Playoff Pressure Closes in on McMurray, Kenseth, Others
By Matteo Marcheschi
Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth, and Jamie McMurray are the three drivers currently in the playoffs on points, rather than wins. While they each have over 50 points on the first driver outside of the playoffs, only 11 points separate the three of them, meaning another new winner would wreak havoc on the any security they thought they had.
Erik Jones gave the three a big scare, leading 260 of the 500 laps in the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night. Jones currently sits 19th on the playoff grid, over a hundred points below the cutoff line. A win, however, would have put him in the playoffs. While Kyle Busch passed Jones in the waning laps of Saturday night’s race, the near miss put the three drivers in the playoffs on points on their toes.
With rookies Jones and Daniel Suarez becoming weekly contenders despite being outside the playoffs, safety is impossible without a win. Add Joey Logano, whose one win at Richmond was ruled encumbered, who could still contend, despite being relatively off-pace since the win and subsequent penalty.
Speaking of Richmond, the track hosts the final race before the playoffs. Three drivers currently outside the playoffs have multiple wins at the track: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has three wins, (all in the DEI days), Joey Logano has two (spring 2014 and spring 2017), as does Clint Bowyer (spring 2008 and fall 2012). Matt Kenseth also has a pair of victories at Richmond Raceway (fall 2002 and fall 2015).
No driver outside the playoffs, though, has a victory at Darlington, which hosts the penultimate race of the regular season. In fact, the only non-winner in 2017 with a victory there is Matt Kenseth, who won the 2013 Southern 500, the third of seven wins Kenseth earned that season.
In terms of possible underdog winners at Darlington, Regan Smith, the 2011 Southern 500 winner, comes to mind. Smith captured his first and only cup win to date in the legendary event, and the first win for Furniture Row Racing.
We’ve already seen underdog winners this season, with Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. all taking victories so far. Another underdog winner is very possible in these final two events. Elliott, McMurray, and Kenseth had better tighten those belts, because they could be taking one helluva ride these next couple weeks.