Another wild race at Las Vegas is in the books! We’re in the Round of 8 now, gang, and we’re starting to see some separation between the true championship contenders and the championship pretenders. How did your favorite driver fare in the Sin City? We here at the Daily Downforce will break it all down for you. Let’s go!
UPDATE: Ryan Blaney and his No. 12 team for Team Penske has been disqualified. Updated points are shown above and below.
Championship 4 Bound
Kyle Larson (Adv.)
This was Kyle Larson’s race to lose and he almost did lose it in the closing laps. But, in the end, the driver of the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevy was victorious in Sin City and has clinched a Championship 4 Berth. Larson, who tested an INDYCAR earlier this week in preparation for his 2024 run in the Indy 500, showed a dominating performance in Las Vegas. Larson swept both stages for a max points day, earning 67 total points as he punched his ticket for a spot in the Championship 4.
And to think it almost came unraveled. But Larson proved to be an expert wheelman with this massive save.
Larson will get to breathe rather easily over the course of the next couple of weeks. He’s looking forward to contending for his second Cup title in 3 weeks’ time in Phoenix.
A Bit of A Cushion
William Byron (+9)
The other Hendrick Motorsports entry in the NASCAR Playoffs is also in pretty decent shape. While not an ideal interval above the cutline, with a 7th place finish William Byron currently sits 9 points to the good. With Homestead and Martinsville remaining in the Round of 8, there’s no reason to believe, barring any catastrophic mistake, that Byron won’t make it into the Championship Round at Phoenix. With the speed that the No. 24 crew has had all year, one would think that he’s a shoo-in. As long as he keeps his nose clean and his eye on the prize, William Byron should be fine.
All of that said, our buddy over at Black Flags Matter, Darian Gilliam does bring up a good point: for William Byron to be considered top dog at Hendrick, he’s going to have to take the title convincingly away from Kyle Larson.
UPDATE: After the Blaney disqualification, William Byron is scored with a 6th place finish. He is now 11 points above the cutline.
UPDATE 2: Blaney’s disqualification has now been rescinded, and Byron is now 9 points above the cut-line once again.
Denny Hamlin (+2)
Heading into these NASCAR Playoffs and especially after a pretty dominant Round of 16, Denny Hamlin emerged as a Championship favorite. Now, though, in the middle of the Round of 8, he’s just barely hanging on. Costly mistakes in the Round of 12 put him in the position where he is just barely over the cutline at 2 points to the good. He showed speed early on in Vegas but he faded as the day wore on. He brought home his No. 11 Toyota in the 10th position. Not at all a bad finish but not really championship caliber either.
These bugs are going to have to be hammered out if Hamlin wants to hold on to make it into the Championship Round. The good news is that one of his best tracks in Martinsville is coming up in just a couple of weeks. Maybe that’s the ticket.
UPDATE: After the Ryan Blanet disqualification, Denny Hamlin is now credited with a 9th place finish. With the updated standings, he is now 4 points ahead of the cutline.
UPDATE 2: Blaney’s disqualification has now been rescinded, and Hamlin now sits third in the standings only two points above the cut-line.
Martin Truex Jr. (+2)
The 2023 Playoffs have been awful for our regular season champion, Martin Truex Jr. Heading into Vegas, Truex hadn’t had a single finish inside the top 15 (in six races, his best finish was 17th). That curse was finally broken today in Sin City as Truex brought it home in the 9th position. While not the best finish possible, that alone has to seem like a win for the No. 19 team.
Truex unloaded fast this weekend and even led some laps early on. But a costly mistake in questionable strategy put the JGR driver behind, mired back in the middle of the pack for a majority of the race. Truex didn’t give up, though. He scratched and clawed his way out of that hole and into the top 10 just in time to take the checkered flag. Heading into Homestead, he’s far from safe at only 2 points to the good. Truex is going to have to have a very safe next couple of races in order to advance to the Championship Round.
As our friend and host of Out of the Groove illustrates in this tweet, James Small has some explaining to do for his questionable strategy call at the end of Stage 1.
UPDATE: After the Ryan Blaney disqualification, Martin Truex Jr. is now credited with an 8th place finishing position. He is still 3 points above the cutline.
UPDATE 2: With Ryan Blaney’s disqualification rescinded, Truex Jr. is now only two points above the cut-line.
