The strange and disjointed NASCAR Cup Series season is winding toward an ending with one more segment of three races remaining before the Championship 4 will race in the Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 8th. Half of the 16 competitors who began the NASCAR Playoffs as title contenders have been eliminated with four more set to be removed following the next three events on the series schedule.
The upcoming race this weekend at Kansas Speedway followed by contests at Texas Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway will determine who will be eliminated and who will remain with a one-race shot at claiming the most valuable prize in NASCAR’s top division.
So which four drivers of those still in the hunt will be in contention when the tour rolls into its final weekend in Arizona?
Kevin Harvick: Sometimes you just have to go with the no-brainer choice and Harvick is it in this scenario. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been the dominant player throughout most of the NASCAR Cup Series season and there is little reason to think that won’t continue, especially with the previous segment of races on the so-called wildcard tracks of Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL now in the rear view mirror.
The two 1.5-mile venues within this round seem to suit Harvick’s style just fine.
Harvick has amassed three wins and 16 top-10 results over the course of his career at Kansas which would seem to indicate that there is not much chance of a stumble there. His average finish of 9.6 at the track located just outside of Kansas City is one of his best among NASCAR’s active tracks.
His statistics at Texas are much the same as Kansas with three total wins and an even higher number of top-10 finishes(23). An average finish of 10th again provides little reason for concern that the California native will give away much, if any, of his current lead in the standings.
If there is to be a stumbling block for Harvick in this round it could potentially come on the half-mile layout of the Martinsville Speedway. The former Cup Series champion has but one win on the paper clip-shaped oval and an average finish of 15th on the Virginia track over the course of his career.
Harvick enters this round 13 points ahead of second place Denny Hamlin in the playoff standings and a full 45 markers above the cutline. Even if there is a surprise winner or two in this segment, the No. 4 Ford has built up such a big advantage that it will be difficult to overtake them barring a major disaster.
Denny Hamlin: Much like Harvick, Hamlin has been one of the major players throughout 2020 in the NASCAR Cup Series. His seven victories place him just two behind the total Harvick has compiled and his number of playoff points amassed has him far enough above the cutline that he can almost rest as easily as Harvick in that regard as well.
And more, this round sets up very nicely for Hamlin.
The Virginia native won earlier this year at Kansas to push his career total of triumphs on that track to three. However, despite showing signs of considerable strength there, he has also encountered some misfortune in the ‘Sunflower State’ which has raised his average finish on the 1.5-mile D-shaped layout to 14.5.
The Texas Motor Speedway paints a somewhat similar picture for Hamlin. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has scored three wins in the Lone Star State but has faltered enough to drop his average finish to 14th. However, JGR’s Toyotas have consistently shown strength on the 1.5-mile tracks as Hamlin has helped to demonstrate this year with wins here at Kansas as well as on the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But it is at Martinsville where Hamlin’s star shines the brightest among the three tracks in this semi-final round. This driver has crossed the finish line first five times on the track located in his home state with an average finish of 10th. This would be a track that would suit them well should the No. 11 team come into the final race of this stretch absolutely in need of a strong run or a win.
Martin Truex Jr.: Even though he enters this round technically below the cutline, this segment of the schedule seems almost tailor made for Truex considering how he has performed on these types of tracks over the past few years.
The New Jersey native and former Cup Series champion has two wins at Kansas with both coming in 2017. His last two finishes there have been a 6th and a 3rd with six of his last seven efforts there ending inside the top-10. This certainly seems like a track in which Truex can vault himself into the top-4 of the playoff standings if not assure himself a spot in the finale by winning.
Texas, however, has not provided the No. 19 Toyota driver with his best career results in terms of wins as he has never visited that victory lane. But his 16 top-10 finishes rank second behind only Dover for the most in his career. While this might not necessarily be a track Truex would want to come to if needing a victory, it also does not seem like a place in which he would race himself out of contention either.
Further, as was said regarding Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing has been stellar as on organization on 1.5-mile tracks in recent years.
And like his teammate Hamlin, Martinsville provides a place at which Truex would want to come if in need of a win or a good run at the end of this segment. His lone win in 2020 came here and he scored such a dominant triumph on the half-mile in the fall of 2019 that he led 464 of the race’s 500 laps. He has a current string of six consecutive top-10 finishes at this facility.
Brad Keselowski: While Keselowski has not amassed the same type of cushion in the standings as Harvick and Hamlin, he is currently 13 points above the cutline and as close as things appear to be among those remaining drivers whose last names do not begin with the letter H, that could be just enough of a margin to get him to the Championship 4 provided multiple drivers currently behind the Michigan native in the standings do not earn automatic bids by winning a race.
Kansas has provided this former Cup Series champion with two wins over the course of his career on his way to an average finish of 12th. One of those wins came as recently as 2019 and the No. 2 Ford came home second in the previous visit to this track by the Cup Series earlier this season.
Texas, though, has not been one of Keselowski’s best. He has never won in Fort Worth and has an average finish there of 17th. However, he did earn a top-10 earlier this year and won on the similarly-shaped Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Coca-Cola 600 back in May.
And like Hamlin and Truex mentioned above, Martinsville is a good location in which to finish out the round for this Team Penske racer. He has two career wins there and has achieved four consecutive top-5s on the paper-clip. His victory in the spring of 2019 saw him lead the way for 446 circuits around the half-mile.
So there they are, the Championship 4 as I see it.
While Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch have done well to make it this far, the drivers listed above are my picks to make it all the way through to the Championship 4 and race for the title in Phoenix in less than a month’s time.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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