Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will see the NASCAR Playoffs field trimmed from 12 drivers to eight at the end of the race. The stakes are raised in an elimination line with drivers fighting for their postseason lives.
Entering Kansas, Brad Keselowski (-18), Ryan Blaney (-22), Kyle Larson (-36) and Alex Bowman (-68) are on the outside looking in. Bowman certainly is in a win or go home spot, and Larson likely is as well. Keselowski and Blaney could get in on points — with some help — but a win is the surest way of advancing.
Which playoff driver currently on the outside looking in has the best shot to advance? NASCAR.com’s RJ Kraft and Pat DeCola make their case for two different drivers on the playoff chopping block.
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KRAFT: Blaney has the better stats of late at Kansas, but I am taking his Team Penske teammate Keselowski as the driver that finds his way through and advances to the Round of 8. Keselowski won the most recent 1.5-mile race — which was the playoff opener at Las Vegas. He has the fourth-most stage points this season and scoring those will be a must Sunday for the 2012 champion to keep his championship dreams alive.
There are two other major factors for me. First, the No. 2 crew has faced playoff adversity before and has come out just fine. In the 2014 elimination race at Talladega, Keselowski was on the outside looking in and won to make his way into the next round.
The biggest reason I like the Michigan native to advance, though, comes down to who is atop his pit box in Paul Wolfe. Keselowski’s crew chief has no fear of zagging while others zig and he will do something outside of the box to put his driver in the best position to advance. Case in point: In all three of Keselowski’s 2018 wins, he did not lead the most laps, but Wolfe, Keselowski and his pit crew got him in advantageous positions to strike late.
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DECOLA: This particular head-to-head is especially interesting, because I can’t disagree with anything you just said. Keselowski has shown a tendency — arguably more than any other driver — to rise to the occasion and conquer the insurmountable. I think this weekend, however, is when we see Kyle Larson elevate himself to that category.
For starters, if it weren’t for Blaney initiating contact with Larson in the closing laps of the spring Kansas race, it’s likely we’d be looking at the No. 42 Chevrolet as the most recent track-winner and favorite to win this weekend. He dominated that night (race-high 101 laps led) but came up just a bit short, in fourth, after contact with the No. 12 derailed him.
The knock on Larson has been that he can’t seem to win on a 1.5-mile, intermediate-length track. While that’s true so far (his five wins have come at Michigan, Auto Club and Richmond), the notion that he’s sub-optimal at the 1.5-milers simply isn’t true. Every driver seems to acknowledge that he’s head and shoulders above the field at Miami whether he’s in the Championship 4 or not, and his average finish in eight intermediate races this year is a pristine 9.0. Take out a 36th-place result following a wreck at Texas — when, by the way, he was running fourth after starting from the back — and that number shrinks to a microscopic 5.1 average finish on 1.5-mile tracks in 2018.
Larson not only is capable at these type of layouts, he’s secretly one of the best.
KRAFT: Larson has been solid at the 1.5-milers — earning the fourth-most points this year. However, after Wednesday’s L1-penalty, he is essentially in a must-win spot at Kansas. Despite the good numbers at 1.5-mile tracks, he has as many wins as I do on that track type in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition — ZERO. Yes, he may have been snakebitten in certain instances in those races but that is still a major red flag, especially when the race is at a 1.5-mile track with his season on the line.
DECOLA: I mean, you’ve got me there. That donut in the wins column speaks louder than any ancillary stats he’s piled up on the intermediates.
Now in his fifth (!) full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, we’ve all been waiting on Larson to round into championship-contender form for awhile. He’s shown flashes of brilliance — like his four-win 2017 campaign — and at times this season it appeared he was set to slide into that next-driver-to-beat-after-the-Big-3 role.
Leaked: First pictures of Myanmar forward Aung Thu in Muangthong United kit
Friday December 14, 2018
It looks like Muangthong United's capture of Myanmar international striker Aung Thu is all but confirmed as pictures of the 22-year-old in the Thai League club's trademark home kit has now emerged online. Aung Thu, who appeared for the Asian Lions in the AFF Suzuki Cup 2018, has been linked with the Thai giants ever […]
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MORE: No. 42 team issued L1 penalty
But the time is now for the No. 42 team and Kyle Larson. The group can’t afford to let this weekend slip from their grasp — it would leave them with more questions than answers heading into the offseason after yet another campaign that didn’t meet their pre-Daytona expectations. They’ll get it done on Sunday.
(Or maybe it’ll be Kes, Blaney or Alex Bowman — who knows!)
Tune in this weekend to find out. The drama is guaranteed.
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Why the Lakers played defense with their arms behind their backs against the Rockets
Friday December 14, 2018
One of the many things James Harden is masterful at is drawing fouls. He’s second in the NBA this season with 9.8 free-throw attempts and led the league last year with 10.1. On Thursday night, he went a whopping 18-of-19 from the charity stripe against the Lakers in a 126-111 Rockets victory. It was during […]
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