KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Pressure? What pressure?
One driver faces an absolute must-win situation to advance to the third (semifinal) round of the playoffs. Alex Bowman is so far behind in the standings that only a win in the elimination race Sunday at Kansas Speedway will earn him a third-round bid.
The drivers might be able to try strategies if they aren’t strong, but they know much of their playoff prospects won’t be in their control.
Christopher Bell is one of five drivers who have been controlling the action in the Xfinity Series, but there’s only room for four of them, at best, in the semifinals. Who will be left out?
The driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford is used to returning home with nothing to race for except pride, but he enters this weekend’s race in position to advance in the playoffs.
The final race in the 2018 NASCAR Playoffs Round of 12 is Sunday, October 21 at Kansas Speedway. Green flag: 2:37pm/et.
“This place, it’s so wide and you can move around so much that it’s not an easy place to pass, especially when it gets kind of strung out and everybody is running the top,” Bowman said. “It gets pretty difficult to pass.
“The best car typically prevails here. I don’t know that taking a ton of risk is going to win you the race. You could go from running 10th to maybe finishing fourth or fifth with a big risk. But I don’t know that it’s going to win the race for you.”
Brad Keselowski, at 18 points behind the cutoff, conceivably could make up that ground. Ryan Blaney, currently 21 points behind the cutoff also has a shot while Kyle Larson at 36 points back is pretty much able to advance by points in math only.
“You try to dig your way out of it,” Keselowski said. “It’s an opportunity to win a championship. As Jimmie [Johnson] proved in ’16 that if you can just get to Homestead, anything can happen.
“I feel really confident if we can make it to the next round, there are some really good tracks for us with Martinsville and we ran pretty strong at Texas. … You just have to look out the front window. That’s the biggest thing, not to spend too much time looking out the back and just look out the front and do what I can do.”
Larson will drop to the rear of the field because he wrecked his primary car in practice.
“I just hate that we wrecked the primary car there,” Larson said. “I’m sure our backup car will be fine. We are always pretty good here at Kansas.
“We should be fine. I have been in a backup car here before and been really fast. [We’ll] just dig deep and work hard and see what we can do on Sunday.”
Chase Elliott and Aric Almirola already have advanced to the next round thanks to wins, leaving 10 drivers to vie for six final spots. The four winless playoff drivers in the round with the fewest points will be eliminated.
“I think strategy will come into play,” polesitter Joey Logano said. “It’s typically a four-tire [pit-stop] place. Tires do wear out, but they don’t wear out as aggressively as some other race tracks.
“That being said, it’s important to understand where your competitors are. It’s important to know if someone has to win or if they are playing the conservative card just to get through.”
The average finish at Kansas for the 10 drivers vying for the six remaining playoff spots: Kevin Harvick (9.6), Brad Keselowski (13.2) Blaney (13.9), Martin Truex Jr. (14.5), Kurt Busch (16.0), Clint Bowyer (16.8), Kyle Busch (17.0), Logano (18.1), Larson (19.1) and Bowman (27.7).
“It is going to be hard to points our way in,” Blaney said. “We will do our best to make that happen. This is a good track for us. I can’t think of another track to try to go to and try to win at.
“We’ve had a shot here multiple times, especially the first race this year here before I wrecked ourselves. It is a good place for us. Hopefully we can have a shot at it come Sunday and try to move on.”
Wins at Kansas among those playoff drivers not locked in: Harvick (3), Logano (2), Truex (2), Keselowski (1) and Kyle Busch (1).
Here is how the lineup breaks down for the Hollywood Casino 400 on Sunday (2 p.m., NBC) at Kansas Speedway:
1. Joey Logano (Team Penske No. 22 Ford): Logano can clinch a spot in the next round with 35 points (second-place finish at Kansas if no stage points). If anyone but Keselowski, Blaney, Larson or Bowman wins, he needs just 17 points (20th if no stage points). Logano has two career Cup wins at Kansas (few will forget his turning of Matt Kenseth in 2015). In recent races, it has been feast or family with finishes of first, 38th, third, 37th, 21st and third in his past six starts.
2. Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford): Harvick can clinch a spot in the next round with 11 points (26th-place finish at Kansas if no stage points). If anyone but Keselowski, Blaney, Larson or Bowman wins, he is locked in no matter where he finishes. In other words, he’ll make it to the next round. He has three wins — including in May — and three runner-up finishes in the past 10 Kansas races.
3. Aric Almirola (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 Ford): Almirola already has advanced to the next round with the win at Talladega. He likes Kansas, even though it is the place where he crashed and broke his back last season. He has finished ninth in his past two Kansas starts.
4. Ryan Blaney (Team Penske No. 12 Ford): At 22 points behind eighth on the grid (Truex) and 25 points behind Bowyer in seventh, Blaney can guarantee himself only a spot in the next round if he wins. Blaney has made up that many points on Bowyer in four races this year. Blaney has four career top-10s at Kansas, including a fourth in May 2017 and a third a year ago. He has led 145 laps at the track.
5. Brad Keselowski (Team Penske No. 2 Ford): At 18 points behind eighth on the grid and 21 points behind seventh, Keselowski can only guarantee himself a spot in the next round if he wins. Can he make up 18 points on Truex or 21 points on Bowyer? He has made up that margin on Bowyer only once this year in races where he hasn’t won.
6. Erik Jones (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota): Jones was seventh at Kansas in May, his first top-10 in four starts at the track.
7. Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota): Busch can clinch a spot in the next round with 28 points (ninth-place finish at Kansas if no stage points). If anyone but Keselowski, Blaney, Larson or Bowman wins, he needs just 10 points (27th if no stage points). Busch has finished better than ninth in five of his last seven starts; and he has back-to-back 10th-place finishes at the track.
8. Daniel Suarez (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota): After a seventh-place finish in his first Cup race at Kansas, Suarez has finishes of 36th and 28th in his past two starts.
9. Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota): Hamlin is typically fast at Kansas — he started no worse than ninth in the past seven races (including Sunday) at Kansas. He won the April 2012 race at Kansas, a second in October 2015 and back-to-back fifth-place finishes in the past two events.
10. Alex Bowman (Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet): Bowman is 68 points behind Truex, so the only way he can advance is with a win. That will be a tall order. Bowman was seventh at Kansas in October 2016 in his substitute role for Dale Earnhardt Jr. but was 18th in May.
11. Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Ford): Busch can clinch a spot in the next round with 44 points at Kansas so going into the race, only a win guarantees him a spot in the next round regardless of the finishes of anyone else. That could change depending on the results of the first two stages. If anyone but Keselowski, Blaney, Larson or Bowman wins, he can clinch with 26 points (11th if no stage points). Busch has never won at Kansas but has a pair of seconds and a third. He has finished in the top-8 in five of his past seven Kansas starts.
12. Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing No. 78 Toyota): Truex, as the current “bubble” driver on points as the last one ahead of the cutoff, must win to guarantee himself a spot to advance. If anyone but Keselowski, Blaney, Larson or Bowman wins, he needs 38 points to clinch. If any of those drivers win, he must gain at least three points (and likely four) on Bowyer, whose second-place finish at Talladega helps with the tiebreaker. Truex has been awesome at Kansas as of late as he swept the 2017 races and finished second in May. He has led 380 laps in the last five Kansas races.
13. Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet): Elliott already has advanced to the next round with the win at Dover. His was 12th in May and fourth at Kansas a year ago.
14. Clint Bowyer (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Ford): Bowyer would need 52 points to advance, so that would mean likely winning a stage or two and then finishing in the top-5. If anyone but Keselowski, Blaney, Larson or Bowman wins, he needs 35 points to clinch (second if no stage points). Bowyer hasn’t performed too bad in races where he has had something on the line at Kansas. But that hasn’t been often. He has just one top-10 in his last 10 Kansas starts.
15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 Ford): Stenhouse still seeks his first top-10 finish at Kansas, where he has made 11 starts and has three 11th-place finishes.
16. Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing No. 31 Chevrolet): Newman just wants to get to the finish — he has failed to finish the past three Kansas races. In his first three Kansas starts in 2001-03, he had finishes of second, second and first.
