McCarter: NASCAR playoffs set to shed weakest links

McCarter: NASCAR playoffs set to shed weakest links

Pressure high for Skittish Six at Dover

September 28th, 2017 by Mark McCarter in Sports - Nascar

Denny Hamlin (11) and Kurt Busch (41) are among those in danger of missing the next round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Photo by Charles Krupa

In 2014, NASCAR embraced a contagious craze when it tweaked its playoffs, a system that had already endured more facelifts than Cher.

NASCAR seemed then to recognize the mass appeal of people being eliminated, something that had become a staple of prime-time TV.

We all grew up playing musical chairs, a game in which one poor soul gets the boot every time the music halts. Then many became mesmerized by the talent/reality shows that found people voted off an island, not getting a rose or being jettisoned by a judge with a heart the size of a Honey Nut Cheerio.

The Cup Series' version of "get off the island" or "no rose for you" comes into play Sunday at Dover International Speedway, that steep-sided concrete monster tucked in behind a strip mall and an Applebee's alongside Highway 13 in the lower neck of Delaware.

NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne, right, talks with a member of his race crew last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Kahne is 16th (last) in the Cup Series playoffs points standings with four drivers set to be eliminated after Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway.

NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne, right, talks with a...

Photo by Charles Krupa

After the race, four drivers will be eliminated from the playoffs, setting up the Round of 12. After three more races, four more will be gone. Then will come another three-race segment that leaves four eligible contenders for the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

We know Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have already clinched spots in the next tier by virtue of wins, which automatically advance a driver to the next round, while Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski clinched spots based on points. Among Busch, Larson and Truex, at least two of the three should be among the finalists at Homestead.

So, let's look at the other end and the Skittish Six:

Kasey Kahne — 16th place, 21 points behind the cutoff, 46 points behind 10th-place Kevin Harvick. Two words: Must. Win. It's been a tough year for Kahne, who didn't have his contract renewed at Hendrick Motorsports (he'll drive for Leavine Family Racing next season) and is now destined for an early exit from the playoffs.

Kurt Busch — 15th place, 17 points out of 12th. He's a long way from winning the Daytona 500, which he did in February. He's clinging to the hope provided by Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Harvick, who twice has won when on the verge of elimination. Busch is not Kevin Harvick.

Ryan Newman — 14th place, one point out of 12th. He has to beat Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon and/or Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Best thing for him: Beat the whole field. He's a three-time Dover winner — but the most recent victory there was in 2004.

Austin Dillon — 13th place. Can someone race 400 miles while looking at the rearview mirror the whole time? That's Dillon's predicament.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — 12th place, nine behind Jamie McMurray. After this past Sunday's race, he said, "I told my guys I felt like we were in a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather all week." He's been mediocre at Dover, so we'll see if more boxing analogies — like knockout — become appropriate.

Jamie McMurray — 11th place, 16 points behind 10th-place Harvick. He has a nine-point cushion ahead of 12th. He has run OK at Dover (his average finish in his past 10 starts there was 18th), but the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevrolet hasn't won in almost four years. He should squeak through this round, but he'll need a win in the next.

On to this week's wrap-up:

Last race: Kyle Busch won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to earn an automatic berth in the next round.

Next race: Apache Warrior 400, Dover, 2 p.m. Sunday, NBC Sports Network

Pick to win: Jimmie Johnson.

Pit notes: What do you give the man who has everything? Well, in the case of Dale Earnhardt Jr., New Hampshire Motor Speedway marked his final race there by giving him a custom-made Flintlock musket, powder horn and tri-corner hat. This was the last year New Hampshire will hold two Cup Series races. In its spot next fall will be a second race in Las Vegas. ISM Connect has purchased naming rights to Phoenix International Raceway, henceforth to be ISM Raceway. Only one other track — Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. — has a corporate name. Both are owned by the France family-led International Speedway Corporation.

Fast 5: 1. Truex, 2. Larson, 3. Kyle Busch, 4. Denny Hamlin, 5. Keselowski.

What they're saying: "That was some 'Days of Thunder' stuff over there." — Kyle Busch, who blindly drove through a smoke-filled gap to avoid a massive pileup at New Hampshire

Contact Mark McCarter at markfmccarter@gmail.com.

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