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Outside looking in: Analyzing the four drivers below cutoff line

CONCORD, N.C. — Eight drivers will advance to the third round of the NASCAR Playoffs, and four drivers are on the outside looking in following the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Only nine points separate Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the bottom third of the playoff standings. On the heels of Jamie McMurray (final spot), Kenseth and Keselowski are one and two points, respectively, behind the cutoff mark.

Here’s a quick look at the four drivers below the line:

MORE: Updated playoff standings | Playoffs pulse following Charlotte

9. Matt Kenseth: 3,043 points (-1 from cutoff)

Kenseth, driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota, ran in the top five early at Charlotte, but finished in 11th place — his second consecutive 11th-place finish in the NASCAR Playoffs. With Talladega on the horizon, the veteran knows his team must find more speed if they are to advance to the next round.

“It was really frustrating, really puzzling,” Kenseth said following the race. “We were running third that one run, catching both leaders and the end of the run thought we were pretty close, just wanted a little adjustment. I don’t really know what happened. We took off the next stop and it was just totally out of control. It was just so loose you just couldn’t drive it. We got a little bit better that last long run. We’re going to get back up in the top 10 there somewhere, it’s just I couldn’t restart either. It was just a frustrating day all around.”

10. Brad Keselowski: 3,042 points (-2 from cutoff)

Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Ford, completed a lackluster performance at Charlotte with a 15th-place finish — the lowest run of the current first four drivers out. He dropped nine spots from his qualifying position (sixth). The four-time Talladega winner understands what’s at stake if he turns in another average performance next weekend.

“It wasn’t the day we wanted … so we’ve got two races left to go and we need to have two strong races,” Keselowski said. “It seems like Charlotte and Kansas we have just not been able to connect what we’re looking for here the last two fall races.  Hopefully, we can go to Talladega and connect with what we’re looking for.”

11. Ryan Blaney: 3,039 points (-5 from cutoff) 

Blaney, driver of the No. 21 Ford, landed his highest finish in the 2017 NASCAR Playoffs with an eighth-place run at Charlotte. He also was the first to cross the start/finish line of the current first four drivers out, but was unable to capitalize on any stage points, something the team hopes to change.

“It stinks we couldn’t get any stage points, especially in that first one, but I thought we did a good job of getting better throughout the race,” Blaney said. “We were a lot better at the end of the race than what we were at the beginning.  That says a lot about the team and hopefully we can keep it up and run decent the next two weeks. I’m proud of the effort to get better and the hard work, so that’s what we needed. We just need to start better.”

 

12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: 3,034 points (-10 from cutoff)

Stenhouse Jr., driver of the No. 17 Ford, squeaked into the Round of 12, but cruised to his best finish of the playoffs by finishing 13th. Like Blaney, Stenhouse Jr. did not collect any stage points in the Bank of America 500. However, moving up the grid was a crucial tactic late in the race for the No. 17 team’s success heading into Talladega – a track they know quite well.

“We definitely brought a better Ford to the track this weekend than we did … at Chicago,” Stenhouse Jr said after the race in discussing the two 1.5-mile tracks. “I’m happy with our better effort.  We thought if we could be 15th to 10th it would be a good day for us. We didn’t get any stage points, which was a bummer, but we rebounded there on that last restart, which was key.”