The second stage of NASCAR’s Playoffs begins Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the first of three races in the Round of 12. This is perhaps the most interesting stage of the playoffs just because of the randomness of Talladega Superspeedway being involved next week where no driver is safe from being involved in a wreck.
However, sandwiched outside Talladega are two 1.5-mile tracks – Sunday at Charlotte and October 22 at Kansas Speedway. We’ve seen seven races on 1.5-mile tracks already this season and Martin Truex Jr has been dominant on all of them winning four of his five races this season. That includes the past two on 1.5-mile tracks at Chicagoland to kick off the Chase and at Kentucky on July 8. He also won at Las Vegas and Kansas and led the most laps in both.
He didn’t win the May 28 race at Charlotte, but did lead a race-high 233 laps before finishing third. Austin Dillon, who just got eliminated from the playoffs, won the Coca-Cola 600 on fuel strategy for his first career Cup win. Sunday’s race is 100 miles shorter.
Last season it was Jimmie Johnson who won this race on his way to his seventh Cup championship. Last week at Dover, Jimmie Johnson finished third for his first top-five in 16 races. Maybe Johnson has found some speed, or maybe he just loves Dover where he owns a track record 11 wins. Johnson hasn’t had a top-five on a 1.5-mile track since winning at Texas in April, but he certainly loves Charlotte and might be a decent look at odds of 15-to-1 or higher. He leads all active drivers with eight wins there and 1,930 laps led.
The driver that has caught fire lately and looks the only real challenger to Truex for the championship is Kyle Busch. He won the past two weeks at New Hampshire and Dover to give him four wins on the season. He didn’t have any wins in the first 20 races and now has four in the past nine races. However, in 27 Cup starts at Charlotte he doesn’t have any wins, but has led 971 laps and accumulated 11 top-five finishes. He was runner-up at Charlotte in May.
Kyle Larson doesn’t have a win on 1.5-mile tracks this season, but he’s got a bunch of second-places finishes. Four times he’s been runner-up in the seven races on 1.5s. In eight career starts at Charlotte he has a mediocre 19.8 average finish, but had a career-best fifth-place in this race last season.
Look for this to be a three-way battle between Truex, Busch and Larson. If I had to pick two drivers that would be contending with them for the win it would be Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth.