After a 400-mile race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which began in 100-degree temperatures, many of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff contenders found trouble. Luckily, for some they were able to rebound for decent finishes. For others, things weren’t quite that fortunate.
So, who stands where in the Playoff Picture after Round 1’s race one in Las Vegas as we march toward Round 2?
Martin Truex Jr. secured his spot in the second round of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with a victory in Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Now, the driver of the No. 19 car, has five victories on the season and he added six more Playoff Points to carry with him throughout each round of the 2019 post-season.
Truex now enters a track — Richmond Raceway — where he won earlier in the year. He will look to continue to bolster his chances at working his way into Homestead’s championship race.
After Richmond, the Round concludes with the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. In last year’s first-ever race at the Roval, Truex had the lead going into the final turn, when Jimmie Johnson wheel-hopped and spun himself and Truex out. Truex, one of the best road racers in the Series, will be a threat to win there for sure.
Looking Good (For Now):
Kevin Harvick nearly added his fourth win over the last eight races on Sunday, but Truex was just a much better long-run car than Harvick’s No. 4 Ford Mustang. Still, Harvick continues to roll as he finished runner-up.
Harvick has finished outside the top-seven just once over the past eight races and he holds a comfortable 52-point lead over the current Playoff Cutoff position.
Harvick, who has three career wins at Richmond and finished ninth at the Charlotte Roval a year ago, is a virtual lock to move on to Round 2 of the Playoffs unless something extremely odd happens.
Joey Logano looked to be heading on to a season-sweep of the races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 22 won Stage 1, and finished a close runner-up in Stage 2 to Truex. But in the final Stage, Logano was hampered after contact from Daniel Suarez.
Logano was able to salvage a respectable ninth-place finish though and as such he heads into Richmond with a 48-point advantage over the 13th-place driver in the standings.
Logano has two wins at Richmond Raceway and has just one DNF (did not finish) in his career at the 0.75-mile short track. That DNF was an engine failure back in 2011.
Kyle Busch had a rough night in his hometown of Las Vegas Sunday night. He slapped the wall on lap six, then had to pit at lap 12 to fix damage. This trapped the driver of the No. 18 down two laps, where he would stay for the majority of the race. After clawing back in contention in the final Stage, Busch ran straight into the back of the lapped car of Garrett Smithley which obliterated Busch’s car.
Luckily, as the regular season champion who had four wins in the regular season, Busch had accrued a lot of Playoff Points, so things aren’t as grim on Monday as they would have been without them. Busch leaves a hectic Vegas race with a 36-point lead over the 13th-place driver in the standings.
Still, Busch needs to snap out of his funk. It has now been 14 races since Busch won a race, which doesn’t seem like a long drought to many, but Busch is used to contending for wins week-in and week-out. Busch has finished outside the top-10 in just six races this season, five of those six sub-10th place finishes have come in this 14-race win-less streak.
Luckily, for Busch, one of the two races remaining in this Round of the Playoffs is Richmond. Busch is a six-time winner over his career at the short track in Virginia and he finished eighth there earlier in the season. If he has a decent run Saturday night, he should be well on his way to advancing to the next Round.
Brad Keselowski had three wins in the first 12 races of 2019. It seemed like his Team Penske organization had a leg up on the competition. The No. 2 team has fallen back to Earth a bit in the second-half of the season, but after a third-place effort Sunday night in Las Vegas, Keselowski now has three top-five finishes in his last four starts.
Don’t look now, but Keselowski could be mounting a charge in the early portion of the Playoffs.
Keselowski has performed well at the final two race tracks in the Opening Round of the 2019 Playoffs. He has one career win at Richmond, and has just one DNF over 20 starts at the short track.
At the Charlotte Roval, Keselowski led an impressive 29 laps in last season’s inaugural event before he was crashed while leading. He should make it through the carnage this season. Keselowski, at 31 points above the Playoff Cutoff, should be a safe bet to advance to Round 2.
Chase Elliott has had an interesting season. He has two wins at Talladega and Watkins Glen, but aside from the two wins this has been possibly the least consistent season for the 23-year old driver since his rookie campaign in 2016.
Still, Elliott should breeze through the remainder of this opening Playoff Round.
He took care of business with a fourth-place effort in Las Vegas on Sunday.
