LAS VEGAS â A common refrain about the NASCAR Playoffs starting now is the idea of the clean slate, a chalkboard wiped fresh and ready for the 10-race story ready to be told. But that notion also discounts the 26 races that preceded the postseason and their impact.
Enter momentum. The 16-driver field will carry varying degrees of it from their regular-season body of work into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, which begin with Sundayâs South Point 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN/NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Seeding and a stockpile of playoff points matter, but so does the way drivers make an entrance into the seasonâs home stretch. Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman sit in a virtual tie at the bottom rungs of the postseason pecking order, but the way they rallied and clawed their way into the playoff field could sustain them in the early going.
âMomentum is confidence. It is confidence in your decision making and your driving and everything,â Bowyer said during Thursdayâs media day activities at the South Point Hotel Casino and Spa. âYour decisions for the setup and your decision for passing and stage points that are so important. You have to have that momentum and confidence in your mind. That is not just the driver, that is the crew chief making those calls.â
Thereâs an intriguing duality at the other end of the playoff heap. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. sit 1-2-3 with four victories each during the first 26 races. While Hamlin has roared into the playoffs with a sturdy finishing kick, Busch and Truex have cooled slightly, with Busch nursing a 12-race drought and Truex going 10 races without a triumph â losing streaks that most teams would envy.
âI think that we had a little bit of a lull there right after those four, but I feel like the last five or six races have been really good,â said Truex, who notched his four wins in a torrid eight-week span this spring. âWeâve been in position to do a lot of great things, itâs just âŠ things havenât played out. Weâve had a few mistakes here and there.â
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Truex then listed a brief bout with misfortune â the flat tire at Bristol, a loose wheel elsewhere, some bad bounces with pit strategy. âItâs just been those kind of things have taken us out of a few races. âŠ So weâve been right there, we just havenât had that spark, that magic. Nothingâs gone the way we wanted it to. We just need that little bit extra. Hopefully we can turn it up here this weekend.â
Hamlinâs head of steam ranks among the seriesâ strongest, with a recent streak of six straight top fives buoying his No. 11 JGR team. When asked if this represented his strongest chance at finally clinching the first championship in his 14-year career, Hamlin answer was clear: âNo doubt.â
âWeâve been running as good as we ever have right in this moment,â Hamlin said. âI just donât see any weaknesses that we necessarily have right now. We are performing well in all aspects of our race team. You just hope that the things you can control, you control well. If you do that, we will be fine.â
Erik Jones, the last of the Joe Gibbs Racing quartet of playoff hopefuls, has experienced both ends of the momentum pendulum in a two-week span: First place in a triumphant Darlington drive one week, then next-to-last place in the Indianapolis finale the next. The pre-playoff approach for him is obvious: savor the former, discard the latter.
âThe pointsÂ are reset, youâreÂ racing a different group of guys and not really racing the whole field anymore and you just have to focus forward,â Jones said. âI look at what weâve done the last few months and just focus on that. Think about what weâve done to beÂ fast, successful and in contention to win and just need to continue that trend.â
The idea of continuing trends or starting new ones was the theme of Thursdayâs media gathering. The âIâm excitedâ buzzword â adapted from preseason media days â was nearly omnipresent, but contrasted against the backdrop of drivers who have weathered the regular-season grind to get here.
Momentum abounds, but so does the hope of reaching the ultimate goal in the 10 races ahead.
âI mean, why be here if you donât think that?â said Chase Elliott, who enters as the No. 7 seed. âI mean, thereâs no point in even coming to this Playoff Media Day if we donât feel like we have a shot; or, even being in Vegas in general.
âSo yes, I do think we can do it.â