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NASCAR playoffs: Breaking down which drivers are safe or in trouble before first elimination race

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are about to lose a quarter of the championship-eligible drivers after Saturday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. It’s the first cutoff event in the 10-race, 16-driver postseason, and when someone takes the checkered flag, only 12 will still be racing for a title.

Under NASCAR’s current system, the most efficient way to advance into the next round is to win a race. But that’s obviously easier said than done.

A reminder: The NASCAR playoffs are divided into four rounds. The first three rounds consist of the races, and the final race in each round is a cutoff one. The playoff field shrinks from top-16 drivers in the standings to the top-12 to the top-8, and then the final Championship 4 will race for the title in November at Phoenix Raceway.

So going into the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol on Saturday, here’s a breakdown of the playoff standings, from who’s automatically advancing to the drivers who are in trouble.

Who’s won a playoff race and advanced to the Round of 12?

Surprise surprise: Kevin Harvick won the Southern 500, the first playoff race, at Darlington Raceway, but it wasn’t in the dominating fashion typical of the No. 4 Ford team this year. Doesn’t matter because a win automatically advances the team — even if it surely would have transferred to the next round on points.

Brad Keselowski won the second playoff race at Richmond Raceway in the ridiculously fast car that also won at New Hampshire with earlier this season and that he hopes to take to the championship race at Phoenix.

Have any other drivers locked themselves into the Round of 12 on points?

Yes, in addition to Harvick and Keselowski, Denny Hamlin also guaranteed a spot in the next round based on points. Hamlin finished 13th at Darlington and 12th at Richmond, and he’s currently third in the playoff standings.

Who should be feeling good going into the Bristol race?

Obviously, the three drivers already advancing to the next round, and they get a little head start looking ahead to Las Vegas Motor Speedway in two weekends.

Beyond them, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Austin Dillon fill out the next three positions in the playoff standings, and if they all have at least decent finishes at Bristol, they should be OK. Dillon has been a surprise through the first two playoff races, finishing second at Darlington and fourth at Richmond. That’s only the second time this season he’s posted back-to-back top-10 finishes and the first time he’s had consecutive top-5 finishes this year.

But in this group, it seems like Truex is due for a win next (although probably not at Bristol). Forget that Truex only has one win in 2020 and that was back at Martinsville Speedway in June. In the last 10 races, the No. 19 Toyota driver posted five straight third-place finishes and was the runner-up three times, including Saturday at Richmond.

Though still winless in 2020, Kyle Busch should also be feeling pretty good heading into Bristol. He’s ninth in the standings — still much lower than where we’re used to seeing him — and has a small cushion between him and the drivers lower in the standings. Plus, Bristol is one of his best tracks. Busch is the winningest active driver at Bristol with eight checkered flags through 16 full-time seasons.

Who’s in trouble on the outside looking in?

Going into Bristol, William Byron, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney are below the first-round cutoff in positions 13 through 16. And they all likely need a win Saturday to transfer to the next round.

Blaney opened the playoffs at a disadvantage after he and his team were penalized for an improperly mounted ballast before Darlington. The team was docked 10 points ahead of the Southern 500, and it has struggled to recover after finishing 24th at Darlington and 19th at Richmond.

Byron entered the playoffs on a high note and ninth in the standings after winning the regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway for his first career victory. But he was 21st at Richmond, the lowest finish among playoff drivers, and is in trouble now.

What about the middle of the playoff pack?

Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman are seventh and eighth in the playoff standings, respectively, and barring disastrous performances at Bristol, both should transfer into the Round of 12. But should that happen, they’ll have to win or improve their finishes to get away from the eventual Round of 8 bubble.

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