And then... there were eight. The semifinal round of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs starts Sunday with the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway. Just four races remain to complete a season no one thought might happen at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic several months ago.
But despite a year filled with uncertainty, the Round of 8 along with its participants is set to be (gasp) predictable? This round is the only one with two cookie-cutter, 1.5-mile ovals in Kansas and Texas Motor Speedway next Sunday. Long green-flag runs should be on tap under a 550-horsepower package where the cream typically rises to the top. Strategy takes center stage at these places with most passing confined to the first few laps after a restart.
That said... Kansas and Texas were two of the more competitive intermediates on the schedule this year. Those tracks combined for 21 cautions earlier this summer, a season high for this type of oval. At Kansas, there were also 21 lead changes, including a final pass for the win between the two drivers favored to win this year's championship: Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. (Hamlin came out on top.)
Harvick was in position to win Texas, too, before a series of late-race cautions and pit strategy put Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick out front in clean air. You never know when even the cookie-cutter ovals decide to bake up an occasional surprise.
That said, Hamlin and Harvick will be heavily favored to win both this weekend and next. Each one has a solid cushion on the field and should make the Championship 4 barring some major in-race catastrophe.
Behind them? Well, that's anybody's guess. The best drivers truly did make this year's Cup Series Round of 8: all five multi-race winners in 2020, the top six in laps led, and top seven in average finish. If the playoffs never even happened, all but Alex Bowman (9th) and Kurt Busch (11th) would remain inside the top eight. It's the strongest group to make the semifinals in recent memory.
Any of them would be a compelling story if they advanced. Bowman and Chase Elliott are bidding for their first Championship 4 appearances and the first for Chevrolet since Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson's first title in 2016 (can you say changing of the guard?) Kurt Busch can accomplish that for Chevy while working to set a different record: most years in between Cup titles (Busch won his only championship way back in 2004).
On the Ford side, Team Penske's Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are battle-tested and always impressive in the final race of this round at Martinsville Speedway. Then, there's Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 series champion who's made a habit out of playing the bridesmaid this season. (He has one win but a whopping 10 finishes of second or third.) People often forget him in the list of top-tier drivers on the circuit but a second title in four years would change perception for good.
The jostling among them all starts Sunday as the Cup Series begins its final month of 2020 competition. Can any of these eight playoff drivers punch the first ticket into the Championship 4?
Hollywood Casino 400
Date: Sunday, Oct. 18
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Track: Kansas Speedway (Kansas City, Kan.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Chase Elliott
Chase's father, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, won his first Cup race on a road course at the now-defunct Riverside International Raceway in 1983. He never won on that type of track again.
Like Father, unlike son? Chase has become the best left and right-turn driver on the circuit, sweeping the 2020 road courses with a victory in last Sunday's Bank of America ROVAL 400. Elliott now has four wins in a row at this type of track and has finished outside the top 10 just once in the past two years: a blown engine in June 2019 at Sonoma Raceway.
Who's at the Back: Kyle Busch
The reigning NASCAR champion won't defend his title in 2021, ending a five-year streak of Championship 4 appearances. A blown call by crew chief Adam Stevens led to defeat last Sunday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. Busch stayed out while the rest of the field pitted during a late-race caution, gaining track position but not having enough fuel to finish the race. Forced to pit later, without the rest of the field in tow, the 30th-place result left Busch plummeting out of the playoffs and raised questions about whether the six-year partnership between he and Stevens is on the verge of divorce.
Kyle Larson has officially applied for NASCAR reinstatement. Larson spoke with "CBS This Morning"Friday and revealed the news, again expressing remorse for the racial slur uttered this spring that got him suspended from NASCAR competition. The incident led to his dismissal from Chip Ganassi Racing but chatter is growing Larson will be back in the sport full-time next year with a top-flight organization.
One potential NASCAR Cup Series rookie is off the table for 2021. Brandon Jones has chosen to re-up with Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and their No. 19 Toyota next season. Jones, a contender for the championship there, had been rumored for some lower-tier Cup rides after three wins in 2020 but will stay the course with JGR and hope a spot opens up for 2022.
Congratulations are in order to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy. The couple is celebrating the birth of their second child, Nicole Lorraine, which Dale Jr. announced on his weekly podcast, the "Dale Jr. Download." Both mom and baby are doing well as Dale Jr. still plans to be in the booth as an analyst for NBC on Sunday afternoon.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Kyle Busch's average finish after three Cup starts at the Charlotte ROVAL.
Wins by A.J. Allmendinger in his last 15 NASCAR Xfinity starts with Kaulig Racing. In the 'Dinger's previous 12 years racing NASCAR, he had three wins total in the sport’s top three series: Cup, Xfinity and the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It seems like a copout to put Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick in this space. Trust me; it's not. You're better off here putting the two best drivers on your roster and then finding a way to build around them despite the cost.
These two were fast at the Kansas race this summer and there's no reason to believe it'll be different this time. Hamlin's won the last two races held here, dating back to last fall; Harvick won in 2018 and has led a total of 389 laps here in the last four years at this track. Expect them to be up front, racking up more stats and fastest lap bonuses that can only help you win.
Quietly, Erik Jones is putting together a heck of a 2021 audition as he prepares to leave Joe Gibbs Racing after the season. Despite missing the playoffs, he has four top-four finishes in the last six races; that's more than any other Cup driver, period. Expect the momentum to continue at a track where he ran fifth back in July.
Aric Almirola has gone eight years since leading a lap at Kansas, let alone being in contention to win. But you'll need some lower-priced drivers with the Hamlin-Harvick combo and he's one people will overlook. Sixth in July, he's running for pride now after getting knocked out of the playoffs with Stewart-Haas Racing and has top-10 quality equipment.
Ryan Preece continues to suffer through a miserable season with JTG Daugherty Racing. But he's also quietly put together three top-15 finishes in the last four races in a bid to keep driving the No. 37 car in 2021. A near top-10 finish (12th) in the Kansas race last fall, he's worth taking a flyer on; a year's worth of bad luck had to average out at some point.
Michael McDowell continued a better-than-expected season at Front Row Motorsports with a 16th-place finish at Kansas in July. He's struggled as of late, posting two finishes outside the top 30, and should be due for a rebound as he fights to finish inside the top 20 in points.
What Vegas Thinks
Denny Hamlin leads the way at vegasinsider.com with 4/1 odds at press time. Kevin Harvick sits second with 9/2 odds and Chase Elliott is third at 11/2.
Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman have the longest odds of anyone in the Round of 8; they're both sitting at 22/1.
What I Think
Denny Hamlin wins his third straight Kansas race, striking the first blow in his heavyweight battle with Harvick while clinching a spot in the championship finale at Phoenix Raceway next month.
— 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top graphic courtesy of @NASCAR)