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Wild things could happen in NASCAR Cup Series with final elimination rounds starting

After three more races, the playoff field will be cut in half, leaving the Final Four to race for the title.

Chase Elliott (9) does a burnout after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Sunday, Oct 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
Chase Elliott (9) does a burnout after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Sunday, Oct 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)Read moreAP

It's nitty-gritty time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

After Sunday's elimination race in Kansas City, Kan. the remaining list of contenders has been pared to eight, and if the wildness that went into cutting the original playoff field in half continues, there's no telling which four drivers will go to Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 18 eligible for the one-race shootout to claim the championship.

If the Final Four were determined strictly by the points standings, it could be reasoned that all of the "Big Three" — Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr. — would likely be in. But because NASCAR keeps a premium on actually winning a race, a checkered flag can alter the fortune of any driver for the better or worse.

During the race at Kansas Speedway, the Elite Eight was not completely determined until the final two laps when it became clear that Kyle Larson was not going to be able to track down Chase Elliott and Busch.

Had Larson won the race, he would still be in the playoffs. Instead, he's 11th in the standings and eliminated.

That's how crazy and unforgiving things can get.

Brad Keselowski, who won the final two regular-season races and first playoff race, was eliminated despite having three wins, which is tied with Elliott for fourth most overall.

Truex, despite being third with four wins, entered the Kansas race right on the cut line in eighth. There were moments that had the race ended then, he would have been out of the playoffs.

Now at the start of the final elimination round, Truex is third in the standings, behind Harvick and Busch, and holds a 20-point lead over fourth-place Elliott.

In addition to Busch, Elliott, Harvick and Truex, the Elite Eight includes Eric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, and Clint Bowyer. At this stage of the game, points still matter, but as Truex almost found out, they can be neutralized by the wrong guys' winning races at the wrong time.

The final elimination-stage races are the 0.526-mile short-track Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on Sunday, the super-fast non-restrictor plate Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 4, and the 1-mile, low-banked, tri-oval ISM Raceway on Nov. 11 in Avondale, Ariz.

If they take care of business by gaining points through stages and race finishes, Kyle Busch, who is +40 from the cut line; Harvick (+39); and Truex (+23) could probably advance to the Final Four without winning as long as only one other playoff driver advances with a win.

The odds, however, making banking on points to advance a dangerous bet.

If the Big Three go winless and two playoff drivers win in the next three races, at least one of the drivers who have combined to win 18 races will get caught in a numbers game and be eliminated from the top-finisher-takes-the-championship race in Homestead-Miami.

"I think this next round is the most difficult in terms of variety of race tracks. I expect to see three different winners in the next three playoff races," NBC NASCAR analyst Steve Letarte said concerning  Busch, Harvick and Truex. "I just don't think there is a seat at the table for all three of them."

Up next: First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Television:  NBCSN; streaming on NBCSports.