Three-wide racing at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. (HHP/Chris Owens)

Playoff Update: Champions In Danger?

A chaotic race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway produced plenty of drama during Sunday’s YellaWood 500 for the NASCAR Cup Series.

Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney punched his ticket to the Round of 8 in the Cup Series Playoffs after edging fellow Ford driver Kevin Harvick to the finish line by a foot. Though Harvick was disqualified post-race because of a window fastener infraction, it was a thrilling finish nonetheless. 

With some of the 12 playoff drivers encountering issues at the 2.66-mile oval, the fight for a spot in the Round of 8 is heating up. 

Only one race remains in the Round of 12 as the series heads to Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway ROVAL, another wildcard-type race, which marks race six in the 10-event playoff run.

Blaney and Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron, who won two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, are the only drivers locked into the Round of 8.

Here is a breakdown of the latest playoff standings:

Solidly Safe

3. Denny Hamlin (+50)

Denny Hamlin. (HHP/Chris Owens photo)

It looked to be a disaster for Denny Hamlin at Talladega after a speeding penalty pinned the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing driver down a lap. 

A caution on lap 162 of the 188-lap race was the difference maker as Hamlin got back on the lead lap, surging his way to third by race’s end. 

Hamlin was satisfied with the outcome.

“Not how we drew it up, but a dub is a dub and that was a dub in our book – it’s as close as it gets to it,” Hamlin said. “I’m proud of this whole Mavis Toyota team for bringing me a car fast enough to win. 

“When I had to go there, I could and made the right moves at the right time and a top five is a long way from where we were with about 15 laps to go.”

Hamlin has two poles and a best finish of fifth at the Charlotte ROVAL. 

4. Christopher Bell (+22)

Hamlin’s teammate Christopher Bell continues to quietly advance through the playoffs. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota earned a respectable 14th-place effort at Talladega, gaining two points on the cutoff line. 

Prior to Talladega, Bell boasted three consecutive top-eight finishes. 

As the ROVAL’s most recent winner, Bell enters the cutoff race with plenty of momentum. 

5. Chris Buescher (+19)

The spark Chris Buescher had entering the Cup Series Playoffs has fizzled slightly after his second consecutive finish of 14th or worse (19th at Talladega). 

“It was just an overall frustrating day for us, really,” Buescher said after the race. “We couldn’t get anything going late, and really had no help when we tried to make runs, especially on the high side. We did lead those few laps which was nice, but got shuffled back pretty quickly and couldn’t find help late.”

Despite recent struggles, Buescher holds a 19-point advantage over the cutline with one race remaining in the Round of 12. The RFK Racing driver only lost three points following his result.

Entering the Charlotte ROVAL event, Buescher owns two consecutive top-six finishes, highlighted by a third in 2021.

6. Martin Truex Jr. (+17)

Martin Truex Jr.’s name hasn’t been brought up much lately for good reason. Without a top-10 finish since the playoffs began, it’s been a rough few weeks for the 2017 Cup Series champion.

Truex finished 18th at Talladega.

Fortunately for Truex, his 15 regular season championship bonus points have come in handy as he sits 17 markers above the cutline. 

The driver of the No. 19 has two seventh-place finishes at the ROVAL and an average finish of 14.8. 

7. Kyle Larson (+15)

Kyle Larson hung around the front of the pack at Talladega, even leading a lap, until getting shuffled back and caught up in an accident on the final lap. 

He finished 15th, scoring 12 crucial stage points. Now, the 2021 Cup Series champion has a 15-point gap on the cutline.

While Larson owns a win at the ROVAL during his championship season, his other three starts are dismal with an average finish of 24.3. 

On The Bubble

8. Brad Keselowski (+2)

Brad Keselowski showed strength during the 500-mile race, leading five laps, winning Stage Two and contending toward the front of the field. 

The RFK Racing driver was caught up in an accident with 25 laps to go, putting him on the brink of elimination with only a two-point cushion entering the final race of the Round of 12.

The 2012 Cup Series champion has one top-five finish at the ROVAL and an average finish of 17.6. 

9. Tyler Reddick (-2)

Just four weeks ago, Tyler Reddick was celebrating in victory lane at Kansas Speedway. The 23XI Racing driver has finished 15th or worse in his last three races.

Tyler Reddick aboard the No. 45 Toyota. (HHP/David Graham)

Reddick brought his No. 45 Toyota across the start/finish line 16th at Talladega, only gaining one point on the eighth and final transfer spot. 

Charlotte ROVAL has been one of Reddick’s better race tracks, however, as he has an average finish of 7.3 in three starts.

10. Bubba Wallace (-9)

Talladega was thought to be a potential venue for Bubba Wallace to breakthrough in victory lane, though he never threatened within the top 10. Because of his performance, Wallace dropped from two points below the cutline to nine markers out of playoff position. 

While he has an average finish of 20.4 at the 2.28-mile road course, Wallace’s most recent outing at the ROVAL resulted in a seventh-place finish.

11. Ross Chastain (-10)

Ross Chastain looked to be in decent shape heading to Talladega with a 12-point cushion above the cutline.

That quickly changed after he was involved in an accident 32 laps into the race. Now, the Trackhouse Racing driver sits 10 points in the danger zone.

In four previous starts at the Charlotte ROVAL, Chastain hasn’t finished better than 22nd. 

12. Kyle Busch (-26)

A crash two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway dropped Kyle Busch to 17 markers below the cutline, giving the Richard Childress Racing driver a hole to dig out of early in the Round of 12.

A dismal day at Talladega saw Busch finish 25th. The result dipped Busch’s gap to 26 points, almost putting the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet in a must-win situation. 

Busch has two straight top-four finishes at the ROVAL.