Isaac Brekken/Associated Press
The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs wave goodbye to four more drivers at Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
It’s only fitting after a season of predictable finishes this round has featured two surprise winners assure themselves bids to top the next round thanks to triumphs by Chase Elliott and Aric Almirola.
The result is chaos, with several massive names now flirting with elimination after what would have normally been meaningless laps late in the race a week ago shuffling the leaderboard in a big way.
An unpredictable ride through the playoffs so far has all added up to Sunday afternoon, where a chaotic finish is bound to occur and at least one major name will end a strong season on a sour note.
It has the makings of being the race of the year.
Where: Kansas Speedway
When: Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NBC Sports Live
Hollywood Casino 400
Row 1: Joey Logano (pole), Kevin Harvick
Row 2: Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney
Row 3: Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones
Row 4: Kyle Busch, Daniel Suarez
Row 5: Denny Hamlin, Alex Bowman
Row 6: Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 7: Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer
Row 8: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman
Row 9: William Byron, Paul Menard
Row 10: Trevor Bayne, Jamie McMurray
Row 11: Chris Buescher, Jimmie Johnson
Row 12: Austin Dillon, Michael McDowell
Row 13: A.J. Allmendinger, Regan Smith
Row 14: Kyle Larson, David Ragan
Row 15: Bubba Wallace, Ty Dillon
Row 16: Matt DiBenedetto, Ross Chastain
Row 17: Jeffrey Earnhardt, Corey LaJoie
Row 18: Landon Cassill, J.J. Yeley
Row 19: Kyle Weatherman, B.J. McLeod
Row 20: Reed Sorensen, Timmy Hill
2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Standings
|1. Aric Almirola||3087|
|2. Chase Elliott||3066|
|3. Kevin Harvick||3128|
|4. Kyle Busch||3111|
|5. Joey Logano||3104|
|6. Kurt Busch||3095|
|7. Clint Bowyer||3086|
|8. Martin Truex Jr.||3083|
|9. Brad Keselowski||3065|
|10. Ryan Blaney||3061|
|11. Kyle Larson||3047|
|12. Alex Bowman||3015|
|13. Denny Hamlin||2136|
|15. Austin Dillon||2124|
|16. Erik Jones||2108|
Drivers to Watch
Nick Wass/Associated Press
Almirola is the latest new-blood driver to seize control of the playoffs at the end of a season utterly dominated by big names (Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch combined for 14 wins).
With Almirola’s win, the series has now seen three second-career wins for drivers in a row, starting with Ryan Blaney, then Elliott and Almirola.
Prior to Almirola taking down Talladega, he had finished 13th or worse in two consecutive races and over his last seven had only posted two top-10 performances.
But he had enough late to pull off the shocker:
NASCAR on NBC @NASCARonNBC
“THAT WAS SO AWESOME! AT TALLADEGA!”
@Aric_Almirola came through to win at @TalladegaSuperS, and was pumped! #Almirolling #NASCARPlayoffs https://t.co/pSdtHso8FL
“Coming so close so many times this year, it’s made me think long and hard about myself. Am I good enough? Why do I keep losing when I’ve been in position and had opportunities to win?” Almirola said, according to ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass. “I’ve been hard on myself.”
Going into Sunday, it will be interesting to see if Almirola can again turn his habitual near-misses into another strong performance when it matters most. He doesn’t need another win outright, but he can influence who makes the next round.
Keeping the momentum going into the next round is key, too.
Isaac Brekken/Associated Press
Brad Keselowski is one of the major names in danger of making an early exit.
Keselowski has now finished 14th or worse in three consecutive races, two of those with him landing outside the top 25. The wheels are falling off at the wrong time, marking one of the most unpredictable twists of the playoffs so far considering he had rattled off three consecutive wins starting in mid-August.
Fuel management, among other fine details, keeps coming back to haunt the No. 2 Ford driver and his team:
Daniel McFadin @danielmcfadin
Late fuel stop adds to ‘frustrating three weeks’ for Brad @Keselowski’s team https://t.co/JWuFo9CVIp via @dustinlong #NASCAR
And no, this isn’t one of those scenarios where Keselowski heads into a race where he usually performs well.
In fact, he has only three top-five appearances over 17 starts at Kansas Speedway, including a finish of 14th earlier this season.
The only way Keselowski can guarantee he advances is with a checkered flag. Barring that, he’s bound to be one of the most aggressive and desperate drivers Sunday considering he’s starting the day 18 points behind.
Martin Truex Jr.
Butch Dill/Associated Press
Martin Truex Jr. is a mixture of good and bad heading into the weekend.
For one, he’s finished 14th or worse over his last three outings, which isn’t ideal at this time of year—and especially not for a guy who hit Victory Lane four times this season. Even worse, he’s hardly hanging on to a spot in the playoffs.
But keep in mind Truex is also the guy who swept both races at Kansas last year, including this Sunday’s event. He also finished second at the track earlier this year.
No time like the present, right? But there is another odd factor to keep in mind before the race.
Maybe the recent dip in performance is nothing and Truex will get back to normal at a track he loves. Or maybe something else is at play here down the stretch.
Either way, a win is the only way Truex can assure he advances. If one of the four drivers below him pull off an upset and win, he’ll need about 40 points to get a win.
In other words, he’s bound to be one of the most aggressive drivers of the weekend, for better or worse—which oddsmakers like, considering Truex has the third-best odds of winning the event behind Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson, according to Scott Hastings of OddsShark.