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Champions and superstars at risk of NASCAR playoff elimination after Kansas

NASCAR: Hollywood Casino 400
Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

Denny Hamlin simultaneously won and lost the Hollywood Casino 400 on Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

The race was all but decided, his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driving away to a three-second lead, when Chris Buescher suffered a right rear tire failure that hurtled the race towards a chaotic overtime finish.

Daniel Suarez inherited the lead by staying out on tires he took near the end of the last pit sequence. Erik Jones, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano took scuffed right sides from earlier in the race followed by Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Tyler Reddick on four scuffed tires.

It was predictably wild.

Hamlin could not time his restart correctly, failing to capitalize on the two-tire cars unable to clear each other. Reddick emerged in that moment instead, driving the 23XI Racing Toyota owned by Hamlin and Michael Jordan to Victory Lane, leaving his boss with mixed feelings about winning as an owner a race he controlled until the final moments.

He went from an 11-45 result to a 45-11 result.

“Yeah, certainly it stinks,” Hamlin said. “It certainly flipped the results from first to second, but that’s part of racing, right? Our sport is different than others. It is a sport of chance at times, and luck does play a factor, and we were unlucky to get that caution.

“We knew that there was going to be a handful of cars that was going to do the opposite of what we did. I think the right call was four tires but the 45 just did a great job of executing.

“They executed the restart really, really well. It makes me happy that if it wasn’t us, it was them. It’s a decent day.”

For Hamlin, even with the modicum of disappointment, there was a lot to celebrate. Reddick sends both himself and the No. 45 car into their respective playoffs. Hamlin moved to 45 points ahead of the playoff cutline prior to an elimination race next weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Hamlin has all but advanced himself and is in position to just go race for a win in one of the marquee events of the season. Reddick feels a similar relief because he was eliminated last year in the first round and can also just go race for fun and more points next weekend.

“Last year was the heartbreaker,” Reddick said. “Two years ago, we just weren’t great and we went into Bristol and missed it by a couple. But last year we had those wins. We come to (Kansas) a year ago and have a flat while leading and fell out very early, so we went into Bristol in a bad spot and then got caught up in a wreck.

“To be able to have a lot of points scored … I’m sure even if we didn’t win today and finished second or third, we would have had a lot of points to lean on going into Bristol, so that was just the goal all along. I want to win races, but we don’t want to take the risks in the first round.”

All told, it was just a good day for both Hamlin, his team, and his driver, scoring yet another win amongst them at Kansas.

Bonus stat: Hamlin and all three of his drivers in the No. 45 the past three years (Kurt Busch, Bubba Wallace and Reddick) have swept the races at Kansas in the NextGen car.

Updated playoff grid

NASCAR: AdventHealth 400
Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports
  • Kyle Larson Adv.
  • Tyler Reddick Adv.
  • Denny Hamlin +45
  • William Byron +41
  • Brad Keselowski +33
  • Ryan Blaney +25
  • Kyle Busch +24
  • Ross Chastain +18
  • Chris Buescher +13
  • Christopher Bell +13
  • Joey Logano +12
  • Kevin Harvick +7
  • Martin Truex Jr. -7
  • Bubba Wallace -19
  • Ricky Stenhouse -22
  • Michael McDowell -40

Who is in trouble?

NASCAR: Hollywood Casino 400
Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest development of the day was what happened to Truex on the third lap of the race when the right rear tire gave up on the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 as a result of running over something on pit road during pace laps before the race.

Truex entered the race as the regular season champion and shared the number one seed with William Byron. A middling night at Darlington, followed by what happened at Kansas, leaves Truex seven points below the cutline.

That’s a manageable number for Truex, based on his performance all season, but it’s also not one of his better tracks. It’s also the Bristol Night Race, an event notorious for crashes and attrition, and Truex has to have a near-perfect weekend to advance.

A top-seeded driver has never failed to reach the second round, but if someone does advance, everything that happened will be washed away, and Truex would again enter the second round as a top seed.

