Twelve drivers remain as the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina for Sunday's Bank of America 500.
Though the playoffs still have one dominant fixture setting the tone thanks to the tear put on by Martin Truex Jr., this quarterfinal round feels different thanks to the shuffling of the order. With Kansas now the finale of the round and Talladega sitting in the middle, drivers have to rethink tried-and-true strategies from prior years.
Like the unpredictable season itself thanks to a bevy of innovative changes, this small wrinkle should have a huge impact right out of the gates in Charlotte.
Below, let's take a look at everything to know about the event.
Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway
When: Sunday, 2 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NBC Sports
Bank of America 500
1. Denny Hamlin (11)
2. Matt Kenseth (20)
3. Kevin Harvick (4)
4. Kyle Busch (18)
5. Clint Bowyer (14)
6. Brad Keselowski (2)
7. Chase Elliott (24)
8. Kurt Busch (41)
9. Kasey Kahne (5)
10. Kyle Larson (42)
Full order at NASCAR.com.
2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Standings
|1. Martin Truex Jr.||3059|
|2. Kyle Busch||3041|
|3. Kyle Larson||3034|
|4. Brad Keselowski||3020|
|5. Jimmie Johnson||3017|
|6. Kevin Harvick||3015|
|7. Denny Hamlin||3013|
|8. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||3010|
|9. Ryan Blaney||3008|
|10. Chase Elliott||3006|
|11. Matt Kenseth||3005|
|12. Jamie McMurray||3003|
|13. Ryan Newman||2067|
|14. Austin Dillon||2065|
|15. Kasey Kahne||2046|
|16. Kurt Busch||2044|
Drivers to Watch
It feels like Jimmie Johnson could flip a switch and go on a run at any moment.
Then again, fans might have expected that from Johnson over each of the past several weeks. He hasn't matched such thoughts, though he has looked slightly better with three top-10 finishes over his past four outings.
Not too shabby for a guy who hadn't finished better than 10th dating back to mid-June, which also happens to be the last time he took down a checkered flag. He hasn't qualified better than 10th since mid-July, either, so one can understand if his diehard fans are starting to get a little nervous.
Still, this is Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet. He's not a guy who sounds too worried about the outlook.
"It's far from over—especially where I'm sitting," Johnson said, according to ESPN.com's Bob Pockrass. "We've got a lot of work to do."
Johnson certainly sits in a strong situation offering him a big turnaround considering he has 13 career wins across the upcoming three tracks. Seeing him flip the switch now over the course of the round wouldn't be the most shocking feat to go down.
Martin Truex Jr.
Truex isn't technically untouchable, but a lead of more than 50 points on ninth place makes it feel like so.
That's almost a full event's worth of a lead, and Truex hasn't exactly shown signs of slowing, not with finishes of first, fifth and fourth over his last three outings.
This gives Truex some leeway to look ahead to future events besides this Sunday, which coincides with the thought process mentioned in the intro about how the round's restructure changes everything, as captured by Catch Fence's Chris Knight:
Chris Knight ツ @Knighter01
.@MartinTruex_Jr says we should expect a more intense race next weekend @TalladegaSuperS because not cutoff race. Stage points = crucial2017-10-6 20:10:23
Long story short, it will be interesting to see how Truex tackles Charlotte to open the round knowing he has some cushion, though a wreck would open a door wide for the rest of the field.
A typical aggressive Truex would push the rest of the contenders, so keep an eye on him as he sets the tone early with his mind on the long-term outlook.
Kyle Busch isn't satisfied.
Most drivers would be after winning back-to-back races in the playoffs, leading 187 laps at New Hampshire before a win and another 30 at Dover before hitting Victory Lane again.
The man 18 points behind Truex wants three in a row.
"We've got to win Charlotte," Busch said, according to the Los Angeles Times' George Diaz. "Apparently, I haven't won there before, so I need to go get that win and check that one off the list, and that will put us into the next round and we'll go from there."
While true Busch has never won at Charlotte, he is the only driver left in the playoffs with top-five finishes at all three tracks in this stage on the season.
If Busch can take the momentum of his past two performances and toss it into a track he's generally performed well at, he might finally get over the proverbial hump. Doing so would also grant him the luxury of looking ahead at future events.
As usual, expect more drama between Truex and Busch throughout Sunday.
Stats and info courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise specified.