Round of 12 grid takes shape heading into elimination race

Three drivers have clinched spots in the Round of 12 in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs as the first elimination race looms.

Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. are headed to the second round via wins. Hamlin won the opener at Darlington, and Truex went to victory lane at Richmond.

Regular-season champion Kyle Larson also clinched a spot, doing so midway through the night at Richmond on points.

But as Larson’s strong season continues, two of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates are under pressure going into Bristol Motor Speedway. Alex Bowman and William Byron remain below the cutline through the first two playoff races.

Bowman finished 12th at Richmond, one lap off the pace. Incredibly, Bowman was tied for the final spot on the playoff grid after last weekend’s race at Darlington, and he remains in that position after Richmond. But he is 13th on the grid behind Kurt Busch because the tiebreaker is the best finish in the round. Busch’s best finish through two races is sixth, and Bowman’s is 12th.

“Tonight, I don’t really feel like we did anything bad,” Bowman said. “We had an OK night, especially for us at Richmond. We’ve had way worse nights, all except for really two races here. It could have been way worse for us. But Darlington is just on me. I tried to let the 8 [Tyler Reddick] go, and I drove it straight into the fence instead on lap seven. When you put yourself in a hole like that, it’s tough to overcome. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a night capable of overcoming that tonight, and we’re going to have to go do that next week.”

“Yeah, it’s a bummer. It puts us in a really tough spot. But when you have these three-round deals, that’s what happens.”

Byron finished one lap down in 19th place at Richmond. He is 15th on the playoff grid, 18 points out of a transfer spot.

Kyle Busch jumped above the cutline after Richmond. He was behind the eight-ball coming out of Darlington after a DNF following a crash.

Tyler Reddick and Michael McDowell are the other two drivers below the cutline going into Bristol.

The updated playoff grid after Richmond:

  1. Denny Hamlin – win
  2. Martin Truex Jr. – win
  3. Kyle Larson – clinch on points
  4. Joey Logano + 40
  5. Ryan Blaney + 28
  6. Kevin Harvick + 25
  7. Chase Elliott + 19
  8. Christopher Bell + 17
  9. Brad Keselowski + 13
  10. Kyle Busch + 8
  11. Aric Almirola + 3
  12. Kurt Busch + 0
  13. Alex Bowman – 0
  14. Tyler Reddick – 5
  15. William Byron – 18
  16. Michael McDowell – 38

“Just another missed opportunity,” said McDowell, who had three speeding penalties at Richmond. “We’re just making too many mistakes. We sped on pit road. The first time I thought, ‘Maybe it was close.’ And then I sped on my penalty, and it was not close, so obviously, we missed the configuration on the lights, and then I backed it down again and still sped again.

“It’s unfortunate. Everybody did a really good job. We actually had good speed. We had a fast Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang, and we just lost all those laps with penalties, and unfortunately, I didn’t adjust enough or quick enough. I thought I knocked enough speed off, but obviously, it wasn’t enough. It’s really unfortunate.”