Kenseth, McMurray among those battling for Cup crown

Second race in playoffs’ first stage takes series to New Hampshire

Jamie McMurray is among the 16 drivers vying for the Monster Energy Cup Series title. (Mike DiNovo / USA TODAY Sports)

NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup playoffs kicked off last Sunday with points leader Martin Truex Jr. winning at Chicagoland Speedway for the second straight year in the series’ annual visit to the Joliet, Ill., track.

And so began the dash — don’t call it the Chase anymore — to the 2017 title, with 16 participants jockeying for advancement into stage two of the 10-race postseason. Truex has moved on, a win guaranteeing him a spot in the next three-race segment regardless of how he fares in this weekend’s race in New Hampshire (ISM Connect 300, 2 p.m. on NBCSN) or his hometown track in Dover the following week.

The other 15 playoff drivers — nine of whom brought home top 10s at Chicagoland — aren’t locked in for the second stage that starts Oct. 8 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, meaning they must win either this weekend or next — or avoid being in the bottom four in playoff points following the race at Dover — to move on.

“I feel like we’ve run well enough in the first 26 races that if we don’t have any catastrophes that we should advance to the second round without a problem,” Jamie McMurray, driver of the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 who is his third straight year in the postseason and finished 10th at Chicagoland, said prior to the playoffs. “There’s a few cars in the playoffs that haven’t performed very well consistently throughout the year.”

McMurray sits 11th in the playoff standings after the first postseason race. Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman are on the outside looking in heading in to New Hampshire.

McMurray has not advanced past the first round in either of the last two years, but there has been a difference in 2017 that has the 41-year-old optimistic.

“Consistency — I think we were eighth in the regular season points when it was all said and done, and that just came from not having any catastrophic races and really we ran about the same all year long,” he said. “So that’s what got us here and hopefully that’s going to keep us alive for a while.”

While McMurray’s chasing postseason glory, fellow postseason participant Matt Kenseth is looking for his first title under the playoff format — he won in 2003 in the final year of old points system.

“It’s a ‘what have you done for me lately’ sport, obviously, so we need to get back to winning races, and hopefully getting that started this weekend,” Kenseth said prior to Chicagoland, referencing the fact his No. 20 hasn’t reached victory lane since, coincidentally, New Hampshire on July 16, 2016.

Kenseth, ninth in the playoff standings, will be moving on from Joe Gibbs Racing after this season, so he’s looking to make a statement as he enters free agency.

“Certainly there would probably be extra satisfaction or gratification or whatever you want to say,” he said. “If we can end on a strong note, win some races and, better yet, win a championship, certainly that would make you feel a little better about it.”