KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Ryan Blaney felt good about his chances of advancing to the next round of NASCAR's playoffs even before he qualified fourth for the elimination race at Kansas Speedway.
Yes, he is 22 points outside the cutoff line. Yes, he has to leapfrog a couple of other guys to make the final eight, who will contest the next three rounds before the season-ending race at Homestead.
But Blaney has always considered the fast mile-and-a-half track one of his best, even though he's yet to win here in seven career starts. He has led laps four times, was on the pole for the spring race last year and was strong this past spring before ultimately wrecking out.
"This is a good track for us. I can't think of another track to go to trying to win it," Blaney said. "We've had a good chance, especially the first race this year before I wrecked ourselves. So hope we have a good shot Sunday to move on."
The trouble for Blaney is that just about everybody on the bubble is also strong at Kansas.
Clint Bowyer, who is seventh and 21 points inside the cutoff line, considers the track his home after growing up in Emporia. Martin Truex Jr. is currently riding the bubble, 18 points to the good, and swept the races at Kansas last year before finishing second to Kevin Harvick this past spring.
Brad Keselowski is the first driver outside the cutoff, and while he has just three top-5 finishes in 17 starts at Kansas, he qualified fifth on Friday — right behind Blaney, his Penske Racing teammate, who is four points back of him as they jockey for a spot in the next round of the playoffs.
Blaney said that dynamic hasn't created any tension in their garage. The two have continued to share ideas as they prepare for Sunday, which is the only way team owner Roger Penske would have it.
"Brad and I have always been open with each other, which is great," Blaney said. "It's our season pretty much, our chance at a championship is this weekend, but you try not to let that distract you and just do the best you can."
Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman are the two drivers that basically face must-win situations Sunday.
Larson was penalized 10 points last week at Talladega for using unapproved materials to fix damage on his car, and that punishment was upheld through two rounds of appeals on Friday. That left the Chip Ganassi Racing driver in a 36-point hole, an uphill challenge made even more difficult after a wreck in practice forced him into a backup car and will land him at the back of the field for the start.
But like Blaney and the rest of the contenders, Larson feels good about his chances at Kansas.
"In May, I felt really, really good," he said. "I made a mistake in qualifying and spun, we had to change tires, drove to the front pretty easily in the race, won the second stage, passed guys like Harvick and (Kyle) Busch and Truex, and Blaney was really good that day. Then Harvick passed me on one of the later restarts and then Blaney and I got together and we had to repair damage and stuff."
Larson was still able to recover and finish fourth, but he left Kansas feeling as if he had the best car that day. At the very least, he was on even footing with Harvick and Blaney.
Bowman is the only driver who mathematically must win, and even he feels good about his chances at Kansas. He won a couple of times at the track in ARCA and has been strong in his few Cup starts.
"This is one of my better tracks," he said, "so I'm excited. I think we have a shot of winning for sure. ... I'm glad it's Kansas, I love this place, really enjoy it."
Joey Logano will start from the pole, giving him a good chance of earning stage points and securing his place in the next round — he's currently fifth and 39 points ahead of the cutoff. Harvick qualified second, and at third in the playoff race he needs only to stay out of trouble to advance.
Busch will start seventh and Kurt Busch will start 11th as both try to lock up spots in the next round. Each of them should be in good shape if he manages to avoid any kind of chaos.
The two drivers with nothing to worry about? Chase Elliott, who won at Dover, and Aric Almirola, who won at Talladega. But even they will have something to race for on Sunday.
"To me this is a test of how you're going to be at the mile-and-a-halves the rest of the season," Elliott said. "If you struggle this weekend, you probably have your work cut out for the next round."
Almirola is taking a decidedly more laid-back approach to Sunday.
"If anything it allows us to be less guarded. There's no downside and only opportunity for upside," he said. "If we wreck on Lap 1, it doesn't matter. We're still going to the round of eight. If we win both stages and win the race, we can have seven more points when the points reset next week.
"Everybody would like to have that bet in their stock portfolio," he said. "You can only go up and you can't go down. That's the opportunity we have ahead of us."