Not much has changed through NASCAR's first two rounds of playoffs: Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are still favored to race for the championship and the other two contenders are a crapshoot.
The path to the championship finale begins Sunday at Kansas Speedway, the first of three races in the title-setting third round. It's a fairly straightforward series with ensuing stops at Texas Motor Speedway, like Kansas a 1.5-mile intermediate oval, then half-mile Martinsville Speedway, NASCAR's shortest and oldest active track.
At stake are four slots in the winner-take-all Nov. 8 finale at Phoenix Raceway and no obvious indicators on who will be challenging Harvick and Hamlin. The two have combined for 16 wins in 32 races this season and have hoarded enough points that it would likely take some sort of sudden collapse to keep the favorites from advancing to the finale.
Harvick, the points leader, had a mediocre second round but doesn't seem too concerned about these next three races.
“I think these racetracks are right up our alley, especially the first two,” Harvick said.
Hamlin has won NASCAR's last two visits to Kansas, a turnaround after several so-so races. He's the betting favorite to win Sunday and believes his Joe Gibbs Racing team has a strong database for winning three consecutive races.
It would certainly give Hamlin a head-start on championship preparations.
“We could go the next two weeks and really shift our focus from Texas and Martinsville to putting all of our resources towards Phoenix,” Hamlin said. "That would certainly be a benefit for whoever locks in right off the bat.”