Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray locked up the last few spots in the playoffs on the final race of the regular season.
Kyle Larson earned his fourth win of the year Saturday at the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway, preventing any new winner from earning a trip to the playoffs. The last three positions came down to points, and the full body of work from Elliott, Kenseth and McMurray keep them alive.
This leaves 16 drivers set to battle for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. Here are the top contenders plus their playoff points heading into the next portion of the year.
Driver Standings After Reset
1. Martin Truex Jr. – 2,053
2. Kyle Larson – 2,033
3. Kyle Busch – 2,029
4. Brad Keselowski – 2,019
5. Jimmie Johnson – 2,017
6. Kevin Harvick – 2,015
7. Denny Hamlin – 2,013
8. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – 2,010
9. Ryan Blaney – 2,008
10. Chase Elliott – 2,006
11. Ryan Newman – 2,005
12. Kurt Busch – 2,005
13. Kasey Kahne – 2,005
14. Austin Dillon – 2,005
15. Matt Kenseth – 2,005
16. Jamie McMurray – 2,003
NASCAR on NBC showed the field in picture form:
NASCAR on NBC @NASCARonNBC
Your playoff grid! Is your driver in?
There were only three spots up for grabs heading into Saturday’s race, with 13 different drivers earning wins (not including Joey Logano). Elliott, Kenseth and McMurray felt comfortable with more than a 90-point lead over No. 17 Clint Bowyer, but they knew the standings could change quickly with one out-of-nowhere win.
The worst-case scenario appeared to come true for Kenseth, who was knocked out of the race due to this bizarre event:
NASCAR on NBC @NASCARonNBC
We’ll be talking about this one for a while. Matt Kenseth’s night is OVER after heavy damage avoiding a safety truck! https://t.co/2XHtSZepNT
Any first-time win would have put him just out of the playoffs, and there were a few knocking on the door such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Erik Jones. However, the Larson victory kept the standings as they were, setting us up for a competitive postseason.
With the 16 spots full, the focus is now on staying alive and competing for a championship.
Martin Truex Jr. is the clear favorite after a dominant year that helped him rack up 53 playoff points. He clinched the regular-season title last week at the Bojangles’ Southern 500, and he should be able to cruise through the first couple of rounds without even putting up much of an effort.
“Oh, we’ve had a great year,” crew chief Cole Pearn said last week, per Zack Albert of NASCAR.com. “We’ve been good every week and managed to not have too many mishaps and added consistency. I think that’s a real credit to the team, and hopefully we can keep that rolling into the playoffs.”
He finished the season with four race wins and 18 stage wins, with Tom Jensen providing an impressive note on his year:
tom jensen @tomjensen100
.@MartinTruex_Jr has won 35 percent of the stages this season. That’s amazing. #Federated400 @POPULARSPEED
Based on his success to this point, it would be a surprise if he isn’t at least in the Championship 4.
Larson and Kyle Busch have also put together impressive seasons and should be serious competitors for Truex, while no one should ever count out Jimmie Johnson based on his success in big races.
The postseason begins at Chicagoland Raceway next Sunday and every ensuing race will be more and more important. A win gets you into the next round, while a single crash could potentially cost you the season.
It all leads up to the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the 2017 champion will be crowned after what should be an exciting few weeks.
2017 Playoff Schedule
Sept. 17 – Tales of the Turtle 400 (Chicagoland Speedway)
Sept. 24 – ISM Connect 300 (New Hampshire Motor Speedway)
Oct. 1 – Apache Warrior 400 (Dover International Speedway)
Oct. 8 – Bank of America 500 (Charlotte Motor Speedway)
Oct. 15 – Alabama 500 (Talladega Superspeedway)
Oct. 22 – Hollywood Casino 400 (Kansas Speedway)
Oct. 29 – First Data 500 (Martinsville Speedway)
Nov. 5 – AAA Texas 500 (Texas Motor Speedway)
No. 12 – Can-Am 500 (Phoenix Raceway)
No. 19 – Ford EcoBoost 400 (Homestead-Miami Speedway)