With one race down and nine to go to determine the Monster Energy Cup Series champion, half of the playoff field trails Martin Truex Jr., by at least 63 points — basically an entire race.
Maybe that’s why NASCAR should have retained the Chase moniker. In a playoff, 16 teams would have started with a clean slate. Truex and the No. 78 Furniture Row crew entered the post-season with a 53 bonus points and a 20-point lead over Kyle Larson.
And winning the regular season title was rightly earned.
Truex led the tour with four wins in the first 25 races before Larson picked up his fourth victory of the season with his Richmond win. But when it came to stage wins, Truex decimated the competition, claiming 18 of 53 possible stage wins. No one else came close.
Kyle Busch was the only other racer with double-digit stage wins (11) and picked up a 12th segment victory on Sunday before problems in the pits relinquished the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team to a 15th-place finish —one lap down. Brad Keselowski ranked third on the list with four stage wins.
After his Chicagoland Speedway win on Sunday, Truex leads the Monster Energy Cup Series tour in victories again with five. With two races remaining in the first round of the playoffs before we bid farewell to the bottom four competitors, Truex holds a 27-point lead over second-place Larson — and that’s before the additional playoff points kick in.
Kevin Harvick sits 35-points back in third, and then three points separate drivers ranked fourth through seventh in the standings. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson is currently eighth in the standings but now trials Truex by 56 points — more points than any driver earned in the Tales of the Turtles 400 on Sunday.
In the first 27 races, again, Truex crushed the field by amassing 58 playoff points. That’s like gaining an entire race’s worth of points.
Sure, any of the drivers in the bottom eight of the playoff standings could win over the next two races. Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman have all won races at New Hamshire and/or Dover. Kenseth, still seeking his first win of 2017, is ninth in the standings but has three wins at New Hampshire — all in his last eight starts.
Since joining Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth’s average finish at NHMS is 5.4. Oh, and he also has three wins at the Monster Mile. Newman also has three wins at each track. Kurt Busch has three wins at New Hampshire, one victory at Dover. Kahne’s only win at the next two races came in Loudon in 2012 — the first year he drove the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy. But as a lame duck, it’s unlikely he’ll receive the latest and greatest out of HMS.
As for the other four drivers in the cellar, Ryan Blaney has shown speed, Jamie McMurray has been consistent and scored a hard-fought top 10 after spinning on Lap 168 on Sunday. Austin Dillon was fast all weekend at Chicago, but an early speeding penalty took him out of contention. And Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? First he hit the wall, then there was the commitment line violation followed by a speeding penalty. Sure, it’s his first appearance in the playoffs — but it’s not the first time for Roush Fenway Racing.
So let’s concentrate on the top eight drivers entering the ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway:
Martin Truex Jr. — No, Truex and the No. 78 team’s execution was far from flawless on Sunday. On Lap 39, Truex was busted for speeding. Before the start of second segment, he was forced to return to the pits to tighten lug nuts, dropped from 10th to 16th then began to mow down the field. He was third after the second stage and led the race 30 circuits later on Lap 190. Truex has never won at Loudon — which he considers one of his home tracks. He has, however, won at Dover where he’s the defending winner of the race.
Kyle Larson — Larson started sixth and scored his 12th top-five finish of the season on Sunday. Surprisingly, Larson never led a lap but he finished eighth and fourth, respectively, in the first two stages before finishing passing Brad Keselowski for fifth. His 33 playoff points are second to Truex. Larson finished second to Denny Hamlin at Loudon in July and second to Jimmie Johnson at Dover. Expert Yung Money to take the lessons learned back to those tracks over the next two weeks.
Kevin Harvick — Harvick led the Blue Oval Brigade at Chicagoland Speedway with a third-place run. Clean air was king for the No. 4 Ford, and Happy raced to the point four times for 59 laps. He finished second in the first two stages. Having won a title under the elimination format, Harvick knows what it takes to get to Homestead. But he only has 15 playoff points and will need to pick up more bonus markers along the way. Harvick finished fifth and ninth, respectively, at Loudon and Dover earlier this year. He has two wins at NHMS and one at Dover.
Brad Keselowski — With a little more speed, who knows what Keselowski could have accomplished on Sunday?The No. 2 Ford started fifth finished sixth in the first stage, fifth in the second stage and led a lap before finishing sixth — his 15th top 10 of the year. His pit crew was second-quick behind Kenseth in time spent on pit road. Like Harvick, Keselowski could use a win. His 19 playoff points rank fourth. Keselowski has one win at NHMS.
Kyle Busch — Busch led a race-high 85 laps on Sunday and picked up his 12th stage win. But all the speed in the world couldn’t combat a lack of execution on the No. 18 team’s part. Despite swapping pit crews with the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team, a loose wheel combined with a pit road violation mired Busch in traffic and he was never able to race back to the lead lap. Busch has two victories at the magic mile — the most recent in 2015. He also has two wins at Dover and finished second four times including last September. Yes, the team needs to clean up its mistakes, but there’s no driver better to have behind the wheel.
Chase Elliott — Initially, Sunday appeared to be the day Elliott would finally get his breakthrough win. He led twice for a total of 42 laps, but the Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Truex were too much to overcome. Still, it was a solid outing for the 22-year-old, who picked up his third stage win of the season and finished third in the other segment. Elliott is still searching for his first top 10 at Loudon. He’s been running at the finish in all three starts but has an average finish of 19.3. Dover is a whole new ballgame for Elliott. He’s scored three top-five finishes in three starts and enjoys an average finish of 3.7.
Denny Hamlin — Hamlin posted a respectable fourth-place finish at Chicagoland. While his run was far from impressive, he finished fourth in the first stage, sixth in the second segment to grab his 12th top-five finish of the year. Hamlin is 44 points behind Truex but just one point behind Elliott. He has 13 playoff points for the season. Hamlin picked up his third win at New Hampshire in July. He enjoys an average finish of 10th at the one-mile track. Hamlin has yet to win at Dover but in his last three starts he’s posted three top-10 finishes.
Jimmie Johnson — Johnson started 14th and quietly came home eighth on Sunday. He did not post a top-10 in the first two stages, nor did he lead laps. Johnson trails Truex by 56 points but has 17 playoff points thanks to three wins. JJ has three wins at NHMS in 31 starts. He picked up his 21st top-10 finish there in July. And if anyone on the tour has conquered the Monster Mile, it’s Johnson who picked up his 11th win at the track in June. Until seven-time is mathematically eliminated from the postseason it would be impossible to count him out.