First of all, prayers are out for all of those families affected by the Las Vegas shooting. This was a despicable act of domestic terrorism.
Kyle Busch only led 30 laps but he led the most important lap at all at the end. After a day of struggling to keep up with the car and make it competitive, the team managed to dial it in when it mattered most. Unfortunately, that came a great cost to Chase Elliott when it appeared he might finally win his first race.
Elliott led a race high 138 laps, just one more than Kyle Larson who finished 5th. Elliott ran up on lapped traffic and stayed on the bottom of the track where he had made hay all day long. But Busch was running higher on the track and caught the lapped traffic differently, allowing him to make great gains on Elliott.
The most difficult car to pass was the 31 of Ryan Newman. Newman was trying to stay in front of as many cars as possible in order to make it into the next round of the playoffs. Newman finished 13th, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr 19th, which was just enough to finish just ahead of Newman.
As expected, the broadcast focused on the playoff cut off drivers; Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman and Stenhouse. All of these drivers had dug themselves deep holes in the previous 3 races. Stenhouse had been racing ill-handling cars for weeks. Newman, Dillon and Kahne were racing uninspired. Kurt Busch had miscues and other challenges that he faced. Coming into the playoffs, all of these drivers were struggling. I thought Kurt Busch had the best chance of moving on but when it mattered, he couldn’t bring it home. The first three races for the SHR team have been uneven at best.
As we head into the next three playoff races, the bottom drivers are Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney. With that said, Stenhouse is on the bubble in 8th place and has been running the worst of any of the other teams. While Blaney struggled at Dover, he has been more consistent. With only 8 drivers moving on after the next three, the margin for error becomes less.
At Charlotte, the lowest performing drivers over the past 5 years are Blaney, Larson and Stenhouse. Earlier this year, Keselowski, Elliott, Larson and Blaney were the lowest finishers of the playoff drivers.
Stenhouse won at Talladega earlier this year so you know he is hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again. Blaney, Truex, Elliott and Kenseth had the worst finishes. But over the past 5 years, the worst finishers are Kenseth, Blaney, Hamlin and Larson.
The final track in this next round is Kansas and over the past 5 years, Elliott, McMurray, Hamlin and Larson have the lowest finishes. Earlier this year, Elliott, Johnson, Hamlin and Kenseth had the lowest finishes.
Seeing a pattern yet?
Aside from Charlotte, Stenhouse isn’t one of the lowest finishers. But that is also when he was running better during the early part of the season. Since then, his performance has dropped off and he may need a win to move on.
Points and stage win points may prove to be critical to moving on. Martin Truex, Jr and Kyle Busch will be threats to log more points. Kyle Larson is coming up on a stretch of some of his worst tracks, but he has proven resilient all season long.
My pick for the 4 drivers who will not move on to the next round are:
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr
It wouldn’t surprise me to see Kenseth in this group instead of Hamlin, but Denny has a bad habit of shooting himself in the foot with pit road errors that could cost him crucial points. For that reason, I am placing him here instead of Kenseth.
And don’t look now, but Jimmie Johnson is still in the hunt.
Good luck and may the best driver win!