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ADVANCING through the NASCAR Playoffs: Las Vegas analysis

After the the first race in the Round of 12 in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, here’s a brief look at the playoff picture. Two races remain in the second round — Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval — before the playoff picture is shaved to eight drivers.

WINNER

Kurt Busch. After two decades, the 2004 Cup Series champion finally got into Victory Lane at his home track. Busch is the first to advance into the Round of 8 of the playoffs. It’s Busch’s first race win since Kentucky Speedway in July 2019.

RELATED: Kurt Busch earns Las Vegas win to advance in playoffs

WHO’S HOT

Kyle Busch. Although he’s still winless on the year, the younger Busch brother has been consistent in the first four races of the postseason. A sixth-place finish at Las Vegas continued his streak of four consecutive top 10s. Although Busch still finds himself nine points below the cutline heading into Talladega, another consistent finish in a wild-card race could propel him into the right side of the equation in his effort to defend his 2019 title.

Alex Bowman. The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports driver earned his fourth top-five finish of the 2020 season with a fifth-place result at Las Vegas. Bowman hung around the front of the field for the majority of the race, coming up short of his second win of the year after being slightly shuffled out on the overtime restart. But the strong result is his third top 10 of the playoffs, rebounding from a 16th-place finish at Bristol. Bowman takes Hendrick horsepower to Talladega, where he finished second in the spring race of 2019 and seventh earlier in the season.

Martin Truex Jr. The driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing rebounded from a 24th-place finish at Bristol for a fourth-place result at Las Vegas. While the postseason has been up-and-down for Truex with a 22nd and second at Darlington and Richmond, respectively, he still finds himself 15 points above the cutoff line heading into Talladega. The 2.66-mile Alabama superspeedway hasn’t treated him well in the past, however, if he can survive with a decent showing, he’ll be sitting pretty to advance to the Round of 8 on points at the very least.

WHO’S NOT

Austin Dillon. After finishes of second, fourth and 12th in the first three races of the postseason, Dillon had another strong run going before disaster struck in the final stage. Dillon was forced to pit with a little more than 50 laps remaining to fix an overheating issue and a broken power steering belt on the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, returning to the track eight laps down. Dillon wound up finishing 32nd, now 12th in the standings and 32 points below the cutoff line.

Aric Almirola. The No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford driver began the Round of 16 with three straight top-10 finishes. But Almirola wouldn’t be as fortunate at Las Vegas, finishing 17th after struggling to dial in the speed necessary to compete at the front of the field. Almirola is now 27 points back of the cutline heading into Talladega, where he won the fall race to advance to the Round of 8 in 2018.

BUBBLE WATCH

Rank Driver Points to cutoff
5. Martin Truex Jr. +15
6. Joey Logano +11
7. Chase Elliott +10
8. Alex Bowman +9
——-                               CUT-OFF LINE ———————
9. Kyle Busch -9
10. Clint Bowyer -20
11. Aric Almirola -27
12. Austin Dillon -32

NEXT RACE

The NASCAR Cup Series travels to Talladega Superspeedway for the second race of the Round of 12 in the NASCAR Playoffs on Oct. 4 (2 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

WHO IT FAVORS

Team Penske. While Ryan Blaney has earned the past two victories at Talladega, Team Penske as a whole is always stout on the superspeedway tracks. Joey Logano owns three wins since 2015 there, while Brad Keselowski has five victories, although he hasn’t scored a top-10 finish since his win in 2017.

WHO IT HURTS

Austin Dillon. In 14 starts at Talladega, Dillon only has one top five and three top 10s. In an effort to overcome a 32-point deficit on the cutline with two races remaining in the Round of 12, he’ll need a better show than that or some misfortune from other drivers ahead of him if he wants a shot at the next round of the postseason.