LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 15: Matt Tifft, driver of the #2 KCMG Chevrolet, gets into his car during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series SouthPoint 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on September 15, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Brad Keselowski won Monday afternoon’s Brickyard 400 to take his second crown jewel victory in a row and ensure that the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff bracket remained the same as it was coming into Monday’s event. Since a repeat winner took the victory, Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson became the final two drivers to punch their tickets to the playoffs.

After a short turnaround due to the Brickyard running a day late, the series will return to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for an unusual first race of the postseason.

Brad Keselowski owns momentum, Playoff Field set for Vegas

According to racing reference, this will be the first time that the track will host a playoff race, and also differs from the usual opener to the 10-race shootout in Chicagoland. Sunday will be the second time the series has visited the track this season.

In the first race, only nine cars finished on the lead lap. Although, eight of them made the playoffs. That just means we could see the top half of the field separate a little from the bottom half after Las Vegas, especially with the top three drivers starting so far ahead.

The Big Three, plus Brad

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick sit atop of that field, with both of them accumulating 50 playoff points to start off each round with. With the dominance each of them showed during the first part of the regular season, they both did a lot to raise their chances of reaching it at Homestead. It would be premature to say they are guaranteed spots, but both drivers will have an adequate shot at the finale.

Though, both Busch and Harvick are in a bit of a better spot than the third place Martin Truex Jr. – both drivers will return to the same team they are racing for now in 2019. As for the defending series champion Truex Jr., he will be racing with a team other than Furniture Row Racing next year. The team announced they are shutting down a week ago.

While Joe Gibbs Racing seems like the most likely to land Truex Jr., he will have to focus his attention on the final 10 races with what will become an iconic No. 78 car. It could be interesting to see how the off-the-track action affects Truex Jr. on the track if it does at all.

After Truex Jr., there is a big gap in the standings going back to fourth place. It didn’t seem like Brad Keselowski would be in the spot he is in now, two weeks ago. The driver of the blue deuce was slated eighth in the standings and managed three top-three finishes without clinching a win.

Though, after winning back-to-back crown jewels in the Southern 500 and the Brickyard 400, Keselowski seems to be primed to make a run in the playoffs that could land him a second championship. The top four drivers are the same as last season’s final four – the first time this has occurred in the short history of the modern playoff format.

The Contenders

Behind the top four is a plethora of drivers that could make unpredictable noise. They are essentially, “The rest of the field,” although, that is only because any of them could strike at any time. We saw Clint Bowyer steal a win from the big three at Martinsville when it seemed like no one else could.

Not to mention, Bowyer’s win broke a 190-race winless streak and then earned a second along with it. It was really unbelievable looking back at what Bowyer had done in his career leading up to that point, and that’s just something that Stewart-Haas Racing has done up to a point this year.

SHR managed to land all four of their drivers into the playoffs, being the only four-driver team to do so. Another SHR driver in Kurt Busch has also been instrumental for Stewart-Haas’ success. The 2017 Daytona 500 winner has been a quietly solid driver and sits right behind Bowyer in the chase for the playoffs.

If Busch or Bowyer have the right luck, either one of them could be finding themselves in the later rounds. Right behind the Stewart-Haas drivers is another veteran on a powerful team. Joey Logano has been part of a Penske Racing trifecta that has flown under-the-radar (before two weeks ago).

All three drivers have reached the playoffs with three combined wins and a plethora of top fives. Don’t be surprised to see Logano hungry, too, after he missed the playoffs last season. Behind Logano and seeded 8th in the playoffs is the young gun that upset the defending champion at Watkins Glen. Chase Elliott will enter his third-straight season in the playoffs and try to punch his ticket to Homestead this year.

Elliott tangled with Denny Hamlin at Martinsville last year in a race where he could have clinched his final four spot, though he didn’t qualify at Homestead. Anyways, back to Penske.

Ryan Blaney sits at seed No. 9 to round out the three Penske Racing machines. Blaney, who made the move from Wood Brothers Racing effective at the start of the year, didn’t secure a win with Penske this season, but rode a quietly impressive resume into the playoffs.

Blaney twice during the regular season landed the pole in the No. 12 car, despite never finding himself in victory lane. On the other side of things, the young gun in Erik Jones won his first cup series race at Daytona this season and now finds himself in the playoffs with Joe Gibbs Racing.

The 22-year old hasn’t shown that he is the next big thing yet, but making it through a couple of rounds in the playoffs would be a big way to start.

The Best of the Rest

That leaves Austin Dillon as the 12th seed in the tournament. The Daytona 500 winner is the only Richard Childress car to qualify for the playoffs, as Ryan Newman will miss out on the postseason again.

Though Dillon won at Daytona, the No. 3 car only managed one top five in the regular season alone, putting his stock to win the title a little lower than the drivers below him. One of those drivers, Kyle Larson, has shown his team has more speed than Dillon’s week-to-week, he just hasn’t been able to accumulate playoff points by winning stages or races.

Just two weeks ago at Darlington, Larson earned his first two stage wins of the year before being passed in the final 20 laps to give up the win. The lack of performance from the Chevrolets showed up at the same point last season, Larson had collected 18 playoff points, and was in a much better position going into the playoffs.

Denny Hamlin has had a quiet season in the No. 11 car since his run-in with Elliott at Martinsville Speedway, though if that incident showed anything, it’s that Hamlin can come out of nowhere at any time. Hamlin was a pair of laps away from clinching his Homestead ticket in that Martinsville race, and seeing him upset his way to the championship is a story to watch for.

Aric Almirola has had the advantage of driving for one of, if not the best performing team in the sport right now in Stewart-Haas Racing. Almirola managed to have his best career season by far after making the switch from Richard Petty Motorsports.

His first half of the season was stronger than the second, but it’s all a new game once these drivers hit the track in Las Vegas. It’s not often, let alone ever, that NASCAR fans have seen such a historically dominant driver struggle to make the playoffs, but Jimmie Johnson was as close to missing the field as anyone with his credentials has ever been.

The seven-time series champion will start each round at the back of the field as his team was unable to accumulate any playoff points in the regular season. His teammate, Alex Bowman, is in the same boat.

Bowman – who took over for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 car showed some promise during the 2018 season despite the absence of stage victories. He won’t win the championship, but with the right luck, Bowman could put a bow on a solid first year at Hendrick Motorsports.

The playoffs will begin this Sunday when the MENCS takes over Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Sunday’s race is scheduled to start at 3:16 p.m. ET and will be televised on NBCSN.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Grid
At the start of the Round of 16
1 Kyle Busch 2050 0
2 Kevin Harvick 2050 0
3 Martin Truex Jr. 2035 15
4 Brad Keselowski 2019 31
5 Clint Bowyer 2015 35
6 Kurt Busch 2014 36
7 Joey Logano 2014 36
8 Chase Elliott 2008 42
9 Ryan Blaney 2007 43
10 Kyle Larson 2005 45
11 Erik Jones 2005 45
12 Austin Dillon 2005 45
13 Denny Hamlin 2003 47
14 Aric Almirola 2001 49
15 Jimmie Johnson 2000 50
16 Alex Bowman 2000 50

 

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