Saturday, December 9 2023

All But In

You can book this driver in the next round. Mathematically it is possible for him not to make it, but it would take such circumstances that are highly, highly unlikely.

Denny Hamlin (+50 on 9th)
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota

No matter what anyone else does, Hamlin needs just eight points at the Charlotte road course to clinch a spot in the next round. That would be a 29th-place finish with no stage points. But he likely will have clinched by the end of the first or second stage. Hamlin was 13th on the Charlotte road course last year. He has only one top-10 on a road course this year — when he finished second at Watkins Glen.

Just Lead-Lap Finish

If these drivers just finish on the lead lap, they should make it.

Christopher Bell (+22)
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota

Bell can clinch with 36 points no matter what anyone else does. If he can get solid stage points, he likely can race without any worries in the final stage. Bell is the defending winner of the Charlotte road course race. He has three top-10s on road courses this year, including a third at Watkins Glen.

Chris Buescher (+19)
RFK Racing No. 17 Ford

Buescher can clinch with 39 points no matter what anyone else does. Like Bell, if he can get solid stage points, he shouldn’t have much to worry about and can race hard to the finish. Buescher has been a good road-course racer, finishing sixth at Charlotte last year. He has four top-10s in the five road course races this year.

Need Better Finishes in Round

These two championship favorites have had disappointing finishes in this round. They might need a little better day to avoid elimination. Stage points would let them breathe a little easier.

Martin Truex Jr. (+17)
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota

Truex clinches with 41 points no matter what anyone else does. Considering his point totals in the first five playoff races were 19, 1, 20, 20 and 19, he might need to rely on others not having great days. Or he might turn it around — he won the road-course race at Sonoma earlier this year and has a seventh and a sixth in the last two road-course races (Indy and Watkins Glen). He was 17th on the Charlotte road course a year ago. 

Kyle Larson (+15)
Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet

Larson clinches with 43 points no matter what anyone else does. He might want to play it conservatively considering his points position, but he is typically better off just wheeling it and let things fall where they may. He has finishes of 31st and 15th in this round. Larson was 35th at the Charlotte road course last year but was sixth and third in the first two stages. At road courses this year, he has one top-5 and three top-10s. 

Great Race Likely Needed

These drivers likely will need stage points and a solid finish to advance unless other playoff drivers find trouble. None of them have a points total that can automatically clinch a spot for them as no matter where they finish, if they don’t win and someone else behind the cutline does, they could be out.

Brad Keselowski (+2)
RFK Racing No. 6 Ford

Keselowski’s very good-but-not-great season is going to need a great race to advance. That isn’t out of the question. Keselowski is a strong road-course racer but hasn’t had much recent success. He was 14th on the Charlotte road course a year ago and doesn’t have a finish better than 15th on a road course this year.

Tyler Reddick (-2 behind 8th)
23XI Racing No. 45 Toyota

Reddick sits below the cutline, but considering his strength on road courses — he won at Circuit of the Americas earlier this year — he feels if he can get stage points, he will be above the cutline before the final stage and be in control of his destiny. Reddick was eighth on the Charlotte road course a year ago. In addition to winning at COTA, he was fourth at Indianapolis and eighth at Watkins Glen in August.

Tyler Reddick on his crash going into the finish line and only being two points behind the playoff cutoff

Bubba Wallace (-9)
23XI Racing No. 23 Toyota

Wallace has shown improvement on road courses but asking him to get it done with the pressure of elimination could be a big ask. Wallace was seventh on the Charlotte road course a year ago, but his best finish this year on a road course Is 12th.

Ross Chastain (-10)
Trackhouse Racing No. 1 Chevrolet

Chastain has proven to be clutch in past elimination races, but he’s going to need help on this one. Chastain finished several laps down in 37th at the Charlotte road course last year. On road course this year, he has one top-5 and two top-10s but hasn’t finished better than 17th in the last three.

Just Win

Yeah, there is a chance to make it on points. But that would take the biggest jump from behind the cutline to making it on points in the playoff system history.

Kyle Busch (-26)
Richard Childress Racing No. 8 Chevrolet

Busch seems flabbergasted by how this season has gone. He could pull off a walk-off win as Bell did last year. And he could wreck on Lap 1 and be home when he is officially eliminated. Neither would surprise him. He was third on the Charlotte road course last year. On road courses this year, he was second at Circuit of the Americas and Sonoma and fifth on the Chicago street course. 

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.

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