17. William Byron (Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet): An accident ended Byron’s race early in May, but he has a truck win and a fourth-place Xfinity finish at the track.
18. Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford): Menard had his second-best Kansas finish when he placed sixth in May. It was his first top-10 in his past seven Kansas starts.
19. Trevor Bayne (Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 Ford): This is Bayne’s next-to-last race at Roush (he also will run Texas). The first time he was replaced by Kenseth was the Kansas race in May. He has a career-best finish of 10th at Kansas.
20. Jamie McMurray (Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevrolet): Kansas hasn’t felt much like a home track to the Missouri native. He has only four career top-10s at the track, and two of those were in his first two starts. He has failed to finish the past two races at Kansas and has only one top-10 in his past 10 starts.
21. Chris Buescher (JTG Daugherty Racing No. 37 Chevrolet): Buescher has one top-10 (a sixth) in five career Cup starts at Kansas.
22. Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet): Johnson has three career wins at Kansas, the last coming in May 2015. He had two top-5s in his next three Kansas races but enters the race Sunday without a top-10 in his past three Kansas starts.
23. Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing No. 3 Chevrolet): Dillon hasn’t finished better than 14th in his past three races after back-to-back sixth-place finishes.
24. Michael McDowell (Front Row Motorsports No. 34 Ford): McDowell has three consecutive top-20 finishes at Kansas — a 13th, 18th and 20th.
25. AJ Allmendinger (JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47 Chevrolet): Allmendinger has four top-10s in 17 career Kansas starts. After back-to-back eighths, he hasn’t finished top-15 in his past three races.
26. Regan Smith (Leavine Family Racing No. 95 Chevrolet): Smith has one top-10 finish in nine career Kansas starts.
27. Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet): A 10-point penalty at Talladega made Larson’s uphill battle even tougher as he sits 36 points behind Truex and 39 points behind Bowyer (pending an appeal late Friday night). He did make up that margin on Bowyer once this year. He led 101 laps and finished fourth in May. But he has another hurdle: He is racing a backup car and will start at the rear after wrecking the primary car in the opening practice Friday.
28. David Ragan (Front Row Motorsports No. 38 Ford): Like McDowell, Ragan has three consecutive top-20 finishes at Kansas. He has had a pair of 17ths and a 13th.
29. Bubba Wallace (Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Chevrolet): Wallace started 21st and finished 23rd in his first Cup race at Kansas in May.
30. Ty Dillon (Germain Racing No. 13 Chevrolet): Dillon has a career-best 14th in four Kansas starts.
31. Matt DiBenedetto (Go Fas Racing No. 32 Ford): DiBenedetto has finished 22nd in each of his past two Kansas starts.
32. Ross Chastain (Premium Motorsports No. 15 Chevrolet): Chastain was 26th in the May race at Kansas.
33. Jeffrey Earnhardt (Gaunt Brothers Racing No. 96 Toyota): Earnhardt has a best finish of 25th in 13 non-restrictor-plate races this year.
34. Corey LaJoie (TriStar Motorsports No. 72 Chevrolet): LaJoie has four starts in Xfinity and Cup at Kansas, with all finishes 24th-27th.
35. Landon Cassill (StarCom Racing No. 00 Chevrolet): Cassill’s last three finishes at Kansas were 21st, 23rd and 25th.
36. J.J. Yeley (BK Racing No. 23 Toyota): Yeley has two top-20 finishes in 13 starts this year.
37. Kyle Weatherman (StarCom Racing No. 99 Chevrolet): Weatherman is making his fifth start of the season. His best finish of 26th came in his last start, five weeks ago at Las Vegas.
38. B.J. McLeod (Rick Ware Racing No. 51 Chevrolet): McLeod has started only one of the past four races for the team.
39. Reed Sorenson (Premium Motorsports No. 7 Chevrolet): This is Sorenson’s first start since Vegas.
40. Timmy Hill (Carl Long Motorsports No. 66 Toyota): Hill’s best Kansas finish is 22nd — in his first Cup start at the track back in 2012.