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Playoffs pulse: Stacking the field after Las Vegas

After the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs race, here’s a brief look at the playoffs picture. There are two races remaining in the Round of 16 before the field is whittled to 12, with four drivers eliminated from the postseason following Charlotte (Sept. 30).

Winner

Brad Keselowski won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, clinching a spot in the Round of 12. The win also gives him five playoff points to add to his total, which now sits at 25.

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Who’s hot

Martin Truex Jr. Truex Jr. showed championship-winning speed on Sunday, with the No. 78 Toyota looking like the rocket it did last year when the Furniture Row Racing group won the series title. No, he didn’t win at Las Vegas, but by virtue of his on-track performance Truex Jr. announced with authority he and his team are definitively championship contenders.

Kyle Larson. Larson isn’t great at Richmond — the next stop on the circuit — and who knows with the chaotic Charlotte road course looming. He needed a strong run at Vegas, and delivered with a compelling second-place showing. With so many other playoff drivers having issues, his clean day stands out all the more.

Who’s not

Erik Jones. Erik Jones had pretty much the worst day imaginable. The Busch Pole Award winner crushed his No. 20 Toyota into the back of the No. 4 Ford of Kevin Harvick, which had blown a tire, midway through the race. Through no fault of his own, it ended Jones’ day and dropped him to dead last in the playoff standings. Unlike Harvick, Jones doesn’t have a bevy of playoff points on which to fall back.

Denny Hamlin. It’s never good when your driver comes on the radio and says “God, we’re bad.” That’s what the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team heard from Denny Hamlin after he finished 15th in Stage 1. It never got better, either, with Hamlin among the slowest of playoff drivers before he spun out on Lap 246 to end his day early.

BUBBLE WATCH

Rank Driver Points to cutoff
9. Aric Almirola +12
10. Austin Dillon +9
11. Clint Bowyer +7
12. Alex Bowman +6
————— CUT-OFF LINE —————
13. Jimmie Johnson -6
14. Chase Elliott -9
15. Erik Jones -19
16. Denny Hamlin
-20

Next race

The Monster Energy Series travels to Richmond Raceway for a Saturday night race on Sept. 22 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Who it favors

Denny Hamlin. The 0.75-mile track could provide the breakthrough the No. 11 team has been craving. Hamlin has led 17.2 percent of all laps run at the facility since 2005, and Toyotas have won four of the past six races there.

Who it hurts

Ryan Blaney. Richmond is the worst track on the circuit for Blaney, if you’re judging by average finish. In five career Richmond Cup starts his average finish is 28.6. That includes two finishes outside the top 35 and zero laps led.