Kansas will determine Great 8 in NASCAR playoffs

By Jeff Cogliandro  (Point Spread Weekly) 

Kansas Speedway is the site for the cut-off race that will lead to the round of 8 for the 2018 NASCAR championship. As the contenders prepare for the elimination race, several drivers find themselves in very different positions as the playoff field is about to get trimmed by a third. Drivers such as Chase Elliott, and Aric Almirola are riding high as they will make the round of 8 by virtue of their winning performances earlier this round.

Others such as Martin Truex Jr., and Brad Keselowski must turn in very good finishes to progress to the Great 8. Finally, Kyle Larson, and Alex Bowman simply must win in order to advance. Then there are drivers who want to perform well and gain stage points to improve their positioning for the next round. With so many varying agendas at work, it will could cause playoff chaos as the drivers scramble to make the cut.

Kansas Speedway should be a different track in comparison to the race that was run in May of this season. The temperatures will be significantly colder which in theory will narrow the racing groove to a single preferred line. However, with this tighter racing line, drivers will be forced to move the car up the race track to gain better comfort and speed. Overall the relative tight comfort zone at Kansas will dictate where the drivers are able to run their best. This is not ideal, as a track with more than one racing groove can allow the car to be set up in more of a free manner. Usually a car that is free or loose has good speed. To the handicapper, this could further the importance of starting near the front of the field. Additionally, it can increase the value of the starting positional gap between two drivers that are matched up between one another.

As we head into the final race of the round of 12, let’s take a look at the weekend profiles of many of the top contenders.

Kevin Harvick (plus +250): Starting from the 2nd position Harvick appears to have the best car. He had the best sustained numbers on the several of the race predictive metrics. Additionally, Harvick has the best average finish (3rd) of any driver over the past five races at Kansas Speedway.

Kyle Larson (5-1): After a prequalifying accident, Larson was forced to go to backup car and will have to start from the rear of the field. Larson is in a must-win situation to progress to the round of 8. Although Larson will have to come from the back, the 2018 NASCAR grid is loaded with cars that are not truly competitive. I expect Larson to move up dramatically in first 10 laps, and quickly become a contender, provided he can keep clean.

Martin Truex Jr. (5-1): Lined up in position twelve is the very quiet Truex Jr. He is quiet because he has flown under the radar this weekend in a solid car. Additionally, Truex’s success has been well chronicled on 1.5-mile tracks. He has displayed upper top-10 speed so far this weekend, but will need some improvement to be winning contender. At just 18 points above the cut off line, there is ample reason to believe that he will run a consistent race. The goal to achieve is a finish that will transfer him to the round of 8.

Ryan Blaney (5-1): Blaney is another of the drivers that need a win to cement a spot in the next round. Blaney was able to qualify fourth at what he calls his best track on the circuit. In the May race at Kansas, Blaney was fast before being involved in a crash. Entering the race this weekend, Blaney looks to have a top-5 car and should be among the deep contenders.

Kyle Busch (6-1): Starting in the seventh position, Busch is outfitted with his longest odds of the season, excluding restrictor plate tracks. He appears to be undervalued by the oddsmakers as he has one of the best cars on the long runs. Although he has not been outstanding at Kansas, Busch is the only driver who has been in the top 10 for all nine stages in the last three races at Kansas Speedway.

Brad Keselowski (8-1): Starting in the fifth position, Keselowski is in a unique spot as he is 18 points behind the cut line. A top-5 finish could be his ticket to the round of 8. He has a good car this weekend, but will need to improve if he is going to keep his playoff hopes alive.

Joey Logano (8-1): Leading the field to the green flag will be Logano, who sits on the pole. Logano has had a very fast car over the long runs during the practice sessions. The strategy for Logano could be to simply gain as many stage points as possible and achieve a finish that keeps himself securely in a transfer spot. Logano and his Penske teammates all appear to be dangerous this weekend.

Aric Almirola (10-1): Starting in the third position is Almirola, who sealed his ticket to the round of 8 by winning last weekend at Talladega. This is no fluke and as crazy as it might sound, Almirola could have the second-best Stewart-Haas car, after Harvick. Almirola might not be a top-3 car entering this weekend, but going forward on the flat tracks, Almirola could be a longshot threat to win it all.

Chase Elliott (10-1): Starting 13th and on a free ride to the next round is Elliott. He has bounced around the top 10 all weekend in practice as his car was very tight in the first session following qualifying. It would not be surprising to see Elliott climb into the top 10 and stay there for the entire race, as he appears to be focused on points gathering this weekend. In terms of his contention to win, Elliott has not displayed a top-5 car at this point. However, we have seen him win recently with a car that was clearly not the best in the field.

Clint Bowyer (20-1): Outside the starting top-10 in 14th is Bowyer on his home track. Home has not translated in success for Bowyer as he has only been in the top 10 for three of the nine total stages run at Kansas. Bowyer is overvalued, and at this point is on the bubble of being a top-10 car this weekend.

Kurt Busch (20-1): Just outside the top-10 is Busch, who ran out of gas with the lead on the final lap of last week’s race at Talladega. Entering Kansas, Busch appears to be solid but not outstanding. Based on the weekend’s progression, Busch appears to be a better value at current odds in comparison to his teammate above.

Jimmie Johnson (25-1): Starting deep in the field in the 22nd position is Johnson. Based on what we have seen this weekend, Johnson is significantly overpriced would be closer to value at 35-1 or more. Unless his car races vastly better than what he has shown, Johnson could be outside the top-10 finishers.

Erik Jones (30-1): This is interesting because Jones is better than the odds would indicate. He qualified in the sixth position and has blistered a couple of the longshot metrics that are used to find drivers of value. Similar to Almirola at Dover (50-1), Jones shows a few of the same markers leading into Kansas. If going with a longshot play, Jones should make the cut.

Alex Bowman (50-1): He must win to transfer to the round of 8. Starting in the 10th position, he will do everything he can get the win. While he has been a top-10 car so far this weekend, he will need a significant uptick to be a natural contender. Expect Bowman and team to try an alternate strategy should the race not be progressing in the manner preferred.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (200-1): This is way off the charts, but it is worth mentioning at massive odds. Stenhouse was in the top 5 of one of the main longshot metrics. While this is a wild shot, there is blip on the radar, which makes it notable.

Below are the matchups that made the cut this weekend. Our season record stands at 55-33 as we come to the final five races of the season with a nice profit margin.

Kyle Busch (plus 120): over Kyle Larson (-140):

Let’s go with the underdog here in Busch. He has been by far the best matchup driver this season, and being able to get him at plus money is a value that is not typically seen. Another reason to like Busch in this situation is do to the desperation of Larson, whose only focus is to get the win.

Alex Bowman (-120): over Austin Dillon (even):

Like Larson above, Bowman must also win if he is going to make the round of 8. The difference is that Larson is going against Kyle Busch, whereas Bowman is going against Dillon. Bowman has been quite fast this weekend, and Dillon has been off the charts, and not in a good way. I like Bowman, but would use caution in this matchup do to his sole focus on winning.

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