Christopher Bell (-2)
The first guy on the wrong side of the Playoff Bubble is Christopher Bell but it’s not for a lack of trying. Perhaps the fastest car in these playoffs (currently, he has 4 poles in 7 races), Bell and his No. 20 Toyota were charging hard in the closing laps of the Round of 8 opener in Vegas and were able to reach Kyle Larson’s bumper with the checkered flag in sight. But, it was too little, too late. Christopher Bell brought it home in the 2nd position, only a few feet from advancing.
The good news is that considering how fast that No. 20 car has been in the Playoffs this year, it is completely possible that Bell can point his way in.
Here, you can watch the thrilling final laps where CBell came up just a tad bit short.
UPDATE: After the Ryan Blaney disqualification, Christopher Bell is now 3 points below the cutline.
UPDATE: Christopher Bell is now one point closer after Blaney’s disqualified, as Bell is now two points above the cutline.
In Need of A Little Help
Now, here are the drivers who are kind of in a steep hole. It’s not impossible for them to point their way into the Championship Round but they’d need a little help, siphoning off the misfortunes of others. Here’s the real separation between the Championship Contenders and the Championship Pretenders:
Tyler Reddick (-16)
All-in-all, Tyler Reddick had a pretty good day at Las Vegas. He unloaded fast and was in the top 10 for the majority of the day. On any other day under any other circumstances, that’s something to be proud of. But, when competing for the Championship, an 8th-place finish just isn’t going to cut it. Tyler Reddick currently sits on the wrong side of the cutline, 16 points back. In order to point his way in, he’ll need some help from the mistakes of his fellow competitors. On the bright side, this is also a team that can win on any given weekend. He just needs 1 great race to finish it off strong.
UPDATE: After the Ryan Blaney disqualification, Tyler Reddick is now credited with a 7th place finish. He is now 15 points below the cutline.
UPDATE: Tyler Reddick loses a point after Blaney’s penalty was rescinded. Reddick now sits 16 points below the cutline.
Ryan Blaney (-17)
Ryan Blaney is considered an outside championship favorite by many. Currently, he sits back 17 points from the cutline. Not a great spot to be in. But, if he can nab a win somewhere, he’s really, really good at Phoenix. If he can pull off a Hail Melon of his own and somehow win to get into the Championship 4, he might just be the favorite to win it all. BUT, he’s going to either have to win or other drivers are going to have to have some massive issues heading into these next two races.
BIG UPDATE: Ryan Blaney has been disqualified. Now, rather than being scored with a 6th place finish, he is now credited with a 36th place finish. The reason for the disqualification is that the left front shock did not meet the overall length requirement per the NASCAR Rule Book. This is a big blow for Blaney and his No. 12 Team Penske Menards Ford as this will relegate him to 8th place in the Playoff Standings, -56 below the cutline. While still mathematically eligible to point his way in, it is extremely likely that he will have to win at either Homestead or Martinsville if he wants to advance to the Championship Round.
MAJOR UPDATE: Ryan Blaney’s penalty has now been rescinded after NASCAR found an issue with the damper template used to inspect the shock. The penalty being rescinded restores all of Blaney’s race-finish points and stage points. It puts Blaney only 17 points below the cut-line. While not in must-win territory, it is still a tall task to get into the Championship 4.
Chris Buescher (-23)
The first driver of the Round of 8 to flirt dangerously close to must-win territory is Chris Buescher. He came into these playoffs as a hot prospect, an underdog who could upset the system. But, as the playoffs have worn on, his speed has dropped off slightly. He finished 11th today in Vegas and that’s about where he’s run a majority of the year when he isn’t winning. Not bad but not championship level either. He currently sits 23 points below the cutline and while that doesn’t mathematically eliminate him, he is treading dangerously close to that line.
Buescher’s strengths seem to be short tracks. The good news is that Martinsville is coming up. Perhaps he can steal a victory there? If not, I’m afraid he might be the first one eliminated from Championship Round eligibility.
UPDATE: After the Ryan Blaney disqualification, Chris Buescher is now credited with a 10th place finish. He is still -23 below the cutline.
UPDATE: While losing one spot on track, Chris Buescher does not gain or lose any points. by Blaney’s disqualification being rescinded. Buescher still sits 23 points below the cut-line.
We here at The Daily Downforce are looking forward to Homestead next weekend. What are your expectations for these Playoff drivers heading into next weekend’s race? Who is fairly safe in your mind, barring catastrophe, and who do you think will need a great deal of luck to make it to the Championship Round? Let us know! And keep it right here at DailyDownforce.com for all your latest NASCAR news stories and fan discussions.