2018 NASCAR Cup series playoffs


KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When asked about Chase Elliott after Elliott’s win at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, Kyle Busch wondered why he should even care about his fellow competitor.

There’s a pretty simple answer: Elliott had just won at a 1.5-mile track, and that appears to make him a contender for the championship when maybe 11 races ago, before Elliott had ever won a Cup race, he wasn’t so much a factor.

Elliott has won three of the past 11 races after going winless in his first 98 starts. He won two races in the second round of the playoffs as he is surging into the third round, which starts this Sunday at Martinsville Speedway and then continues on to Texas Motor Speedway and ISM (Phoenix) Raceway.

“From a mental standpoint or a team standpoint, I don’t think we’re any different,” Elliott said after the Kansas win. “We haven’t done anything different approach-wise since I’ve been at Hendrick. [Crew chief Alan Gustafson] and I have been working together.

“The difference has been going through some tougher days, having some learning experiences, making our cars faster. Having those learning experiences along with making our car better has meant better results. I think we have just as good a shot as anybody and that’s our approach these next three weeks.”

Gustafson believes his team is more of a championship contender than it was in August because of the cars.

“The speed in the cars, for sure,” Gustafson said. “I don’t feel from August to now there’s a huge change in [Elliott] or anything else besides we’ve gotten our cars much better.”

In his 14 years as a crew chief, Gustafson has never won a championship but he has advanced to the championship race and knows what it is like to be in the mix. Four of the eight remaining drivers will advance to vie for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“There’s no replacement for experience,” Gustafson said. “When I was young, it was like, experience? What does that do for you?

“You go through things and you realize it’s a big deal. I’ve lost my fair share, I’ve won my fair share. As you go through that, you kind of know what works and doesn’t work. You can help apply it, use that to your advantage.”

Certainly many of the playoff drivers have experience. Kevin Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr. each have won titles in the elimination system. Joey Logano has reached the championship.

Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola have never made it to the championship round at Homestead.

“Those pressure-packed situations, the only time you can learn from them is to be in them more often,” Elliott said. “I think it’s as simple as that, just putting yourself in position more is going to keep the pressure on more.

“The more you’re comfortable with that, the better off you’re going to be for it. The guys you have to beat in those situations are there every week. They don’t mess up. You better be in them and not mess up is kind of the goal. We’ll see where we end up.”

Here’s a breakdown for the drivers in the semifinal round:

Kyle Busch

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota

Crew chief: Adam Stevens

Second-round finish: 2nd

Second-round wins: 0

Playoff points: 55 (1st)

2018 finishes at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix: 2nd-1st-2nd

Why he will advance: Look at the line above this one. He runs well at all three of these tracks. A second at Kansas shows he still has the strength he needs at the 1.5-mile tracks.

Why he won’t: The Big 3 isn’t winning, and if neither Busch nor Harvick win in the round and the other playoff drivers do, it could be a battle between them for the last spot.

Busch says: “I feel like it’s our best round. We run well at all three of those places and we won at Texas in the spring, we won Martinsville last fall and Phoenix has been getting better for us, too. We just need to continue to execute and do a good job and make sure that we mind our P’s and Q’s.”

Kevin Harvick

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford

Crew chief: Rodney Childers

Second-round finish: 1st

Second-round wins: 0

Playoff points: 54 (2nd)

2018 finishes at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix: 5th-2nd-1st

Why he will advance: Harvick has consistently been the fastest driver this season, with the most laps led of anyone. His playoff points give him a good cushion. Even with all four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers making the playoffs, his performance has stood above the rest. Plus, he typically collects a slew of stage points as his 16 stage wins is the most this year, with Martin Truex Jr. next with 10.

Why he won’t: Mistakes have cost this team all season, and Harvick made one speeding on pit road at Kansas.

Harvick says: “I tried to get a little too much and wound up going too fast [at Kansas]. We will take it one week at a time. We have had fast cars and whether it is speeding on pit road or flat tires [at Vegas] or valve stems [at Dover] or fuel [at Talladega], we haven’t put together a full day except for Richmond. Hopefully we have gotten all that out of our system and we can go to Martinsville and start off good.”

Martin Truex Jr.

Team: Furniture Row Racing No. 78 Toyota

Crew chief: Cole Pearn

Second-round finish: 5th

Second-round wins: 0

Playoff points: 38 (3rd)

2018 finishes at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix: 4th-37th-5th

Why he will advance: The defending NASCAR Cup Series champion, Truex knows how to get through the rounds. His team has had fast cars and Truex typically doesn’t fold under pressure.

