By Jerry Bonkowski
While points still matter, for seven drivers the next two races of the 2021 NASCAR Cup season boil down to one simple phrase: “win and you’re in.”
In, that is, Into the final round of the playoffs, which will decide the Cup championship, on Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway.
Thus far, Kyle Larson is the only one locked into the field of four at Phoenix, by virtue of his win this past Sunday at Texas. To say the least, the Larson Train just keeps a rollin’ and shows no sign of stopping.
And frankly, if there ever was a good time for Larson to go into a slump, it would be the next two races. Yet given the way he’s been racing of late, the odds of him slumping are slim, at best.
But the other seven drivers still in contention to advance to Phoenix are most definitely faced with a conundrum of sorts for both themselves and their respective racing organizations when it comes reaching Phoenix as one of the final four championship contenders:
Team Penske has always had a one-for-all-and-all-for-one philosophy. But with Ryan Blaney currently second in the standings, does he essentially slow down this Sunday at Kansas or next Sunday at Martinsville to help teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano advance to Phoenix? Keselowski and especially Logano – who finished 30th at Texas due to engine failure – are faced with some very long odds: Keselowski is sixth in the standings, 15 points below the cutoff line, while Logano is last in the standings, a massive 43 points back. Unless Logano were to win Sunday at Kansas or next Sunday at Martinsville, there is virtually no way he can work his way back up into the top four simply by points and having a good finish at the next two races. As late Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders owner Al Davis was famous for saying, it’s “just win, baby” for Logano.
And then there’s Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are both barely hanging on in the top four in the standings, Hamlin just nine points above the cutoff line and Busch only eight points above the line. And teammate Martin Truex Jr., who was involved in a very unfortunate crash – in terms of his playoff hopes – at Texas has dropped to seventh in the standings, 22 points below the cutoff line. It is more than crystal clear that neither Busch nor Hamlin can afford to help out Truex in the next two races, unless one of them wins at Kansas. Sure, the lone remaining JGR teammate, Christopher Bell, may be able to help all three of his teammates, but that’s putting a lot of pressure on him to try and carry the team – although Bell did surprisingly well at Texas, finishing third. If Bell was targeted to only help, say, Truex, that would be one thing. But with two drivers in the top four heading to Kansas and Truex all hanging on by a thread, Bell can only do so much.
Which leaves us with essentially one thing – and one thing only – for every driver still in the playoffs, including second-ranked Blaney, who is 17 points behind Larson.
That is: EVERY one of the seven remaining drivers who has not officially qualified for Phoenix MUST race at Kansas as if it is their last race of the season (and in some instances, it very well may be). It’s a make-or-break, win-at-all-costs, must-win event, plain and simple.
Now some cynics may say, well, if any of the seven have very bad races at Kansas on Sunday, that there will still be a chance to make up any lost ground and still qualify for Phoenix with a decent run at Martinsville.
No matter where the seven drivers – not including Larson – finish at Kansas, unless one of them wins the race, they’ll all be faced with yet another must-win situation at Martinsville.
Now, the oldest track in NASCAR is also one of the most tricky and risky places for drivers, particularly those who are facing the pressure of having to do well to advance to Phoenix. It’s no surprise that Martinsville is often compared to the Talladega of short tracks, it’s so unpredictable and the races there are wild-card events.
The track on the short little bull ring is one of the tightest there is in the sport, plus it’s a killer on brakes and tires. No one, and I mean absolutely no one, wants to go to Martinsville and either be slightly above or certainly not below the cutoff line.
Which leaves us right back to Kansas once again.
Sure, Martinsville will determine the remaining spots for Phoenix. But as I said a moment ago, Kansas very well may wind up being the most important race of the season for all seven drivers still eligible to make Phoenix. They have to drive the race of their season, if not their careers, because so much is on the line.
Kansas is your typical 1.5-mile track that has decent passing zones and can accommodate three- and occasionally four-wide racing, much like its sister track at Texas. But we also saw what that type of track did to Truex (finished 25th) and Logano (finished 30th) this past Sunday.
All told, sure, the season wraps up in just under three weeks in Phoenix. But for all intents and purposes for several of the seven drivers that still haven’t locked themselves into the championship race, Sunday’s race at Kansas will be the season finale for them, plain and simple.
Unless they win – and as I said earlier, a good finish just will not be good enough – four drivers will leave Kansas with a slim to little chance of moving on to Phoenix in two weeks, plain and simple.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski