Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Past Champions on the Playoff Bubble

After the first two races of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, the biggest surprise is a trio of veteran drivers near the playoff cut line. Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. hold the 11th, 12th and 13th points positions, respectively. Logano is 12 points above the cut line, Harvick is seven above and Truex is the first driver below, seven behind Harvick.

Seeing these three drivers in danger of a Round of 16 elimination is shocking. Logano, Harvick and Truex have been some of the best drivers in the history of the elimination-style playoffs. In the past nine years, they have combined for four titles and appeared in the championship race 15 times. In fact, there has not been a single season where the Championship 4 title contenders did not include at least one of them. During this same period, Logano, Harvick and Truex have won a combined 33 playoff races. They have been three of the drivers you can always count on to be at their best during the postseason.

See also
Thinkin' Out Loud at Kansas: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

But so far in 2023, things haven’t gone according to plan for any of them. Truex has had an especially bad start to the playoffs. The No. 19 team was unusually slow at Darlington Raceway where Truex slogged to an 18th-place finish and failed to score a single stage point. Then, Truex crashed four laps into last weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway. A punctured tire appeared to cause the accident, which dropped Truex below the cutoff despite starting the postseason with 36 playoff points, tied for the most of all drivers.

Now the question is whether Truex can recover in the last race of round one. Seven points is not a lot to make up in a single race, but unfortunately for Truex, the race is at Bristol Motor Speedway. In 32 previous starts at Bristol, he has never won and only scored four top 10s. His last top five there was in 2012 when Truex still drove for Michael Waltrip Racing. Considering all the highs and lows that he has experienced since then, that feels like a lifetime ago. Bristol has simply never been a track that Truex has figured out. The overall strength of the No. 19 team in 2023 could still save him from elimination. But if Truex is relying on one race to keep his title hopes alive, Bristol is not a good bet for him.

Harvick, the driver Truex is chasing, has taken a much different path in 2023. Still winless in his final season, Harvick got into the playoffs without a win beginning the postseason with only four playoff points. Darlington was a heartbreaker for the No. 4 team, which lost a shot at victory when a caution came out on lap 311 seconds before Harvick committed to pit road. The team went ahead with its pit stop, drawing a penalty from NASCAR and forcing Harvick to restart at the back of the pack. Harvick never recovered from the penalty and settled for 19th. Kansas was an up-and-down afternoon for Harvick, who battled his way to an 11th-place finish.

Unlike Truex, Harvick should be excited to go to Thunder Valley this weekend. Bristol has become one of Harvick’s best tracks late in his career. In 16 starts at Bristol with Stewart-Haas Racing, Harvick has finished worse than 13th only three times. That stretch includes two wins, with the most recent in 2020, and a near-miss in 2021 after Harvick ran afoul of Chase Elliott in the closing laps. Last season, Harvick did get eliminated from the playoffs at Bristol with a 10th-place finish, but the damage was already done when he entered the race 35 points below the playoff cut line. He is in much better shape this year and still has a good chance to stay in the title hunt.

See also
Monday Morning Pit Box: Four Fresh Tires Win Out for Tyler Reddick

Then there is Logano, the defending Cup Series champion and a driver who has never been eliminated before the third round in eight playoff appearances. He did score a win early this season at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but he has been relatively quiet since then. Beginning the postseason with eight playoff points, an unusually small number for the No. 22 team, Logano clawed his way to a 12th-place finish at Darlington. He actually ran worse than that most of the evening as his team battled an ill-handling car and worked to repair damage from an early crash.

Kansas was another race where Logano struggled to find speed, but a caution with six laps to go gave him an opportunity to pit for two tires. Most of the other leaders took four, and it allowed Logano to grab some extra track position for the overtime restart. He finished fifth, a great result considering he would have placed outside the top 10 if not for the caution. The points that Logano picked up from the two-tire call could wind up saving his title hopes.

As far as Bristol goes, Logano has been all over the place. He won the night race in 2014 and 2015 and typically ran well there early in his tenure with Team Penske. Since then, Logano’s success in Thunder Valley has tailed off. He has not finished in the top 10 at Bristol since 2019, and he failed to finish last year due to damage from a late race crash. He and the No. 22 team must avoid another result like that this weekend.

Certainly, no driver wants their championship hopes to hang on a good run at Bristol where drivers can get caught up in accidents very quickly. But this is the position in which Truex, Harvick and Logano find themselves. They will have a tough task on Saturday (Sept. 16) night, but if any drivers are up for the challenge, it would be these three. All of them have built their careers on finding ways to advance through the playoffs. It is entirely possible that Truex, Harvick and Logano will all advance, and the four drivers eliminated will be the three below Truex in points plus someone else who runs into trouble at Bristol. Perhaps the three champions are in unfamiliar territory, but considering their past success, how can you bet against them?

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via