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NASCAR Cup Series

Six Biggest Surprises from Monster Energy NASCAR Playoffs

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Two races are down, with eight left in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, as Martin Truex Jr. won the opening race at Chicagoland Speedway and Kyle Busch followed up by winning Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

That Truex and Busch have won already is the least shocking news of the playoffs; they’ve led the most laps this season and along with Kyle Larson have been the dominant drivers in the Cup Series. 

Still, there have been plenty of surprises in just two playoff races. Here are the six biggest surprises of the playoffs so far:

  1. Under the Radar

Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion, has complained long and hard that the Toyota teams have an advantage over everyone else. That said, Keselowski brought his Team Penske Ford home sixth at Chicagoland and fourth at New Hampshire. Consistent finishes near the front are what drivers need this time of year. 

  1. Second Helping

Kyle Larson’s second-place finish at New Hampshire on Sunday was the eighth time the Chip Ganassi Racing driver finished in the runner-up spot in 28 races this year. Larson remains the top threat to blunt a runaway Toyota championship. 

  1. Seven-time Slumping

Jimmie Johnson is having a very un-Jimmie Johnson-like playoff season so far, finishing a ho-hum eighth at Chicagoland and fading to 14th at New Hampshire. Johnson hasn’t led a single lap in any event since the July Daytona race. If he doesn’t win or at least get a top five next week at Dover International Speedway, where he has 11 career wins, he might not be a playoff factor at all. 

  1. Leading the Pack

In the first two playoff races, Toyota drivers have led 81.5 percent of the laps run, compared with 10.9 percent for Ford drivers and 7.6 percent for Chevrolet drivers. At the rate things are going, there could be three or even four Toyota drivers battling for the championship at Homestead. 

  1. Busch’s Blues

Kurt Busch came into the playoffs red hot, having posted an average finish of 4.o in the last three Cup regular season races. But the Stewart-Haas Racing driver and former series champion is in danger of elimination after finishing 19th at Chicagoland and 37th at New Hampshire. 

  1. Rule Breakers

The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team got caught red-handed at Chicagoland applying tape to Chase Elliott’s rear spoiler and rear wheel well in an attempt to create downforce. This wasn’t being off .002 inches on the NASCAR Laser Inspection system, it was ham-handed cheating and NASCAR’s slapped the team with an encumbered finish, one-race suspensions for the crew chief and car chief, and a 15-point penalty as a result.

Just as embarrassing was Team Penske at New Hampshire, where Joey Logano’s Ford flunked pre-qualifying inspection four times and was not allowed to make a qualifying run or take part in the final Happy Hour practice. Recall that Logano is not in the playoffs because of an encumbered finish at Richmond in the spring, when his car flunked post-race tech.

NASCAR’s ongoing battle with the teams over rules violations continues to be one of the dominant stories of the season. 

All article photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017 

Tom Jensen is a veteran motorsports journalist. He spent 13 years with, where he was Digital Content Manager. Previously, he was executive editor of NASCAR Scene and managing editor of National Speed Sport News. Jensen served as the president of the National Motorsports Press Association and is the group’s former Writer of the Year.