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Key NASCAR Cup storylines entering Olympic break

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte reviews Aric Almirola's NASCAR Cup Series win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The NASCAR Cup Series enters a two-week break as NBC Sports shifts its focus to the Tokyo Olympics.

Ostensibly, this should be a chance to relax before a four-race run to end the regular season. Then, it’s on to the Cup playoffs.

But after Aric Almirola’s surprise win Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the notion of relaxing feels harder to come by.

Almirola’s triumph was the proverbial lightning strike that comes from nowhere, hits the ground, and shakes up everyone and everything near it.

You’re not relaxing after that. You’re wondering when and where the next strike could hit.

So it goes now for everyone that hasn’t yet claimed a playoff berth with a victory. As the sport pushes pause, those drivers are now on high alert.

Nothing certain

Three Cup playoff positions remain open on points following Sunday. Two are occupied by the winless Denny Hamlin (14th in the playoff grid but the overall points leader) and Kevin Harvick (15th in the playoff grid). They combined for 16 victories last season.

There’s a chance one or both of them could miss the playoffs. Perhaps it is an unlikely chance. But after Almirola’s victory, the phrase “anything can happen” should come to mind.

Hamlin still has a massive cushion at +283 above the playoff cut line. But he now has extra incentive to keep his regular season points lead (+13 over Kyle Larson), which would guarantee him a spot in the playoff field.

As for Harvick, his cushion above the cut line was almost halved after Sunday. It was +159 after Atlanta. Now, it’s +82.

Almirola also has forced Richard Childress Racing teammates Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon into a fight for the 16th and final playoff position.

Dillon was +104 above the cut line and Reddick was +96 entering New Hampshire. Coming out, Reddick is now on the bubble at just five points ahead of Dillon.

Stage points will become precious for Reddick and Dillon when racing resumes in August at Watkins Glen. But they’re also in danger of being hit again by another long shot win from someone well behind the cut line.

The road ahead

Four races are left in the regular season. The stretch begins with back-to-back road courses at Watkins Glen (Aug. 8, NBCSN) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Aug. 15, NBC), a new circuit for the Cup Series.

From there, the series visits the 2-mile oval at Michigan (Aug. 22, NBCSN) before closing the regular season on the 2.5-mile superspeedway at Daytona (Aug. 28, NBC).

Anyone can win at Daytona. But who to look out for at the three preceding tracks?

With seven wins in the last 11 road course races, Chase Elliott will be a favorite at the Glen and Indy. Joey Logano figures to contend as well; he’s the only driver besides Elliott with three top-five results in the four road races run so far this year.

But neither of them scored the most points in the most recent road race on July 4 at Road America. That distinction went to a driver in the thick of the playoff battle: Reddick. He finished eighth in the race but scored 46 points, 10 of which came from a Stage 2 win.

At Michigan, Harvick has won four of the last five races, including the last three in a row. But with Stewart-Haas Racing’s performance issues on bigger ovals this season, whether he’ll have the raw speed to contend again is a valid question.

The Hendrick Motorsports stable may be a better bet collectively - particularly Kyle Larson, who enjoyed three wins in a row at Michigan during 2016-17 for Chip Ganassi Racing. Now with a stronger organization, Larson will be keen to re-establish his dominance in the Irish Hills.

Cars stop, news doesn’t

Last week saw the latest chapter of Silly Season involving Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing. And teams are preparing to receive their first Next Gen chassis that will hit the track in 2022.

Brad Keselowski - who’s leaving Penske at season’s end is on his way to becoming the Cup Series’ newest driver/owner for Roush Fenway Racing. Keselowski makes the move after this season ends.

Point being, the cars may be idle for the next two weeks but the news cycle will still be revving. The question is how much.

Remember that our Silly Season scorecard already has some key teams and drivers on it.

Trackhouse’s second car is in play. And while Keselowski’s future may now be set, the same can’t be said for several other notable veteran and young drivers.

Keep your eyes open ... and on, of course. We’ll have you covered.