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GALLERY: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Round of 12 Playoff Picture

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The first round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are in the book, and they haven’t disappointed. Three different winners, combined with close competition on track, drama at every turn, and chaos on the final lap of the ROVAL to set the grid.

The field is now been trimmed from 16 to 12 as the competitors try inch their way closer to the championship at season’s end. So who has the best chance to get through round two? We take a look.

MATTHEW THACKER | NKP

1. Kyle Busch +47

Scoring seven wins and the regular season championship certainly have their advantages as Kyle Busch has practically a full race cushion over the field entering the round with bonus points. The ROVAL didn’t work out as he hoped as he was one of those who crashed on the late-race restart, but in terms of momentum, he won at Richmond Raceway in the first round.

He knows how to get the job done at Dover International Speedway, having won there three times including last fall to advance in the playoffs. If he does that once again, he won’t have to panic about Talladega Superspeedway where he has only one win and six top-fives in 26 races. Kansas Speedway would be less worrisome as he has scored a top-10 in his last seven starts, including a victory in 2016.

JOHN HARRELSON | NKP

2. Kevin Harvick +42

Kevin Harvick has scored the same amount of wins as Busch, giving him that healthy cushion entering the round as well. He will need to avoid starting off the round bad like he did last time at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with a 39th as continuing to have mulligans will eventually cost him. Notably, he enters with momentum as he backed up that finish with a second at Richmond and ninth at the ROVAL.

He knows how to get around Dover having won the spring race there, and has contended for wins at Talladega with a fourth in April at the superspeedway. Realistically, consistency shouldn’t be a problem for the Stewart-Haas Racing as the last race at Kansas, he has scored two wins in his last five starts there with a worst finish of eighth.

MATTHEW THACKER | NKP

3. Martin Truex Jr. +30

Martin Truex Jr. doesn’t have as big as a cushion as the first two, but 30 points is still much better than the rest of the field following five wins. He has also started off his title defense well, scoring a pair of thirds before getting taken out on the last lap at the ROVAL by Jimmie Johnson. The key will be putting the contact behind him and focusing forward, which should be no problem given the Furniture Row Racing driver’s history.

He has scored five straight top-fives at Dover including a victory in 2016, so he should begin the playoffs on a good note. Snagging a victory there could be very critical as he has failed to finish in the top-10 in his last five Talladega appearances. If it comes down to Kansas, though, chances are in his favor to make it happen with two wins and a second in his last three races.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

4. Brad Keselowski +17

After scoring the victory in the opening race of the Round of 16, Brad Keselowski cruised through the rest of the way with a ninth at Richmond and 31st at the ROVAL. Win and you’re in – he did it perfectly. Repeating that performance would not only heighten his chances, but it would also keep the attention of everybody who believed THE BIG THREE were untouchable.

He has five top-10’s in his last six Dover races including a fourth in 2016, and knows what it takes to get the job done at Talladega with a win last season when he needed it. Coming down to Kansas as the elimination event could be interesting, with a pair of finishes outside of the top-10 in his last two appearances following his runner-up in 2017.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

5. Clint Bowyer +7

Back-to-back top-10’s allowed Clint Bowyer to transfer to the second round despite finishing 23rd at Las Vegas. Given that he only has seven points right now to work with, a performance like that needs to be avoided.

Dover has treated him well with back-to-back top-10’s including a runner-up in May, while he has failed to post a top-10 at Talladega in his last four appearances. His home track of Kansas isn’t much better, either, with only one top-10 in his last 10 races. Essentially, getting through this round could prove challenging.

MATTHEW THACKER | NKP

6. Joey Logano +6

No finishes outside of the top-14 in the first round allowed Joey Logano to leap frog drivers that ran into problems throughout the various rounds. Now it is time for him to get back to running in the top-10, like he has in 20 of the 29 races this year, if he wants to remain in contention.

The problem is he has failed to post a top-10 in his last three races at Dover, but could turn the tide with a second straight win at Talladega after winning there in April. Kansas Speedway could make for an interesting elimination event, with mixed results that include two top-fives, and two finishes outside of the top-20 in his last four appearances.

RUSTY JARRETT | NKP

7. Kurt Busch +6

Kurt Busch is lucky to be one of the drivers in the Round of 12, considering he started the playoffs by finishing 21st at Las Vegas and 18th at Richmond. A fifth at the ROVAL may have saved his title dreams, but he can’t be playing games this time around.

He finished fifth at Dover in May, along with a runner-up at Talladega in April, to go with back-to-back top-10’s at Kansas. Those finishes are necessary considering the competition looking to sneak their way in.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

8. Ryan Blaney +5

Whether Ryan Blaney won at the ROVAL or finished third, he was qualified for the next round of the playoffs. However, a victory is always better than a simple top-five due to the confidence and momentum it can provide, even if by luck. 

He finished eighth at Dover in May, but has failed to post a top-10 in his last four Talladega appearances. If something happens there, Kansas could be prove to be a lucky ticket with two top-fives in his last three races there.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

9. Chase Elliott -5

After finishing 36th at Las Vegas, Chase Elliott focused on limiting mistakes and risk to ensure they transferred and it paid off with back-to-back top-10’s. Now it’s time to get back on the attack and challenging for top-fives as he was through the summer to get above the cut-off line.

Dover could easily be the sight of his second career victory following four top-fives in five starts, or perhaps Talladega where he finished third after running up front throughout the event. Kansas could be where the nerves become apparent, given Hendrick Motorsports’ intermediate struggles this season and only two top-10’s in five appearances.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

10. Kyle Larson -7

Guts and determination can sometimes overcome anything, and that proved to be the case for Kyle Larson after a last lap pass on Jeffrey Earnhardt to get in through a tie-breaker. With the speed he has shown with three podiums in the past six races, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him rise above the cut-off line quickly.

He has scored three straight top-10’s at Dover with a runner-up last year, but has failed to score a top-10 at Talladega in his last three appearances. If it comes down to Kansas, that could be risky as he has two top-six’s to go with four finishes outside of the top-25 in his last six races.

RUSTY JARRETT | NKP

11. Aric Almirola -12

Entering the ROVAL with a pair of top-six finishes allowed him to barely sneak into the Round of 12 despite placing 19th. However, with only two top-fives and 12 top-10’s in 29 races this season, performance has to be a concern for Aric Almirola.

He has failed to score a top-10 in his last four races at Dover, but has scored four straight top-10’s at Talladega. The opportunity to keep his hopes alive is there, if you add in back-to-back top-10’s at Kansas, as well.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

12. Alex Bowman -13

Alex Bowman was estimated by many to be one of the drivers eliminated after the first round, due to failing to contend for wins and Hendrick Motorsports’ struggles during the regular season. However, as POPULAR SPEED pointed out, he is the perfect darkhorse as three straight top-20 finishes among everybody else’s struggles got him there. Now, can he keep the magic alive?

The races coming up don’t show much promise with no top-15 finishes at Dover in five starts, combined with just one top-10 at Talladega in six appearances. It doesn’t help when you also add that he has only one top-10 at Kansas, as well. 

All Photos Courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Ashley McCubbin

Currently the Executive Editor for Popular Speed, Ashley McCubbin also runs Short Track Musings, while handling media relations for OSCAAR. Currently living in Bradford, Ontario, she spends her weekend at the local short tracks in the area taking photos.