BRISTOL, Tenn. — Three races left in the NASCAR regular season. Three playoff spots remain.
For all intents and purposes, there are four drivers competing for three playoff spots on points as 13 drivers have qualified for the postseason thanks to a regular-season win. Even with 60 points now available each race (10 points for a stage win plus 40 for the race win), Joey Logano — currently at 98 points behind the cutoff to make it on points — is among the drivers facing a must-win situation.
The number of spots in the playoffs available to the winless depends on if any of the current winless drivers captures a victory in the final three races — Saturday night at Bristol, Sept. 3 at Darlington and Sept. 10 at Richmond — and a spot in the playoffs.
Here’s what to watch for when looking at the winless going into Bristol, a race that again could be unpredictable as track officials have applied a liquid resin to the bottom groove daily to the 0.533-mile surface. The idea is to make the bottom groove as good — if not better — than the high line, so that either there are two solid grooves or if there’s one groove, a driver would need to execute a traditional bump-and-run to make the pass.
“I don’t exactly know 100 percent where we are, but I know we are one of the last few spots of non-winners that are still in,” Elliott said. “That is not a comfortable position to be in because there is always an opportunity for a guy on the outside to win a race and bump you back another position.
“So it’s tight for sure where we are at. We feel like we need a victory to feel good about it.”
Elliott has led 182 laps this year. He led 358 last year as a rookie. Last week at Michigan, some thought he could earn the win considering he had three consecutive runner-up finishes. He was eighth.
“I’m in a good place mentally,” Elliott said. “I just think for a lot of things that you go through, the good and the bad, you do have to let some of it just go because there’s going to be days where you’re giving it all you have and it doesn’t work out for you.
“Some days that’s your fault. And if that is my fault, those are the emotional days and those are the ones I’m going to be really frustrated with, as we’ve all seen. … I don’t think it’s eating at us per se.”
Jamie McMurray: He has a 52-point lead on Bowyer and is the only driver in the top 13 in the standings who hasn’t won a stage this year. His teammate Kyle Larson has three wins this year and if McMurray won, it wouldn’t be a surprise.
“Am I comfy? No I’m not,” McMurray said. “Until you can be locked in, you just never know. Another first-time winner [for 2017] changes it quite a bit. But I would say this year versus the last two years, kind of being in the same position, we’re running better at every track.”
His biggest surprise is sitting eighth in the standings and not feeling great about his playoff position.
“If you had told me at Daytona, you could be eighth in points at Bristol, I would say you’re locked in,” McMurray said. “There’s just been a lot of unique winners this year.”
McMurray, who starts 11th, says watch for cars going into the upper grove, even in the first 50 laps.
Matt Kenseth: Kenseth might not even know if he has a 31-point lead. He might not want to know after a flat tire on the final green-white-checkered restart at Michigan dropped him from a potential top-5 finish to 24th.
That’s one thing none of these drivers want to see. Be great for all but one lap and see all that hard work — and all those points — slip away amid the helpless feeling of an issue on the final lap.
Kenseth is at Bristol to win. He will start fifth.
“I’ve never been in a race I didn’t want to win,” Kenseth said. “I’ve never been in a race where I didn’t feel like I needed the win. I don’t know that it really changes.
“Ever since Daytona, we’ve been trying to win and know that [we] ‘needed that win.’ … I’ve been doing it a long time, really haven’t won that many races compared to how many I’ve started so I realize how hard it is to win.”
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer has been good to stay in the hunt but not good enough to break into the top echelon.
Bristol appears to be treating him in similar fashion. He will start ninth.
“There were times I thought we were right where we need to be [in practice] balance-wise — the car felt great and consistent,” Bowyer said. “And then all of a sudden that [resin] started wearing off, and I thought, ‘Damn, now I don’t feel all the best’ [and] start adjusting to the conditions.
“That’s when you just have to hit time out. … That stuff is going to come and go. You’ve got to have some adjustability built into it.”
Joey Logano: At 98 points back, Logano has to win. We’re only leaving him on this list because if he could finish second each week and one of his three competitors could have disaster.
Logano starts eighth.
“I think we have a general idea of what’s going to happen,” Logano said. “We’ve raced here enough and kind of seen what happens to the top, what happens to the bottom. The bottom is unknown.
“We’ll be ready for anything. Second is unacceptable.”
Erik Jones: He is on the pole for the race Saturday. At 16th in the points, Jones has to win as he is 130 points behind Kenseth.
“[The pole] honestly doesn’t transfer as much now because the track is going to change so much,” Jones said. “We worked back and forth [in practice] between the bottom and the top line to try to balance that out.
“It’s definitely going to be a different track. You’re going to see it change a lot in the first hundred laps. But either way, the way I look at it is we’ve got a really fast car.”
No other driver beyond the bubble drivers and those who have won this year are starting in the top 10 at Bristol.