Pa Bob Pokras
Posted by FOX Sports NASCAR

Drivers who have advanced to NASCAR Cup Series The semi-finals of the playoffs are entered with a sense of relief and anticipation.

After a round that included wildcard races at Talladega and Charlotte Road, Round 8 features three somewhat “regular” tracks at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville.

Or how Denny Hamlin said after Charlotte, “Now we’re going to go to the racetracks where we can go racing.”

The 1.5-mile tracks in Las Vegas and Homestead are quite different, as Homestead has a variable bank where the bank angle gets steeper closer to the wall, allowing for multiple grooves. The 0.526-mile Martinsville Speedway could be the biggest challenge because it can be expensive to drive, as it was during the first race of the new NASCAR Next Gen car in April.

The drivers also raced in Las Vegas earlier this year in the third race of the season. This will be their first trip to the Manor.

At least one of the eight drivers will move up in points to become one of the four drivers eligible to win the championship on Nov. 6 in Phoenix. As in the previous rounds, a win automatically qualifies the rider for the next round (in this case the championship). Any remaining seats will be graded.

Before this round, the driver could feel comfortable showing him the way to the next round. It creates a determination to win.

Christopher Bell knows the pressure, as he won Sunday in Charlotte to advance to this round. After a crash at Texas due to a flat tire and a disappointing Talladega, Bell didn’t look like he would make the playoffs, now three points above the standings.

“I was on my own, I’m not going to lie,” Bell said. “After Texas, and then after Talladega, I was almost depressed, very exhausted and confused because I felt like we were doing everything right.

“And then one bad race in Texas knocked us out of it. Now we’re back in the hunt.”

Christopher Bell reacts to the win in Charlotte

After Sunday’s victory, Christopher Bell has regained the feeling that he is a contender for the championship.

Here are the outlooks for the eight riders left in contention.

Be very kind

There’s only one driver who probably feels he doesn’t need to win. Top 5 finishes in each of the races should put him ahead of him due to his points cushion.

Chase Elliott (1 seed, +31 on cutoff): The 2020 Cup winner is one of only two past champions still living on the pitch. He was ninth in Las Vegas in March. He completed two stages and ran 185 laps before finishing 10th at Martinsville, one of his best tracks. This is the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s sixth consecutive Round of 16 appearance. In the last two years, he has been chasing the championship.

Be great

Those drivers should feel like they have to win, but if Elliott wins the race, their feelings likely won’t be hurt too much because they’ll have a better shot at the points. These drivers have little to no breathing room and will probably need three great races to have a chance.

Joey Logano (2 seed, +11 on cutoff): Logano, the 2018 Cup winner, along with Elliott are the only two past champions remaining in the playoffs. Logano will find out how much he and his Penske team have improved when he was 14th at Las Vegas earlier this year. If he can put himself in position before Martinsville, he’ll feel good because he was second in April.

Ross Chastain (3 seed, +6 on cutoff): This is Chastain and the Trackhouse team’s first time in the playoffs. So maybe they don’t know about the pressure, although Chastain, a two-time winner this year, did her best to nearly lose her chance to advance by hitting the wall in Charlotte. But he is in it. He finished third in the first stage, won the second stage and finished third at Las Vegas, leading 83 laps in March. He started 27th and finished fifth at Martinsville.

Ross Chastain during his long day at Roval

Ross Chastain said Sunday night after the Roval that he will do his best to put this race in the rearview mirror.

Christopher Bell (Settlement 4, +3 on cut-off): There’s a good reason Bell is looking forward to this round: The intermediate ovals (tracks between 1.3 and 2 miles long) have been some of his best tracks this year. He sat on the pole and completed 32 laps at Las Vegas, where he finished 10th in March. Martinsville wasn’t big for him since he was 20. The only downside for driver Joe Gibbs? It is the first time in his career that Bell is in this round.

Be a winner

These drivers shouldn’t be expected to score points, at least not early on. After a race or two and whoever wins, that could change. But for starters, they can’t assume Elliott will win, and they can’t assume even three solid races will allow them to score points on Elliott.

Ryan Blaney (5 seed, -3 on cutoff): A crash in Las Vegas ended Blaney’s day early as he finished 36th. He was fourth at Martinsville in April. This is Blaney’s fourth semi-final appearance, but he has never been out of this round. This would be the time for the Team Penske driver to do so. He’s clearly hungry for a win, as the only driver to enter the playoffs without a win this year.

William Byron (6 seed, -3 on cutoff): Byron should be excited to return to these tracks — he won the first stage and finished fifth in Las Vegas and won at Martinsville earlier this year. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is making his first appearance in the Round of 16, so he will need to show he can handle the pressure.

Denny Hamlin (seeded 7, -5 on the cutoff): Hamlin has reached the round of 16 in seven of the nine years of the format’s existence, and he has reached the championship round four times … and has yet to win a championship. It may not be his best opportunity to win the title, but if he and his team can avoid mistakes, he will be in the mix. Transmission trouble ended his day early at Las Vegas, where he led 31 laps earlier this year. He should be concerned about Martinsville, where he finished 28th.

Chase Briscoe (Seeds 8, -9 on the cutoff): Briscoe had a crash in Las Vegas earlier this year, so he didn’t get as many laps as the others. He started 19th and finished ninth at Martinsville in April. This is Briscoe’s first year in the playoffs, and his advantage is that the pressure is reduced because few could have predicted he would make it this far. Plus, if a Stewart-Haas Racing driver can make it to the championship, he knows it—he’s the only driver to win at Phoenix in a Next Gen car.

Bob Pokras covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has covered motorsports for decades, including the last 30 Daytona 500s, and has worked for ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @dashand sign up for FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pokras.

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