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Cup playoffs continue theme of ‘crazy year’ in NASCAR

The Motormouths team looks ahead to the Round of 12, where a bunched-up group means that one wrong move on some treacherous race tracks could send any driver home.

How to describe these Cup playoffs?

Well, Kevin Harvick came up with a slogan to explain why he’s no longer competing for a championship. He put it on a T-shirt. For $20 you can have one.

But there are other ways to look at what’s transpired and what could come in the second round at Texas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.

Three races in, these playoffs have seen fire and rain (both at Darlington) and much, much more.

All four playoff drivers with ties to Richard Childress Racing past, present or future have been eliminated. Two former champions are gone. A playoff newcomer with one top-10 finish in the last five months (!!) advanced to the second round. The series leader at the end of the first round is now tied for the final transfer spot entering the second round after the points reset.

“As far as the cutline goes, nobody is safe,” said former champion Chase Elliott, who enters this round as the points leader.

Oh yeah, each of the first three playoff races were won by a driver not in the playoffs: Erik Jones (Darlington), Bubba Wallace (Kansas) and Chris Buescher (Bristol).

That’s never happened before.

“Imagine if the playoffs started a couple weeks later,” Joey Logano said. “Holy cow. What a crazy year, which is what we expected. We expected this year to just be very unpredictable and no one really being able to figure this car out, and it really seems like there are still so many questions.”

Yes there are.

Will the chaos continue? Will non-playoff drivers keep winning? Who is the next former champion eliminated? Who is the next surprise to advance? How will the Next Gen car further impact these playoffs?

“This car has reset that whole thing,” Ross Chastain said. “Like you can’t bring different headers here. You can’t bring a new aero package.

“You’re trying to maximize everything, but we all have the same parts. You can’t build a new right front spindle and save it for the playoffs. You can’t bring different brake pads that they’ve found in testing to be better and bring them now. There’s nothing else to bring. We all order the same stuff.

“This has been the greatest reset that this sport has ever seen.”

With Talladega in the upcoming round — where anyone can win — and the Charlotte Roval as a cutoff race — imagine if it rains there — the second round could be more volatile than the first round. It makes Sunday’s race at Texas critical for teams because of the uncertainty of the following two races.

Logano noted how much will be different this time from when NASCAR held its All-Star Race there in May.

“The car has developed and changed,” he said. “It’s gonna be different than where we were last time. Weather will be different. Resin and how it’s applied – those type of things – will be different. IndyCar has raced there since we’ve been there, so there is a lot of change that can happen, but this next round is a pretty tough one.

“When you think of Texas being maybe the most normal race and then you have the Roval and Talladega on top of that, it’s definitely gonna be a unique round for sure, as it always has been.”

While there remain questions about safety aspects of the Next Gen car and it has been criticized for how it races on short tracks, the new car has worked best on 1.5-mile tracks. Sunday’s race at Texas returns to the focus on such tracks.

Three of the next five playoff races will be on 1.5-mile tracks (Texas in the second round and Las Vegas and Homestead in the third round). That could make an impact on who advances.

Another key is the points reset.

Christopher Bell had an average finish of 4.0 in the opening round and was the points leader when the checkered flag waved at Bristol last weekend.

The remaining 12 playoff drivers had their points changed to 3,000 and then had their playoff points added. While Bell won a stage at Bristol to collect a playoff point, he’s not scored as many playoff points as others. The result is that he’ll start this round tied with Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney for the final transfer spot.

The four drivers outside the transfer spot entering this round are Chase Briscoe (-4 points from the cutline), Alex Bowman (-6), Daniel Suarez (-6) and Austin Cindric (-7).

Briscoe advanced despite having one top-10 finish in the last 21 races, dating back to early April. He finished 27th (Darlington), 13th (Kansas) and 14th (Bristol) in the opening round. That was good enough to place 14 points ahead of Tyler Reddick, the highest driver in points eliminated in the first round.

“Guys are gonna keep eliminating themselves,” Briscoe said. “We’ve just got to limit our mistakes. If we do that, we know we’ve got to have a little bit more speed, but if we can just eliminate our mistakes, it gives us a chance to go to the next round.”

Anything is possible in these unpredictable playoffs.