The South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday was the first race of the Round of 12 and Kurt Busch who took his first ever checkered flag at his hometown track became the first driver to secure his transfer spot into the next round.
The win came as a surprise as he had yet to make a trip to the track’s victory lane in 21 prior races but this win could not have come at a better time. Sometimes you have to have a little luck to put yourself in contention for the win and that is exactly how the race played out for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.
He was leading the race when a caution came out on lap 237 in the middle of green flag pit stops which trapped the rest of the playoff field which left them a lap down when racing resumed. He was able to make his pit stop under the caution and came out second to Matt DiBenedetto but quickly made the pass into the lead to never gave it up.
Busch entered the Round of 12 as the last driver on the playoff grid but now will go to the next two races at Talladega and at Charlotte knowing that the only points he will have to worry about will be Playoff Bonus points. He picked up five Playoff Bonus points for the win on Sunday and those will automatically transfer with him into the Round of 8.
While the win advanced Busch further in the playoffs, it made the path more difficult for a larger portion of the twelve driver field that will be forced to advance by their point totals as there are only two more chances for a driver to advance because of a win.
Alex Bowman enters Talladega this weekend in the final transfer spot with a nine point lead over Kyle Busch followed by Clint Bowyer (-20), Aric Almirola (-27) and Austin Dillon (-32).
While everyone will be looking at these four drivers throughout the race to see if they have gained any points on the rest of the field, they will not be the only drivers who will find themselves fighting for every position and the point that it brings during the race.
Only Kevin Harvick (+61) and Denny Hamlin (+58) ahead of ninth place know that even with a bad race this weekend that they will still be in a great position to advance after Charlotte the following week. Brad Keselowski (+16), Martin Truex Jr. (+15), Joey Logano (+11), Chase Elliott (+10) and Alex Bowman (+9) will be racing for every point from both the opening two stages and the final race finish.
Their point totals do not give them enough of a cushion to just ride around and try to stay out of trouble as a surprise winner could bump one of them below the cutoff line going into Charlotte.
This weekend’s trip to Talladega becomes another one of those survival scenarios for the playoff drivers as a good run can end so quickly due to being caught up in a wreck not of your own making. While the track can quickly end a driver’s playoff run, it can also be the one track that a driver can steal a win. It’s all about being near the front in the closing laps with a driver glued to your rear bumper who can provide the push you need to get your car in the lead. Making that task all the more difficult is that there will be three lanes of cars all trying to do the same.
This is what NASCAR had intended with this playoff format but this is one season that the path to get to this point was anything but normal. These twelve drivers that are still in the playoff hunt has had to overcome race postponements and race dates being moved which has resulted in doubleheaders and midweek races.
No practice or qualifying has become the norm so whoever raises the trophy at Phoenix will be claiming maybe the most difficult of all the championships that have been awarded.