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Take 5: Keselowski stakes title claim, is Austin Dillon for real?

By Chase Wilhelm | Sunday, September 13, 2020

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After leading nearly half the laps in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway, Brad Keselowski may have established himself as a championship favorite alongside Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. But what does the rest of the playoff picture look like after the second of three races in the Round of 16? Here are five takeaways after a night of racing in the heart of Virginia.

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IT’S A KEEPER: The No. 2 Team Penske Ford that Keselowski raced to his fourth victory of the 2020 season is likely bound for the final race at Phoenix Raceway, but will it be fighting for a championship? After the race, Keselowski said, “I wanted to do a really cool burnout with it, but I want this car for Phoenix.” The race-winning machine is actually two-for-two after the 2012 champion drove it straight into Victory Lane in August at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Anything can happen between now and the Championship 4 finale, but if Keselowski is in the title fight come Nov. 8, that car could go three-for-three for the big prize.

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BETTER BOUNCE BACK:It was a more challenging night for championship frontrunners Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Hamlin started out strong, winning Stage 1 to collect a valuable playoff point, but a pit-road speeding penalty set the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team back. He fought to salvage a 12th-place finish at the end. For Harvick, the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford just lacked the speed necessary to compete at the front, but he still finished ahead of Hamlin with a seventh-place result. Both drivers are locked into the next round with Harvick’s win at Darlington Raceway and Hamlin advancing on points at Richmond.

While both competitors have won with relative ease this year, it’s not just the race wins that completely define a championship-caliber team, it’s how they’re able to rebound from adversity when obstacles are thrown in their direction. After Saturday night, it appears Harvick might have a slight advantage over Hamlin in that department.

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FOR REAL, FOR REAL?: If you had Austin Dillon getting knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, he’s making fools out of both of us. The No. 3 Richard Childress Racing driver backed up his runner-up finish at Darlington with a fourth-place run at Richmond, and that’s after bouncing back from a pit-road hiccup. So far, postseason AD has been on another level compared to regular-season AD. But can he continue the momentum into the Round of 16 elimination race at Bristol Motor Speedway? He finished sixth at the short track earlier in the season, but an average finish of 17.4 in 13 starts says he might have difficulty backing it up. But then again, we may as well throw statistics out the window, because some also suggested Dillon wouldn’t be on the right side of the cutline right now.

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MUST-WIN SITUATION: Mired in the back of the pack for most of the night after a pit-road miscue, Ryan Blaney’s 19th-place finish at Richmond is the exact opposite of what he needed after a 24th-place showing at Darlington. That leaves him 16th out of 16 drivers in the playoff standings, 27 points behind the cutline with one race remaining in the Round of 16. But if there’s any track that’s a welcome site in a must-win scenario for Blaney, it’s Bristol, baby. Earlier in the year, Blaney looked poise to fight for victory when he crashed while leading the race. If the No. 12 team can bring the same dominant car, minus the bad luck, there’s a strong chance Blaney could have a clutch moment in Tennessee.

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CUTLINE CHAOS: While Matt DiBenedetto (25 points back) and Blaney (27 points back) probably need to win, the other two drivers below the cutline are more fortunate. William Byron is the first on the outside looking in, three points behind Clint Bowyer in 12th. Cole Custer is eight points below the cutline. On the other side, both Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch have seven-point cushions in 10th and 11th, respectively. The Round of 16 finale at Bristol almost ensures that’s not how the playoff picture is going to look at the end of 500 miles under the lights. Out of all those drivers, Bowyer’s stats suggest the greatest chance for success with five straight finishes of eighth or better, including a second-place finish back in May. But DiBenedetto’s near-win in the night race last year also isn’t something to ignore. Point being: Anything can and likely will happen.

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