OPINION: The tides have turned in NASCAR’s playoffs fight

How quickly the tides have turned.

Joe Gibbs Racing has fired the first shots in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs with two straight victories. It means they’ll have at least two drivers in the next round. Denny Hamlin is back to looking like he did at the start of the season with 343 laps led in the last two races, three stage wins, and a first and second-place result. The organization finished 1-2-3 at Richmond Raceway with Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin, and Christopher Bell.

“I feel like it’s been the same all year,” Truex’s crew chief James Small said. “It’s just we weren’t very good as a company on the concrete tracks like Dover and Nashville. Whatever we had going on there, we kind of missed it compared to some of the other cars. But at the start of the year, as a company, we were strong.

“Obviously, the last two races, and then even at the Loudon, the 20 [Bell] had a really good run. All of us could have had a good run, but we had that incident at the start with the rain, and the 11 [Hamlin] ran into issues on pit road, I believe. Across the board, I feel like we’re strong. We’ve been working hard, and the bread and butter of the championship is almost (all) 750 races now, so it’s important to be good.”

Seven of the 10 playoff races are on 750-horsepower tracks, including Darlington and Richmond, as well as this weekend’s elimination race at Bristol.

Gibbs might have swept the top four spots at Richmond had it not been for Kyle Busch’s speeding penalty. At one point during the night, the team was running 1-2-3-4.

In the first two playoff races, Gibbs drivers have combined to lead 483 laps.

“Well, it’s go time now,” Hamlin said after Richmond. “Ultimately, it’s the time where you’ve got to bring your best. All JGR teams had fast cars for all of us (Saturday), and I really wish we would have got two in a row, but regardless, still a great day for our team.”

Their game faces might suggest otherwise, but the Gibbs drivers have all the playoff momentum at the moment. Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images

With Gibbs back on the upswing, Hendrick – the organization everyone predicted might lock everyone else out of the Championship 4 – is potentially in danger of not advancing two of its drivers. Alex Bowman and William Byron have fallen flat in the opening two races, and both go into Bristol below the playoff cutline.

Bowman crashed early at Darlington and limped around for the rest of the night. Byron, who hit Bowman in his incident, was on his way to salvaging a decent result before cutting a tire and crashing out. Neither were very competitive at Richmond, getting lapped and finishing 12th and 19th, respectively.

“We were just really bad,” Byron admitted Saturday night. “We finished seventh here in the spring and felt like we had something decent. We tweaked some stuff to try and get a little better, and I think the best we got was we got to 11th one time.”

It’s an incredible turn of events considering Bowman and Byron came into the postseason in the best spot they’ve ever been to contend for a championship. Not getting out of the Round of 16 would be a surprise. And while they have one race to make it happen, there is zero momentum in either camp.

It leaves Kyle Larson seemingly on a Hendrick Motorsports island by himself. Larson and Chase Elliott are above the cutline, but Elliott’s team is not the same force it was at the end of last year. Elliott also crashed out at Darlington in a race he said was filled with mistakes. In Richmond, he made a mistake on pit road that could have turned the team’s race upside down.

Larson continues to be the Hendrick leader. He led a race-high 156 laps, but then only eight at Richmond. Of the 222 laps the four drivers have combined to lead in the first two races, 164 have come from Larson.

Elliott finished fourth at Richmond, and Larson was sixth.

“I felt like we performed at a really high level that I know we are capable of every week,” Elliott said. “If we perform like that the rest of the season, I think we’ll be just fine.”

Bristol now looks like another opportunity for Gibbs drivers to continue closing the gap and gaining playoff points, while the Hendrick camp goes there feeling more pressure than expected. The first round should have been a formality for these two organizations, but it could end up being the day that swung the direction of the championship in opposite directions.

Maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising. The playoffs have a way of changing things quickly.