is too.
From Chase Elliott (14th) to Jamie McMurray (19th) there’s only a 80 point difference. At the moment, only three of those six drivers will make the playoffs. Elliott is +35 of the cutoff line while Erik Jones (+19) and Alex Bowman (+4) are currently in. But, you have Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-4), Paul Menard (-4) and McMurray (-48) right there. Think about that too. Bowman and Stenhouse/Menard are only four places on the track a part.
To further this point, none of these six drivers are really in the hunt for race wins. Elliott, has nine top 12 finishes in his last 10 races on the year, but only two of those were in the top five. Jones, has one top 10 over the last eight races with a top finish of seventh in that time frame. Bowman, has two top 10’s over his last eight races with a best result of eighth. Stenhouse is like Elliott in that he has six top 15 finishes in his last eight starts on the season. So, he’s on a surge where he can easily make up ground right now on Jones and Bowman. Menard has four straight top 15 finishes including a fourth place run in Michigan. McMurray, has three straight top 15 finishes including two of which in the top 10 with a top finish of sixth in Charlotte.
So, these guys are in a bit of a pickle. Do you swing for the fences and hoping to win but possibly giving up solid top 15 finishes, or do you play it safe and go for stage points and just settle for results of 6th to 15th?
At this point of the year, these guys all know who they’re now racing against. These six don’t need to worry about battling Harvick, Busch or Martin Truex Jr. They’re battling amongst each other for those final few playoff spots.
But, what happens if someone even further back wins? We have two road courses and a superspeedway coming up in the next seven races. What happens if AJ Allmendinger who’s currently 23rd in the standings wins one of the two road course races? What happens if Bubba Wallace wins at Daytona (he finished runner-up in February)? He’s sitting 24th in the standings? Allmendinger has been great at Daytona lately too. David Ragan, Ty Dillon and Kasey Kahne are also all capable of winning the Coke Zero Sugar 400 on July 7.
Then you have William Byron and Daniel Suarez in a Hendrick and Gibbs car respectively. They’re capable of running off some strong finishes and even winning too. If any one of those drivers wins, the playoff bubble moves up one, meaning we take one less wildcard spot and instead of Bowman being on the bubble it’s Jones.
So, there’s some interesting strategies to watch over the coming weeks. If you’re currently in but barely in or currently out but barely out, you have to go for stage points and top 15 finishes. But, you also have to hope no one not currently in the playoffs wins either.