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September 11, 2023

Analysis: Little breathing room for NASCAR Playoffs contenders after Kansas

Christopher Bell exhales deeply with cheeks puffed after 2023 NASCAR Playoffs race at Kansas
Alejandro Alvarez
NASCAR Studios

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Tyler Reddick and Kyle Larson may be the only two drivers in the NASCAR Playoffs who left Kansas Speedway feeling comfortable about their Round of 16 prospects.

On Sunday, Reddick joined Larson as winners who have locked themselves into the Round of 12 regardless of the outcome on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway (6:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App). The 14 other drivers fighting for 10 spots are left to wonder whether they will still be in the championship hunt after visiting the 0.533-mile, high-banked bullring.

MORE: Race Rewind: All Kansas chaos | Latest playoff standings

Regular Season Champion Martin Truex Jr. returned to Kansas confident his No. 19 team would rebound from an uncharacteristic 18th-place finish at Darlington Raceway in the opening event of NASCAR’s postseason. The 2017 Cup champion seemed ready to back that up after qualifying third, but a puncture in the center of the tread of his right-rear tire on Lap 4 derailed any hopes to score meaningful points, sending Truex sliding into the outside SAFER barrier and resulting in a 36th- and last-place finish.

That positions the playoffs’ No. 2 seed seven points beneath the provisional elimination line entering Bristol, the final race of the Round of 16. A seven-point margin, though, means others are in just as much danger of falling out of title contention.

“I knew something was up for sure, just didn’t realize it was going to blow the tire out,” Truex said. “I felt like the right rear was soft. I was hoping it was going to go down on the straightaway, not going into Turn 3. Really unfortunate. In hindsight, I guess I should have just pitted, but at that point in time, you just don’t know if the car is just really tight or what’s going on. It’s a real shame. I hate for my team. We had a really, really fast Bass Pro Toyota. I can’t imagine about being this unlucky.”

Two-time and defending Cup champion Joey Logano sits 11th, 12 points above the proverbial separation. Kevin Harvick, the 2014 title winner, holds the final transfer spot heading to Bristol by that narrow seven-point difference. Both left Kansas with top-11 finishes, but neither was enough to add significant security heading into an elimination race.

Logano, however, entered Kansas three points to the good — and was set to finish just one point above the line before a caution for fellow playoff driver Chris Buescher with six laps remaining in regulation. But a strategy call by crew chief Paul Wolfe to take right-side tires only under the yellow flag leaped Logano from 15th to third on the way to a fifth-place finish, bolstering his points cushion to a 12-point margin despite sitting 11th in points.

“We’re more above than we were when we came in, so that’s, I guess, a good day when you look at that,” Logano told “We struggled most of the day just trying to get the balance on our car, and then when we did get the balance, we still weren’t really fast and really struggled with a lot of things today. So to finish in the top five with a day like that, that’s pretty big for us.”

WATCH: Logano ‘proud’ of No. 22 team’s effort | Wolfe details gutsy Kansas call

On the other side of the elimination line, Bubba Wallace joins Truex, out by a 19-point difference. He’s 14th in the standings ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-22 to the transfer) and Michael McDowell (-40 points).

Wallace, the defending winner of the fall race at Kansas, appeared primed for a fantastic day. After qualifying 10th, Wallace was running second when a flat right-rear tire sent him sliding into the SAFER barrier in Turn 2. The 23XI Racing team was forced to repair the damage to keep Wallace on the track, but the No. 23 Toyota never truly recovered, finishing 32nd and four laps down.

Stenhouse, winner of the season-opening Daytona 500, battled handling issues throughout the day, magnified after mid-race wall contact before ultimately finishing 23rd. McDowell, triumphant at Indianapolis last month, got into the rear bumper of Austin Cindric and sent the No. 2 car spinning. That contact appeared to impact the front end of McDowell’s car, but a crash-out at Darlington left no margin of error for the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team. Instead, McDowell finished 26th, one lap down.

Heartbreak in Kansas City is not uncommon for playoff drivers. According to Racing Insights, the 1.5-mile tri-oval holds a shared record for the highest total of postseason contenders to finish outside the top 20 — seven, a mark set in September 2007. The attrition Sunday rivaled that record. Five playoff drivers finished 23rd or worse: Stenhouse, McDowell, Buescher (27th, one lap down), Wallace and Truex.

Buescher, a three-time winner in the past seven races, and Kansas polesitter Christopher Bell are tied for ninth in the standings, only 13 points above the elimination line.

So now it comes down to Bristol, where Buescher was victorious one year ago. With a volatile swarm of playoff drivers eager to collect significant points to stave off elimination, sparks are sure to fly Saturday night.