Now, Elliott heads to Richmond where he has three top-10 finishes in his last four starts which includes a runner-up finish last Spring.
Elliott also finished sixth at the Roval in Charlotte last season. Much like everyone above, Elliott should be safe to chisel in as a Round 2 Playoffs competitor as he has a 30 point cushion.
Denny Hamlin was undoubtedly the hottest driver on the circuit heading into the Playoffs. Over the final eight regular-season races, Hamlin recorded two wins and six top-five efforts. However, after Las Vegas on Sunday, Hamlin now has two finishes of 15th-or-worse in his last three starts.
Is this a sign that Hamlin’s stranglehold is over? Or simply just an anomaly? Time will tell, but for a driver who has always struggled closing in the Playoffs, this has to be a concerning start to his 2019 championship bid.
Still, Hamlin holds a comfortable 29 point lead over the Playoff Cutoff.
Hamlin heads into one of his most prolific tracks — Richmond.
The driver of the No. 11 car has three wins at that track and in his last eight starts at the three-quarter-mile track, Hamlin has a win and seven top-10 finishes. Hamlin also finished 12th last season at the Roval, so his place in Round 2 of the Playoffs looks quite safe unless mayhem ensues.
Kyle Larson is the final driver on the safe (for now) list, and he is the only one among the group who I could see sliding out of the safe grouping as he has been so inconsistent in 2019. Sure, he has had speed. But he has made numerous errors that have ruined would-be great finishes.
However, if Larson can keep the mistakes at a minimum, he should be able to work his way into the Round 2 Playoffs field.
Larson leaves Las Vegas with a 17-point advantage over the Playoff Cutoff.
Larson’s lone win at a non-2-mile oval came at Richmond back in 2017. Additionally, he has four top-10 finishes over his last six starts at the track, including that win and a runner-up finish back in 2016.
Of course, Larson did not have a great run at the Roval last season — he limped a battered car around on the final lap to finish 25th to advance to the Second Round of the Playoffs a year ago — but a good run in Richmond can go a long way for Larson’s title hopes.
On the Bubble:
William Byron, who is competing in his first NASCAR Playoffs during his sophomore campaign, has been fast all year long. However, he hasn’t found a way to win and he sometimes gets bitten by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Take for example, this past weekend in Las Vegas.
Byron was minding his own business, when Ryan Blaney side swiped him while trying to side-draft. This caused a tire rub, and eventually led to Byron’s tire blowing. Byron would spin, but luckily he would not hit anything. Byron, would show some moxie in rebounding to finish seventh.
If the 21-year old driver can avoid chaos around him, he very well could make it into the second Round of the Playoffs in Hendrick Motorsports’ iconic No. 24 car.
However, Byron doesn’t have two favorable tracks left to close out Round 1.
His average finish through three starts at Richmond Raceway is 15th, which isn’t bad, but at just 13 points ahead of the Playoff Cutoff it may not be enough. Byron also finished 34th after crashing at the Charlotte Roval last fall. He will need to avoid that outcome this time around, for sure.
Ryan Blaney is one of the more frustrating case studies of the season. His No. 12 Team Penske car has had raw speed all season long as evidenced by the fact that he has led more laps than any other driver who has yet to win a race in 2019 (385), but he’s had so many weird incidents throughout the year that have squashed good days.
However, Blaney ran strong in Las Vegas and finished fifth. With the good finish, Blaney now has six top-10 finishes in his last eight starts.
Yes, he’s on an upswing, but there is reason for panic for Blaney who is just 12 points to the good as he heads to Virginia. He has never finished higher than 18th at Richmond Raceway, the site of this weekend’s Cup Series race.
Yet, if he has another bad night in Richmond, Blaney’s ace in the sleeve may just well be the Roval at Charlotte. The 25-year old driver capitalized last season on a mistake by Jimmie Johnson to capture the win in the first-ever race on the road course.
Alex Bowman was on fire during an eight race stretch from Talladega in April to Chicagoland Speedway in June. During that span, Bowman had racked up three-consecutive second-place finishes and he had six top-10 finishes. The incredible run of races culminated in Bowman’s first-career victory at Chicago.
Unfortunately, since then the No. 88 team’s momentum has stalled mightily.
