Denny Hamlin is second in the NASCAR Cup Series playoff standings and appears to be a lock to reach the championship race. Neil Redmond/Associated Press

Not much has changed through NASCAR’s first two rounds of playoffs: Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are still favored to race for the championship, and it’s anyone’s guess who else might qualify for the final.

The path to the championship finale begins Sunday at Kansas Speedway, the first of three races in the title-setting third round. It’s a fairly straightforward series with ensuing stops at Texas Motor Speedway, like Kansas a 1.5-mile intermediate oval, then half-mile Martinsville Speedway,
NASCAR’s shortest and oldest active track.

At stake are four slots in the winner-take-all Nov. 8 finale at Phoenix Raceway and no obvious indicators about who will be challenging Harvick and Hamlin. The two have combined for 16 wins in 32 races this season and have hoarded enough points that it would likely take some sort of sudden collapse to keep the favorites from advancing to the finale.

Harvick, the points leader, had a mediocre second round but doesn’t seem too concerned about these next three races.

“I think these racetracks are right up our alley, especially the first two,” Harvick said.

Hamlin has won NASCAR’s last two visits to Kansas, a turnaround after several so-so races. He’s the betting favorite to win Sunday and believes his Joe Gibbs Racing team has a strong database for winning three consecutive races.

It would certainly give Hamlin a head-start on championship preparations.

The other six playoff drivers can earn an automatic berth in the finale by winning, but otherwise have a tense stretch of three races ahead.

BRAD KESELOWSKI

With four wins this season, including one in the first round of the playoffs, Keselowski has been the only driver close to competing with Harvick and Hamlin. He won the 2012 title under a different format and has never raced for the championship since the elimination rounds debuted in 2014.

CHASE ELLIOTT

This is the fourth consecutive year Elliott has advanced into the semifinals and he’s again trying to advance to the finale. Earlier visits this season to Kansas and Texas were disappointing, and Elliott knows he’s got to be steady to make it to Phoenix.

JOEY LOGANO

Logano has struggled on intermediate tracks since his February victory at Las Vegas and acknowledges that not practicing during COVID-19 protocols has hampered his ability to adapt to the high-downforce aerodynamic package.

He’s in his first season with crew chief Paul Wolfe but now, with a month to go, the duo believes they’ve found a rhythm.

MARTIN TRUEX Jr.

Truex is seeking a fourth consecutive berth in the finale. He won the title in 2017 but has been runner-up the last two seasons.

Top-three finishes could get him into the final four, but he believes he’s close to reeling off some victories. His only win of the season was at Martinsville in June.

ALEX BOWMAN

Bowman is in the semifinals for the first time in his career and is a darkhorse to make it through to the finale.

But Bowman likes his chances, particularly at Kansas, where he’s logged four top-10 finishes in 10 career starts.

KURT BUSCH

Busch is a wild card in that he probably would not have been picked to advance this far in many brackets but has really turned his performance up the last six weeks.

A second-round victory at his home track, Las Vegas, gave Busch a boost, and he’s seeking to win his second Cup title – 16 years after his first championship.


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