Why he won’t: This team did not look strong in the second round, and the questions linger on whether a team that is shutting down in four weeks can keep it together to win the championship. Their performance has to improve.

Truex says: “The playoffs haven’t been good to us this year. We’ve really battled a lot of adversity. A lot of things are working against us. The last two weeks are no exception. To get wrecked at Dover and then not even be able to race at Talladega [because of an ill-handing car] was tough. With that said, to be able to be moving on still with all those troubles — I feel like we’re fortunate and we need to fix those things and make our own luck and figure out how to run better.”

Chase Elliott

Team: Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet

Crew chief: Alan Gustafson

Second-round finish: 4th

Second-round wins: 2

Playoff points: 18 (4th)

2018 finishes at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix: 9th-11th-3rd

Why he will advance: There might not be a driver hotter than Elliott, who has won three of the past 11 races. The cars have more speed. And Elliott is a better driver, having learned from coming up short prior to August.

Why he won’t: While he has run well, Elliott has the only Chevrolet in the field and the Chevrolets have been inconsistent in recent months after coming out of the gate slow with the new Camaro.

Elliott says: “Really, you just need to care about winning. If you’re trying to win, putting yourself in position to win, that’s way more important than just barely trying to squeak through. Having the ability to win, do it weekly, putting yourselves in those positions week by week is the most important thing. If we can do that these next three weeks, I think we can give ourselves a chance.”

Clint Bowyer

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Ford

Crew chief: Mike Bugarewicz

Second-round finish: 7th

Second-round wins: 0

Playoff points: 15 (T-5th)

2018 finishes at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix: 1st-9th-6th

Why he will advance: He won at Martinsville earlier this year, and if he can win or have a strong finish, he might be able to do enough to get through.

Why he won’t: He has just three top-10s in his past six races. That type of inconsistency won’t get him to the final round.

Bowyer says: “If I can put together Martinsville and Phoenix like I am capable of and run Texas like we are capable of, I think we can be in Homestead. … Now it is eight good teams. There are 16 good teams, but there are eight damn good teams. All eight of these teams have found Victory Lane and things like that. Now you are starting to pick up the pace or go home.”

Joey Logano

Team: Team Penske No. 22 Ford

Crew chief: Todd Gordon

Second-round finish: 3rd

Second-round wins: 0

Playoff points: 15 (T-5th)

2018 finishes at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix: 6th-6th-19th

Why he will advance: Logano has shown the ability to perform in the clutch and wouldn’t be counted out as a contender for the win going into any of the next three races.

Why he won’t: He didn’t post a top-5 at any of the tracks in this round earlier this year. While he looked good at Kansas, the speed just might not be there for him to advance.

Logano says: “We were scoring points, which is good enough to get you through these rounds, but I feel like [in] this next round, we are going to have to get a win to get through. Maybe they will have enough issues that you can build up enough points, but I think we need to win. … We just have to focus hard on getting more.”

Kurt Busch

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Ford

Crew chief: Billy Scott

Second-round finish: 8th

Second-round wins: 0

Playoff points: 15 (T-5th)

2018 finishes at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix: 11th-7th-10th

Why he will advance: Busch has not run all that well in the playoffs (he has four finishes of 14th or worse) and advanced. Could it be destiny? He has won at Martinsville and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him win this Sunday.

Why he won’t: He has not run that well in the playoffs and that won’t work in this round.

Busch says: “It was a rough day [at Kansas] and we need to put it quickly behind us. We are back on even ground. We are in the top eight and Martinsville is the path to the championship down in Homestead.”

Aric Almirola

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 Ford

Crew chief: John Klausmeier

Second-round finish: 4th

Second-round wins: 1

Playoff points: 6 (8th)

2018 finishes at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix: 14th-32nd-7th

Why he will advance: Almirola appears to be peaking at the right time, especially with the win at Talladega. He is probably the driver with the least amount of pressure as few would have predicted he would advance to the third round.

Why he won’t: These three tracks weren’t his best tracks earlier this year. He might need to be flawless, and that is tough to accomplish.

Almirola says: “At this point I just feel like we have nothing to lose, almost. I feel like we are playing with house money. We are relaxed and looking forward to these next three weeks. They should be fun for us.”

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