The first round of the NASCAR playoffs this season could be summed up in one word.
Camrys went three-for-three to start the postseason, including Kyle Busch’s thrilling late-race pass of Chase Elliott at Dover. The move not only denied Elliott his first Cup Series victory, it cemented the Toyota brand on top of the NASCAR charts.
Sure, other teams like Hendrick Motorsports flexed their muscle during the first round. Jimmie Johnson and Elliott finished inside the top 5 at Dover while Kevin Harvick appeared to flash speed at Chicagoland. But the Toyotas of Martin Truex Jr., Busch, Bank of America 500 pole sitter Denny Hamlin, and Matt Kenseth made their case to make it an all-Camry Homestead final four.
Truex and Busch swept the first round. Together, they have earned 100 playoff points. As for the other 10 drivers left in the postseason field? They’ve got 131 combined.
Those points leave a cushion for the Truex-Busch to make it through even if Talladega deals them a bad hand. It makes it that much more difficult this year for underdogs like a winless Jamie McMurray or Elliott to overcome their deficits and make it all the way to Homestead.
While Truex took a step back this weekend, qualifying a more distant 17th, Joe Gibbs Racing stepped up in his place. Hamlin and Kenseth led a front-row sweep for Charlotte that made it clear they’re not slowing down anytime soon.
So as the NASCAR playoffs move on, the storyline remains clear: this championship is Toyota’s to lose.
Let’s see if they can hang onto it.
Bank of America 500
Time: Sunday, Oct. 8 at 1 p.m. ET*
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, N.C.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
*Note: NASCAR moved up the start time due to the threat of rain.
Who’s at the Front: Chase Elliott
Elliott may have been the first loser at Dover but it’s clear his No. 24 Chevrolet is running much better. He’s led 180 laps thus far during the playoffs, the most of any driver not racing a Toyota, and posted two runner-up finishes in three starts.
Does that guarantee his first win is coming soon? Not necessarily. But it’s a nice coincidence Charlotte comes this weekend, the site of the man Elliott replaced, Jeff Gordon’s first career victory in 1994.
Who’s at the Back: Kurt Busch
After entering the playoffs red hot, this year’s Daytona 500 winner watched his championship bid unravel. A wreck not of Busch’s making at New Hampshire was a quick, final nail in the coffin; he ended Round 1 with three finishes of 19th or worse. The driver of the No. 41 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing must now wait impatiently for sponsor Monster Energy to renew in order to find out if he has a ride with the team for 2018.
Brian France joined NASCAR SIRIUS XM Radio this week where he spoke on a variety of topics. Among them were potential new manufacturers, where France revealed there are at least two in the pipeline looking to enter competition.
“It's hard to do,” he said. “It's hard to come in and get the right teams. They all want to come in and compete at a very high level as fast as they can, which makes the challenge even harder. There are two and we'll see how it plays out. Our preference would be to be able to add one more.”
France also didn’t sidestep a question that NASCAR itself was involved in trying to find sponsorship for both Darrell Wallace Jr. and Danica Patrick for the 2018 season.
BK Racing will still be allowed to compete Sunday despite not making it on track for Friday practice or qualifying. NASCAR still green-lighted them for competition after both cars were still presented for pre-qualifying inspection. Rookie Corey Lajoie and Brett Moffitt are still scheduled to compete for the team in Sunday’s event.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Average Cup Series finish for Ryan Blaney this year. That’s the lowest of any NASCAR driver still eligible for the season championship.
Average Cup Series finish for Clint Bowyer this season. That’s the best of any driver who did not make the NASCAR playoffs, a number which ranks 10th best overall in Cup competition.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It looks like another Toyota weekend up ahead; it’s just a few fresh faces up front. Sure, you can go with Martin Truex Jr., who has dominated here in years past, but a weak starting spot and a potentially weather-affected race (rain is in the forecast) worry me a bit. Track position may be key if the event gets shortened to, say, 200 laps.
Let’s look at the front row starters instead. Matt Kenseth, starting on the front row Sunday is itching for a win and Charlotte has been a great place for the veteran. It’s the site of his first career Cup victory (2000) and it’s a place where he’s got three straight top-10 finishes. With a career average finish of 13.4 at the track, expect good things from the No. 20 Toyota.
Pole sitter Denny Hamlin, coming off a broken axle at Dover that sidelined his momentum, has a similar track record. Despite no career victories at Charlotte, he’s earned five top-10 finishes in the last six races (suffering a blown engine in the other last fall). Considering the No. 11 team has already had their mechanical failure during the playoffs they should be a safe bet to run up front again.
After a seventh-place run at Dover, Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters Charlotte as a sneaky dark-horse play. Earnhardt has run 14th and 10th in his last two Charlotte starts and has shown some life at this type of intermediate. Remember, his best run all season is a fifth at Texas, a similar 1.5-mile oval. The No. 88 team is determined to finish the year strong for their retiring driver and, if weather intervenes they have nothing to lose. Expect some crazy strategy to potentially come into play.
Another sneaky underdog is Michael McDowell of Leavine Family Racing. Despite a tough track record at Charlotte (his average finish is 32.9) McDowell has two straight top-20 finishes here. That makes him a cheap buy in salary leagues and a “must start” in situations where you’ve already maxed out other drivers on the roster.
Take a look at Danica Patrick, too. She qualified 12th and has three straight 18th-place finishes at the Cup level while trying to audition for potential 2018 sponsors.
What Vegas Thinks
Surprise, surprise. Martin Truex Jr. leads the pack in Las Vegas with 5/2 odds while Kyle Busch is right behind at 4/1.
What I Think
Denny Hamlin, who has been sneaky good at some of the major races the last two years, has the speed to win from the pole here. I’m going to go minor upset and pick the No. 11 Toyota to earn its first ever victory at Charlotte.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP Inc.)