Full-page preview of upcoming NASCAR postseason,
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.”