Thus is life in the NASCAR playoffs.

Meanwhile, two bad races leaves Michael McDowell needing nothing less than a win on Saturday night at Bristol. There’s just no realistic way for him to gain 40 points and leapfrog three other contenders at the same time.

Bubba Wallace, who also suffered a flat right rear and broken toe link before finishing 32nd, will need to either win or have several of those above him to suffer big early misfortune at Bristol. A similar ordeal befell Ricky Stenhouse, who bounced off the wall several times at Kansas and finished 23rd.

Who helped themselves?

NASCAR: Cup Practice & Qualifying
Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Joey Logano said he needed to top-five his way further away from the playoff cutline, having entered the weekend just three points above provisional elimination. After scoring just three stage points, Logano was running outside the top-10 when Buescher’s caution may have saved his season.

The defending champions gambled with the two-tire option and Logano held on to a fifth-place result. That was about a 10-point swing that has him +12 instead of +2.

“Paul (Wolfe, crew chief) did a great job,” Logano said. “It almost won us the race. I saw the lead and if I could have cleared (Erik Jones) I might have had a shot up top. Had a chance at least and that’s all you can ask for. 10 spots above where we came in and 12 over the cutline and do the math how much better that was.”

We did!

“I want to be greedy and say ‘gosh, we could have won’ but I also will take what we got.”

Similar to Logano, Kyle Busch and the Richard Childress Racing No. 8 opted for the two-tire strategy that gave them a chance to steal a win.

They were running seventh before the caution and finished seventh.

“It wasn’t going to be a play to win the race, but it was going to be a play for our best finish,” Busch said. “We just got a couple bad aero spots there with the last restart and probably lost one more spot than I should have, but all-in-all, that was better than we should have performed anyways. We fought hard with our No. 8 Casey’s Camaro and that’s all we had.”

To his point, given how the weekend started, crashing in practice and starting at the rear, this is absolutely a rebound performance worth carrying into Bristol – arguably one of his best tracks.

At 24 points above the cutline, Busch can simply advance on having a decent day, but he concedes uneventful weekends haven’t been their specialty the past two weeks.

“With the way everything is going right now, no.. but we’ll work as hard as we can and get what we can get.”

Kevin Harvick continues to do just enough to see another day … and perhaps another round. His 11th-place finish is on par with a largely underwhelming final season for the 2014 champion, but he also scored eight stage points with stage finishes of third and 10th.

Do the math there, too because that’s the difference between being above or below the cutline.

Lame ducks, who?

NASCAR: Hollywood Casino 400
Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

For much of this season, Legacy Motor Club has raced every bit like the lame ducks they were expected to be in a transition season from Chevrolet to Toyota by the start of next year.

And yet, Erik Jones has run up front two weeks in a row while Carson Hocevar continues to race inside the top-20 in his first two appearances for the organization. This time, Jones raced up front for most of the day and contended for the win on that two-tire strategy.

It nearly worked and could have netted them a win in the playoffs two years in a row, despite not making it into the Round of 16.

“It would have been hard to win,” Jones said of the strategy play. “The 45 and 11 were coming. They had a big head of steam. Being side by side with Joey (Logano) on the frontstretch, we just lost a lot of momentum, time and speed. That’s nothing against Joey. We’re racing for the win and trying to go for it.

“It’s good to be out front, having a chance to win. The 99 (Daniel Suarez) mixed things up by staying out because I thought I would have lane choice but it went haywire. We had a top-five car behind the 11 and 45.”

This is a team that got penalized by NASCAR in June for a greenhouse violation amidst an already challenging season made complicated by the announced decision to move to Toyota in 2024. Thus, runs like this have been rewarding for Jones.

“It’s been such an up and down season,” Jones said. “We have eight more races to finish well and try to win. We wanted to win a race this year and like last year, we’re not going to give up because we’re not in the playoffs.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.