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Roval race leaves ‘elite 8’ to chase NASCAR Cup championship

There are just four weeks remaining in the Chase for the Championship

NASCAR: Bank of America ROVAL 400

He is not in the NASCAR Cup Series but Xfinity Series contender Parker Kligerman encapsulated on Saturday what makes the current playoff format so compelling no matter which side of the fence you might be watching from.

“I love it,” Kligerman said after being eliminated on Saturday. “I don’t even call it pressure. It’s just awesome. It’s cool that you show up to the race track and every lap matters, every bit of preparation during the week.

“Everyone is at a heightened level of concentration and energy level because everything matters. I just love that going into each of these races and feeling like I have to be perfect.”

Again, that’s from a guy who just landed on the wrong side of an elimination on Saturday but still could come away on Sunday morning and feel the same way when casually asked about it in the garage area.

(x) Kyle Busch
(x) Brad Keselowski
(x) Ross Chastain
(x) Bubba Wallace

It’s probably more difficult for these four Cup Series drivers to find the joy in this immediate moment in after their own eliminations at the highest level. It’s been stressful and challenging but it’s also the highest privilege – having the opportunity to prove championship mettle.

And for someone like Wallace, proving everything to everyone, given the number of detractors and critics.

“We weren’t supposed to be here according to a lot of people,” Wallace said. “But we proved them wrong, proved a lot of people in the garage wrong about us on a road course. That’s cool as heck. We have some work to do but we’re lightyears ahead of where we were a couple of races ago.” 

Meanwhile, Busch and Keselowski have nothing to prove per se, with three Cup Series championships between them but you still sense disappointment and pride in equal parts. That was especially true for Keselowski who suffered elimination but also will see his teammate Chris Buescher advancing in the No. 17 he co-owns with Jack Roush and John Henry.  

“We want more,” Keselowski said. “We want better results. We made a lot of progress and feel like we can take another step forward in the weeks to come.”

As for Busch, it was wrong place wrong time at Talladega, when it all boils down to it.

“The biggest deciding factor of the last two weeks was really those last two weeks,” Busch said of crashing at Texas and Talladega to place him into a must-win deficit at the ROVAL. “That’s on me at Texas, and I was in position to score stage points last week and was in the wrong place but give me Texas back. Give me Talladega back and it’s a different story.”

But this is the story, right, one where every lap contains so much consequence when crammed into the condensed sample size of three-race rounds.

Updated playoff grid

William Byron +20
Martin Truex Jr +15
Denny Hamlin +11
Kyle Larson +3

Chris Buescher -3
Tyler Reddick -8
Christopher Bell -8
Ryan Blaney -10

What next?

Barring a non-zero chance that a series of catastrophes befall William Byron over the next three weeks at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, the No. 24 is the closest thing to a lock you could have with the stats to back it up over the first six races of the playoffs too.

“I’m a little apprehensive about Martinsville, but I feel like we’ve developed a good package for the low downforce races where we’ve struggled to get our car to turn and do what it needs to do,” Byron said. “But definitely feel good about our higher to mid downforce package speedway races.”

Then there’s Martin Truex, the regular season champion, who has looked like anything but over the past seven weeks. Like seriously, look at these results:

Darlington, 18th
Kansas, 36th
Bristol, 19th
Texas, 17th
Talladega, 18th
ROVAL, 20th

Zero top-15 finishes in the playoffs and they keep reverting back to the No. 2 seed every three weeks.

“I didn’t create the system. We used it to our advantage,” Truex says. “That won’t get us through the next one. The next one, you’ve got to be running up front. Two winners of the next three races are probably going to be playoff guys that are still going.”

That’s the beauty of winning the regular season championship, with all the wins to that point, and the bonus points that come with it at the start of each round the No. 19 advanced through into.

They didn’t advance over the past six weeks but rather 26 that preceded it.

“That’s the beauty and the thing that sucks about this deal,” Truex said. “They outran us enough to get in but they didn’t have the bonus points.”

Ryan Blaney probably isn’t supposed to be here, in the Round of 8, purely looking at their overall body of work but the Team Penske No. 12 car has gotten the job done in their own way with consistency and timely wins.

“We haven’t had the pace that we expect to have and I can see us definitely not being one of the favorites,” Blaney said. “The 24, 19, 45 and 11, those guys have been fast all year but we’ve been super consistent and discipline.

“You never know and this is the perfect time of the year to peak and we’re peaking.”

Even 2021 champion Kyle Larson has had to prove his mettle, overcoming a crash at Texas, a subpar Talladega and a crash in practice that necessitated coming from the back on Sunday to advance.

“I feel really good about the next round,” Larson said. “Vegas, we were super strong this year and our stuff has gotten better. Homestead has always been one of my favorite tracks and we won at Martinsville and got better there for whatever reason.

“We’re definitely putting a lot of emphasis on Vegas and Homestead for good or solid points days.”

And this is to say nothing of Buescher, who has had the second most consistent season overall, based on total points scored to Denny Hamlin. They have peaked over the past three months and shouldn’t be counted out either.

Full circle

The current playoff format remains very polarizing in comparison to the straight-up season battles of yesteryear but Kligerman in the Xfinity Series is proof that you can either learn to love it or suffer through it.

Individual mileage to Phoenix with a chance to race for a championship varies.

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

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