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Denny Hamlin leads the way at a test of the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course in July.
Bob Leverone | Getty Images

With thrills at Charlotte road course looming, drivers steel for ‘crazy’ first round

LAS VEGAS — The first round of the NASCAR Playoffs has a decidedly different look this year, one that includes a fresh batch of uncertainty as the curtain-closer.

Last season, the Round of 16 for the Monster Energy Series traveled from Chicagoland to New Hampshire before wrapping up at Dover. This year, the postseason opens with Las Vegas, adds Richmond to the mix, then finishes with a brand-new event at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course/oval layout.

RELATED: Full schedule for Las Vegas | Playoffs Central

That significant schedule shift had drivers talking at Thursday’s NASCAR Playoffs Media Day at the South Point Hotel and Casino. Several stressed the need to win at either Vegas or Richmond to enter the Charlotte elimination race with playoff immunity, knowing how wildly entertaining that race could be.

Here’s what a sampling of the 16 championship-eligible drivers had to say:

Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Ford): “This is a big difference this year. We haven’t had a lot of race dates moved around in the playoffs and so to have three tracks that have never been part of the playoffs before, there’s zero notes going into this.

“We haven’t even gotten to the Roval yet. That’s going to be a pretty big mix-up, shake-’em-up and we hope to survive that one, in all honesty. We just need to not make mistakes at that one and not get caught up in other people’s mistakes and that’s how we’ll get through this first round.”

PHOTOS: Behind the scenes at Charlotte

Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet): “I don’t think your method changes. I just think the unknowns of that road course obviously is going to dictate a lot, being an elimination race, too. So ultimately try to get a win out here or at Richmond and not have to worry about it would be really nice. That’s our mindset, my goal. Try to grab a win here and take it a week at a time.”

Joey Logano (Team Penske No. 22 Ford): “It makes the first two races really important. It makes getting through Vegas here with some solid points and then going to Richmond and having another solid day to give yourself some cushion for the Roval because I don’t know if you know what’s going to happen at the Roval, but I sure don’t. …

“I think everyone’s going to be fairly conservative unless they have to win. There will be a few drivers in that situation that will have to make something happen to get through. They’ll be making desperate moves.”

Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota): “We’re used to the same tracks so this is definitely a different feel. I remember starting the Playoffs in Chicago and know what I need to do there. I go to New Hampshire and know exactly what to do there. Now, it’s a different mix-up of tracks. I think it’s going to be a bigger wild-card. I think of the top eight seeds, at least one will fall out of the first round, just because of the unknowns and circumstances in which these first tracks have.”

Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing No. 78 Toyota): “It’s good to start off good, but then thinking of Richmond and Roval, two places where anything can happen and a lot of people are saying that the Roval is going to be crazy and I absolutely agree with that. Richmond, too, and the things that can happen there. We could have like four wins in the last five or six Richmond races and we have zero – we’ve led a ton of laps in the spring this year and we were in position to win and finished 14th. Last fall, led the most laps, in position to win, didn’t finish at all so it’s another, I think, bit of a wild card because it’s a short track mentality and you get some late-race restarts with guys in the Playoffs and some guys trying to lock themselves into the next round and not have to worry about the Roval, you think about all that, it’s going to be crazy for the first round right?”