Column: Larson surges as others stumble in NASCAR playoffs

Published 11:55 pm Monday, October 18, 2021

By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer

CHARLOTTE — It had been more than seven years since Joey Logano was knocked out of a race with an engine failure. The Roush Yates engines had been so reliable that an issue with the powerplant was the least of Team Penske’s concerns.

Then Logano noticed he was lacking power late at Texas Motor Speedway, where car after car after car began to pass his Ford. The strategy set by the No. 22 team wasn’t working, ill-timed cautions were preventing Logano from making up any real ground and then, with 38 laps remaining, his sputtering engine went poof.

Logano drove his directly to the garage and tried his best to find the positives as his rivals in NASCAR’s race for the Cup Series title roared around the track Sunday.

“It is just a real letdown moment,” Logano said. “Roush Yates has built us good motors. I don’t have any room to complain. We haven’t blown one up in years. At least not on the 22 car. It is bad timing, I will say that, but it is what it is.”

The 30th-place finish dropped Logano to last among the final eight drivers remaining in NASCAR’s playoffs. Logano almost certainly needs to win either this weekend at Kansas Speedway or next week at Martinsville Speedway to advance to the championship finale for the fifth time in eight years.

“We have to move on, it is what it is now and we can’t change it,” Logano said. “We will be fighting from here. Now we know what we have to do these next two weeks. We better go find a way to win.”

The tiny bit of a silver lining for Logano was that he was far from the only playoff driver to struggle. Kyle Larson — the favorite to win the championship — won his seventh Cup race of the season and earned the first of four spots in the Nov. 7 title-deciding race at Phoenix.

Few doubted that Larson would be in the final four after the comeback season he’s had. A year after missing all but four Cup races for using a racial slur during a video game, he has won a career-best eight Cup races — nine if you count the non-points All-Star race — and has a win in each of the first three rounds of the playoffs.

That leaves the other seven drivers battling for three remaining slots over the next two weeks. Once the checkered flag falls at Martinsville, four drivers will be eliminated from the playoffs and four will advance to the winner-take-all finale.

Texas was a race of mixed results for the seven challengers, starting with Martin Truex Jr., who crashed 22 laps after Logano’s engine failure. His 25th-place finish dropped Truex from third in the standings and above the cutline all the way to seventh, only one spot ahead of Logano.

He needed no planning session to decide the strategy the Joe Gibbs Racing team will take at Kansas and Martinsville.

“Try to win one of them, I guess,” Truex said.

Denny Hamlin had a tire problem and then two wrecks, but still managed to finish 11th. He dropped to third in the standings, clinging desperately to his position above the elimination line. Hamlin has just a one-point cushion over JGR teammate Kyle Busch, the May winner at Kansas.

Lurking eight points behind Busch in fifth, the first spot below the cutline, is reigning champion Chase Elliott. And next sits Brad Keselowski, the biggest winner at Texas besides Larson.

Keselowski gave Larson the push he needed to clear the pack on the final restart in overtime Sunday but faded to a fourth-place finish. Keselowski was 16 points below the cutline when he got to Texas, in last place among the contenders.

All his hard work at Texas helped him slice a only single point off his deficit, but Keselowski did leapfrog from eighth in the standings to sixth. He has both Elliott and Busch within reach, as well as a slot in the finale in his final season driving for Team Penske.

He liked his chances after the race.

“That is a nice little win for us and gives us a better pit stall (selection) for next week,” Keselowski said. “If we can keep running like that… I think we will transfer in.”

But he was realistic, same as the other challengers. Although the playoff format doesn’t guarantee a title for the strongest driver of the season — Kevin Harvick and Hamlin combined for 17 victories last year but Harvick didn’t advance to the finale following his nine-win season, and Hamlin came up empty in Phoenix vying for his first Cup title — all the drivers have watched this season as Larson and his Hendrick Motorsports team have been nearly impossible to beat.

A slew of late yellows denied Keselowski a long, uninterrupted run that might have given him a chance to pass Larson. Hamlin said he simply didn’t have the same speed as the Hendrick cars and Busch, who finished eighth, simply didn’t have a car capable of competing with Larson.

Everyone accepts they are racing Larson right now, and unless you can beat him, not much else matters.

“It’s insane. It’s going to be the same way at Kansas,” Hamlin said. “Hopefully we bring a fast piece there and we can go there and compete for a win.”