Through the Field: Doors are A-Closin’
We’ve made it to the finale of the opening round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. The first two races have come and gone and it’s time to eliminate four drivers from the playoff field after 500 miles on the high-banked concrete of Bristol Motor Speedway.
For those four drivers who will be knocked out, the figurative door will close on their chances of a title. Their hopes will be dashed; the possibility will be gone. It’s just one of those many moments in life where we are unable to achieve our goals in exactly the way we want to do so.
It’s a certainty that will happen in life, and it can be devastating. There can be a lot of great things, opportunities, achievements or anything else good in life that can be taken away, and sometimes that’s what happens. More and more people have been experiencing it lately due to the pandemic and the true havoc that it has wreaked upon society.
But, quite often, you can find silver linings to those doors closing. It may not be great at first, but there could be unintended-positive effects from life steering you in one direction over another. And maybe, down the road, you end up in an absolutely perfect spot that never would have happened if that other door hadn’t closed in front of you previously. If and when your life is changing, keep an eye out for those silver linings. It could end up changing your life for the better.
Getting back to racing, the doors to victory lane opened for Brad Keselowski last week at Richmond. The Team Penske driver earned his fourth win of the season, with three of those victories coming on tracks which share the same rules package as the championship race in Phoenix will feature in November.
Kevin Harvick, who advanced to the second round with his Darlington win, and Denny Hamlin, who has advanced on points to round two, have been the two drivers who have the best chance to advance to that race.
I believe now is the time to add the No. 2 team to that list, as Keselowski has only improved since the season began. The team is clearly the best and most consistent Team Penske driver thus far and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them win another race or two before the season is done.
Heading into this week’s race, I’ll pass along some buys and sells for your lineups.
Austin Dillon & Alex Bowman: I grouped these two together since I talked about them more extensively last week, but both the No. 3 and No. 88 teams are on their best stretches of the season heading into Bristol.
Austin Dillon has had two consecutive top-five finishes and was sixth at Bristol earlier this season, while Alex Bowman has four consecutive top-10 finishes. I don’t know if either of these guys will be championship threats, but their performances have been worthy of praise and both are in a relatively good position to advance in the playoffs.
Matt DiBenedetto: One of two Penske-affiliated cars out of the playoffs right now is set to compete a little harder at Bristol this week. Matt DiBenedetto had possibly the biggest heartbreaker of 2019 at this exact race, leading in the final laps before being passed by Hamlin.
In 2020, the No. 21 team has better equipment than the No. 95 that DiBenedetto raced last year, and they’ve likely had this race circled on their calendar all playoffs, if not all season. DiBenedetto is the riskiest pick of the week, but also has the highest potential for an unexpected boom and a trip to victory lane to save his playoff hopes.
Ryan Blaney: Every playoff, we see a driver or two that is immensely talented get eliminated relatively early in the process, likely due to a lack of experience in high-pressure situations like these. In 2020, Ryan Blaney is likely to be that driver.
While mistakes defined the first two playoff races and put them in a 27-point hole heading into Bristol, the No. 12 team just hasn’t run well over the last month or so. They have just two top-10 finishes in the last 10 races, one of which came at Daytona after Blaney avoided the typical crashes.
In that span, there have been five finishes of 20th or worse, but with another disclaimer that one of those came in Michigan where he and Brad Keselowski crashed battling for the lead. They don’t have much to pull from the earlier Bristol race this year as they finished 40th, but that was preceded by three consecutive top-10s there. I think Blaney will be hot early in the race, but another mistake or miscue will happen, and they won’t recover.
Kyle Busch: I’ll probably get some hate for this one, considering Bristol has been an especially strong track for Kyle Busch and the No. 18 team for at least the last decade. But I just haven’t seen anything from the team or driver in 2020 to indicate that they can even win races, let alone fight for a title.
The seventh and sixth-place finishes to open the playoffs haven’t been bad by any means, but the younger Busch brother hasn’t been happy with the car in either race. Don’t be surprised if he can drive the car to a top-10 and advance to the next round, but a win isn’t in the cards and neither is advancing past the next round of the playoffs, in all honesty, the way the team is performing right now.
This Week’s Pick
Denny Hamlin: Realistically, Hamlin will be eager to catch up to the performances of Harvick and Keselowski in the first round and also grab the extra five playoff points to compete for the easiest road possible to Phoenix.
Matt DiBenedetto, Kurt Busch & Chase Elliott: Just like the No. 21 team, Kurt Busch and the No. 1 team probably see their last chance to win in 2020 come and go after Bristol. Chase Elliott and the No. 9 team won the All-Star race and nearly won the spring race as well.