Full-page pre­view of up­com­ing NASCAR post­sea­son,

Texarkana Gazette - - SPORTS - BY JENNA FRYER / AP AUTO RAC­ING WRITER

The NASCAR season for months was dom­i­nated by the so-called “Big Three” of Kyle Busch, Kevin Har­vick and Martin Truex Jr. as the trio pulled away from the field and staged a bat­tle most as­sumed would be for the cham­pi­onship.

But as the play­offs neared, for­mer cham­pion Brad Ke­selowski warmed up and may now be the con­tender up to chal­lenge the “Big Three.” The play­offs open Sun­day at Las Ve­gas Mo­tor Speed­way and Ke­selowski rides a two-race win­ning streak into the first round.

Win­less all season and very much an af­ter­thought on the list of con­tenders, Ke­selowski has scored con­sec­u­tive vic­to­ries at the South­ern 500 and then again Mon­day in the resched­uled Brick­yard 400. Ke­selowski doesn’t want to get too far ahead of him­self.

“The next 10 weeks are races upon their own,” he said. “There’s a lot of con­ver­sa­tion based around mo­men­tum ... but it’s no guar­an­tee for any suc­cess in the play­offs. We have to go out and earn it each and ev­ery lap of each and ev­ery race.”

The play­offs this year have al­tered the 10-race sched­ule and the first round might be the most dif­fi­cult. The first two races are at Las Ve­gas and Rich­mond, both tracks are in the play­offs for the first time, and then to Char­lotte Mo­tor Speed­way for an elim­i­na­tion race that in­cludes both the oval and in­field at the North Carolina track.

The shift to a Las Ve­gas opener is ex­cit­ing for reg­u­lar season cham­pion Kyle Busch, a six-time win­ner this season who hopes to kick the play­offs off with a strong run on his home­town track.

But the same goes for his brother, Kurt, who has turned it up a notch over the fi­nal month for pow­er­house Ste­wart-Haas Rac­ing. The Ford team put all four of its cars in the 16-driver play­off field and has been led by seven-race win­ner Har­vick all season. SHR put Har­vick, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and team new­comer Aric Almirola in the play­offs.

Ford, with the four SHR en­tries and an­other three in Ke­selowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney from Team Penske, has the most cars in the play­offs with seven. It gives the man­u­fac­turer the numbers it needs to feel strong about win­ning its first play­off ti­tle since 2004, the year the for­mat be­gan.

But Toy­ota has two of the strong­est cars in the field with Kyle Busch and Truex Jr., who with four wins this season was the only driver ca­pa­ble of keep­ing up with Har­vick and Kyle Busch.

Only Truex’s chances to de­fend his cham­pi­onship from last season have taken a set­back. Fur­ni­ture Row Rac­ing an­nounced a week be­fore the play­offs be­gan that it will close at the end of the season be­cause it can’t find a spon­sor. It means Truex and his en­tire team have 10 races left to­gether to both win a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive ti­tle and find new jobs. Truex isn’t wor­ried.

“We’ve got a great bunch of guys here. A great bunch of hard core rac­ers,” he said. “No­body is go­ing to put their heads down and give up, I can promise you that. We’re go­ing to come out swing­ing in Ve­gas.”

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