Ultimately, nothing changed on Sunday at Kansas Speedway when it came to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
The four drivers that entered the final race of the second round below the playoff cutoff left that way and were officially eliminated. That means Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman’s championship hopes faded in the Heartland of America.
However, it wasn’t without some dramatics.
Both Blaney and Larson threatened to race their way into the Round of 8 while Martin Truex Jr, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer all struggled with various issues that knocked them temporarily below the cutline.
Here’s how Sunday played out on the final race before the final three-race round.
From the start of the weekend, it looked as if Clint Bowyer and the No. 14 team would be the weak link that could open the door for Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 to steal a playoff spot.
In fact, Keselowski and Blaney both qualified in the top-five while Bowyer could only start from 14th. But things begin to go awry for Keselowski when crew chief Paul Wolfe elected for a two-time stop on Lap 62. He restarted fifth but quickly fell outside of the top-10 and was forced to play an alternative fuel strategy the remainder of the race.
He failed to score stage points in either round, effectively placing him into a must-win situation.
"I would say about the end of that first stage it was pretty obvious that we needed something after I saw some things on the other cars," he said after the race. "We needed something to step up but it just wasn’t there. We just weren’t as good today as we were yesterday and I am not sure why. Everyone else seemed to find a little from practice and we were about the same, maybe a little worse than we were in practice.
"I am proud of what we did down the stretch of the year. We won three races and did all that. I feel like we can go win Martinsville next week so I am excited about that but of course the ultimate goal is to win a championship and we won’t have an opportunity to do that this year."
Martin Truex Jr.
After a lackluster Talladega performance placed him on the playoff bubble, Truex again struggled at Kansas.
This was remarkable because he had finishes of second, first and first in his last three starts before Sunday. Lacking the speed needed to crack the top-10 and earn stage points, crew chief Cole Pearn called Truex in to short pit before the end of both stages.
Ultimately, the were able to finish fifth, more than enough to advance into the next round once Ryan Blaney hit the wall.
"It was a battle for sure," Truex said. "At times it was pretty bad and not much fun. That’s part of this deal. This stuff is hard man. It shows how difficult it is you know to win both races here last year and run second in the spring and then come back trying to be better and struggling all day, but we still managed to get fifth, which is a really good day for us. We struggled a little bit yesterday in practice and we though we knew what to do to fix the problems. Clearly we didn’t because we had the same ones today, but proud of the effort of all the guys. All our guys back in Denver, I got to thank them for continuing to build great race cars and keep their heads in the game.
"Also, our pit crew. They definitely kept us in it today. They’re probably the reason we transferred on. They were unbelievable. They kept getting us track position and those last couple runs of the race we got our car way better and was able to hang on to it."
As detailed here, Blaney placed himself into position to advance and just slapped the wall in the middle laps of the final stage.
Larson, along with Kyle Busch, passed Blaney after he slapped the wall.
Due to his performance over the course of the round and a mid-week penalty, Larson was in a must-win situation at Kansas and gave it his best shot in the closing laps. He was especially in position after Blaney’s incident and after Kevin Harvick suffered a speeding penalty on his final green flag pit stop.
Ultimately, his back-up car just didn’t have the speed needed to catch Busch and race winner Chase Elliott.
"I felt like maybe if I had gotten to or stayed second with the line that (Elliott) was running there at the end I could have done something with it," Larson said. "Just hate that I allowed Kyle (Busch) to get by me there at the beginning of that cycle, but a good day for our McDonald’s team. Our car was fast, a lot better than practice. Early in the race, I felt pretty identical to practice just really edgy and loose and we got it better and kept tightening it up.
"I felt like our balance was really good there at the end. Wish I could have done something there, but Chase (Elliott) ran a good race up front and you know Kyle (Busch) never makes mistakes as well, so hard to beat those guys."
As has been the case for his entire career, Bowyer was not good at his home track.
He qualified 14th and finished 13th. If not for Keselowski struggling or Blaney slapping the wall, he was legitimately at-risk of missing the Round of 8. But as he would say after the race, his performance was just barely enough over the three races that made up the Round of 12.
"We were lucky really," Bowyer said. "It was ugly. I wanted to be better than that. I don't know. I don't know what I am missing here. It isn’t my guys. They are giving me good cars. They are fast. I just can’t figure out how to get around this damn place. I definitely have to be better than that. I knew this was going to be the one and we were lucky enough to get through Talladega and get some points going into this with a little bit of insurance and I am damn glad we did. For whatever reason Kansas isn’t my best track."
Fortunately, he will open the Round of 8 at Martinsville Speedway, a track he won at back in April.
"I am way more comfortable on the short tracks," he added. "Going to Martinsville for this next round. If I can put together Martinsville and Phoenix like I am capable of and run Texas like we are capable of, I think we can be in Homestead."
Round of Eight Initial Standings
1. Kyle Busch +40
2. Kevin Harvick +39
3. Martin Truex Jr. +23
4. Chase Elliott +3
5. Clint Bowyer -3
6. Joey Logano -3
7. Kurt Busch -3
8. Aric Almirola -12
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