Heading into Las Vegas, Bowman had only scored one top-10 finish over the last nine Cup Series races.
Luckily, Bowman picked a great time to get of the schnide as he recorded a solid sixth-place finish in the opening race of the 2019 Playoffs. Bowman holds a slim 10 point advantage over 13th in the standings, but he heads into two decent tracks as far his history is concerned.
Since taking over the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Bowman has an average finish of 15.7 at Richmond, but he also scored an awesome fourth-place finish in the race at the Charlotte Roval last season. If Bowman can mirror those kind of finishes this time around, he could make it into Round 2 of the Playoffs.
Aric Almirola has to be scratching his head right now. Sure, for a guy who had a rough go at things for years at Richard Petty Motorsports, to make the Playoffs in back-to-back seasons is incredible. But he was having a career-year over the first quarter of the 2019 season.
He had six top-10 finishes over the first nine races, and it could have been more impressive had it not been for a crash in the season-opening Daytona 500. In the 17 races after that nine race span, leading up to Las Vegas on Sunday, Almirola had only recorded four top-10 finishes.
Now he sits in a precarious position after an 11th-place effort at Las Vegas, just six points ahead of Ryan Newman for the final Playoff spot.
Almirola has a career average finish of 16th at Richmond and he finished 19th a season ago at the Roval. Those are average numbers, but they certainly aren’t comfortable benchmarks when you’re trying to hold off Newman for a Playoff spot.
On the Outside Looking In:
Ryan Newman leads the four drivers on the outside looking in on the Playoffs after the Playoff-opener in Las Vegas. What that means is that Newman — who entered the weekend in the 16th seed — leapfrogged three other drivers with another impressive top-10 finish.
Newman isn’t threatening to win any races, but he has consistently been hanging in the seventh to 10th range for months. Now, he has 10 top-10 finishes and an average finish of 13.8 on the season. He and his Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 team seem to be gelling at the perfect time.
Newman has a win at Richmond and his career average finish is 12.5 at the 0.75-mile D-shaped oval. Newman finished ninth at the track in the spring.
He also finished 11th at the Roval last fall. Don’t look now, but Newman may have just what it takes to break through into the second Round of the Playoffs. If anyone makes a mistake, he will be there to pounce into Playoff contention.
Kurt Busch has to be gutted after a last-place finish at his hometown track to start the 2019 Playoffs. He has showed the resilience of a driver in his 19th full-season in the Cup Series, but now he has to dig himself out of a hole.
However, if there were two racetracks that Busch could choose to try to work his way back into contention, Richmond and the Roval would have to be near the top of the list.
The driver of the No. 1 car for Chip Ganassi Racing has two-career wins at Richmond and he finished fifth at the Roval last fall. In a combined 38 starts at the two tracks, Busch has just one DNF, which came at Richmond back in 2008.
He must start chipping away at the 14-point advantage that Almirola has on him in the 12th Playoff Position.
Clint Bowyer could not have predicted that his weekend would go so sour after collecting his first Pole Position in 12-years at Las Vegas. He looked strong early, but untimely pit stops and a tire rub which led to an unscheduled pit stop ultimately did in the driver of the No. 14 car.
Now, Bowyer sits 21 points out of the Playoff Cutoff with just two races left.
But if Bowyer is going to go down, he should go down swinging. The Kansas native has two-career wins at Richmond and he finished third there earlier in the season. Additionally, Bowyer is a great road racer and actually finished third in the race at the Roval last season. So, maybe he isn’t done yet?
Erik Jones looked like a potential championship contender after going on a run of seven top-10 finishes — including his only win of the season — during a 10 race stretch before Indianapolis.
However, after a mechanical failure in Las Vegas, Jones now comes into Richmond on a two-race 36th-or-worse finishing streak. At 26-points below the Playoff Cutoff, Jones’ hopes are already looking quite unfavorable.
However, a win could change everything.
While Jones has just one top-10 finish in his career at Richmond, he has performed well on road courses this season. He finished eighth at Sonoma and fourth at Watkins Glen. So, perhaps Jones could snag a win at the Roval with his championship hopes on the line? Talk about a story book way to get into Round 2 of the Playoffs.
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed the sport as a fan since 1993.