It’s on to Richmond, the only Saturday night race of the playoffs. Kyle Busch won at Richmond in the spring. Will Joe Gibbs Racing get its 19th win of the season?
1. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex has now won three of the last four playoff-opening races. And while it’s nice that he guaranteed himself a spot in the second round with Sunday night’s win, there was no real doubt that Truex was going to advance with or without a win. Heck, the biggest upshot of the win may be the playoff points that Truex added to his ledger. The six points he got for the win and the second stage victory will be very handy in the third round.
“Richmond, [Charlotte Roval], they're two really good tracks for us,” crew chief Cole Pearn said. “We're going in with the approach of keeping our foot in the gas, hopefully rack up some more playoff points at those two places.”
The more playoff points Truex Jr. racks up, the fewer there are for his direct competitors.
Harvick was quite pleased with the Sunday speed that his car showed after he finished second to Truex.
“We had two solid stages and with the way that practice went for us, that was a miracle,” Harvick said. “To be in contention with a chance to win the race with 25 laps to go says a lot about the guys working on this 4 car and everybody did a great job of making something out of what wasn’t very bright for us on Friday.”
Stewart-Haas Racing swept the top four qualifying spots but Harvick ended up being the only driver of the four to get a top-10 finish. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. The No. 4 team has been far and away the fastest one of the SHR bunch this season.
Keselowski was third after his crew had the hood up on the car in an attempt to make some significant adjustments in the first half of the race.
“We weren’t driving very good at the start,” Keselowski said. “Nothing I was doing was working and we were just kind of bleeding positions. Almost lost laps. The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot where we could kind of almost steal a win. I thought for a minute we might be able to.”
Keselowski is fifth in the points standings, 31 points ahead of Ryan Newman, the driver in 13th.
4. Kyle Busch
Busch’s night was probably the most eventful of anyone on the track. He hit the wall really early and lost two laps. He got those laps back without the benefit of getting the free pass and looked certain for a top-five finish until he ran into the back of Garrett Smithley’s No. 52.
Busch clearly thought Smithley was going to pick a different lane. But there are a couple things remarkable about the incident when you watch the replay. First, the speed difference between Busch’s No. 18 and the No. 52 is incredible. Second, consider how much downforce these cars have for Smithley’s car to not come close to crashing while Busch’s looked like it ran into a parked dump truck.
Busch ended up finishing 19th, though he’s still in a great position in points. That’s why he’s fourth in these rankings. Thanks to the cushion he built during the season Busch only fell to fourth in the standings.
5. Joey Logano
Logano won the first stage of the race and finished second in Stage Two. But some front-end damage sustained in the third stage because of contact with Daniel Suarez ended up ruining his chances for the win. He battled back to finish ninth.
“We got shuffled to the back and then got to the outside of the 41 and he didn’t know I was there and he crashed our car,” Logano said. “We just didn’t have a chance to fix it as good as it needed to be and as good as it was before that. I don't think we could because aero means so much here. They fixed it as good as they could to recover with a top 10. Our car was so fast and I feel like we had a chance of winning it but we just kind of got shuffled into everything.”
Elliott led 12 laps and finished fourth. That’s a nice comeback after having to make an unscheduled pit stop for a tire rub. Elliott also made a salient point about the tenaciousness of restarts coupled with the fragility of current Cup cars.
"It's unfortunate that you can just barely touch somebody and you have a flat tire. But, that's kind of the box that we're in. That really needs to be addressed because it's really hard to be aggressive and not make a little mistake here and there. But that's what we have to work with right now and it is what it is. So, onward."
7. Denny Hamlin
While Truex won the race, the rest of Joe Gibbs Racing didn’t do so well. Hamlin was off all night and finished 15th. Erik Jones was 36th because of a transmission issue.
Hamlin said the handling disappeared on his car after the sun started to go down.
“It felt like I had a hole in the nose – a big hole,” Hamlin said. “But I don’t see anything there. Certainly, not as good there at the end as we were expecting. Something is out of whack. All of a sudden, in one run the car went backward.”
8. Ryan Blaney
Blaney was fifth, meaning that Team Penske left Las Vegas as the only team to get all of its cars in the top 10. Not a bad way to start the playoffs. Blaney had a long run car throughout the race and that paid off as there were only four caution flags on Sunday night.
“Other guys would take off really fast,” Blaney said. “At the end of a run we were really fast up by the wall but we just lost too much ground and then I just got tight there at the end.”
9. Alex Bowman
Bowman finished a position behind Blaney in sixth. It’s his best run since he won at Chicago in July.
“I wish we would have gotten some more stage points, but we’ll take sixth,” Bowman said.
“I think we ran about where we should have run. Avoiding some of the mess was definitely a good thing. I’m just proud of our guys and we didn’t have any issues.”
10. Kyle Larson
Larson was eighth but tied with four other drivers for the fourth-most points scored Sunday night at 39. Larson finished ninth in the first stage and third in the second stage.
11. William Byron
Byron was seventh, as Hendrick Motorsports got all three of its playoff cars in the top 10. In fact, the top 10 was comprised entirely of playoff drivers. The top non-playoff driver was Jimmie Johnson in 11th, meaning Hendrick had all four of its cars in the top dozen.
12. Kurt Busch
Playoff drivers occupying the top 10 spots was bad news for Busch ,who hit the wall on Lap 188 because of a blown tire. He ended up finishing last in 39th but scored just four fewer points than Clint Bowyer in 25th because of the stage points he accrued. That’s a big deal, as Busch is only 14 points out of the top 12 with two races remaining in the first round. He has plenty of time to make the second round.
The Lucky Dog: It’s not much of a surprise, but Paul Menard finished 14th in the first race since he announced he was retiring at the end of the season.
The DNF: Maybe Kurt Busch should also occupy this spot. He was the only driver who didn’t finish the race.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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