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Bank of America 500 Preview
And now we're down to just 12 drivers to win the Sprint Cup. The Round of 12 three-race playoff starts Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Eleven of the 12 drivers that advanced, I think most expected. But with Kyle Larson finishing 25th at Dover and Austin Dillon finishing eighth, it gives us all that Cinderella story to follow.

“I’m proud to be going on to the final 12 and having race cars that are capable of moving on," said Austin Dillon following Sunday's Dover race. "I have three really solid tracks coming up (Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega), and I am going to drive the wheels off of it and have fun. It’s time to knock some more of these guys out, because we’ve got this opportunity, and I want to say that we’re going to be the underdog in this next round, so let’s go do it.”

Yes, he is the underdog, or the longest shot of all to win the championship. After Kurt Busch at 25/1 odds, Dillon comes in at 60/1. The favorite is still Kevin Harvick at 4/1 and Martin Truex Jr. at 9/2.

One confidence angle Dillon can look at is RCR teammate Ryan Newman making it all the way to the Championship Round in 2014 and only a few laps from winning the title that Harvick eventually captured by winning the race. Just like Newman then, Dillon hasn't won a race all season. But at this stage, it's all about finishing well and being consistent and Dillon earned it.

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Truex Jr.'s win at Dover gave him four for the season which ties Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch for the most in the series. It was his third win in the past five races which make him the driver to beat Saturday night at Charlotte.

Even if Truex hadn't won at Darlington, Chicago and Dover the past five races, he'd still be the favorite just because of what he did May 29 in the first Charlotte race. It was the most dominant win in the history of Charlotte's storied grounds. In NASCAR's longest race of the year -- the Coca-Cola 600 -- Truex led 392 of the 400 laps on the 1.5-mile high-banked tri-oval.

Only three other drivers led among the eight laps that Truex didn't. That's almost four hours of racing where Truex was out front. That's what he does better than anyone and he's red hot right now. Since winning at Darlington five races ago he's led in the last five races totaling 521 laps. In the seven races on 1.5-mile tracks, he's led 817 laps and overall he's led 1,94 laps. All of those achievements are tops in the series.

So when looking at his chances for Saturday, there aren't really any reasons to suggest he won't win. Sure, anything can happen. But each of three wins in the last five races have attributes that can be applied to Charlotte. Darlington's high banking on the 1.3-mile layout can be used somewhat, so can Chicago's 1.5-mile layout and so can Dover's high banks. Oh yeah, and did I mention he led 392 freaking laps the last time at Charlotte?

While I may paint a picture of Truex being invincible this week, it's no fun betting the 4-to-1 favorite to win a race among 39 other drivers, with 12 of them having a legitimate shot to win. His un-official Gibbs teammates is where you want to look first as his top competition beginning with Kyle Busch who surprisingly has never won at Charlotte in 25 Cup starts. Matt Kenseth has two wins, Carl Edwards has won once and Denny Hamlin has a strong 12.3 average finish, but no wins in 22 starts. Busch has wins on the 1.5-mile tracks at Texas and Kansas this season.

Kevin Harvick has the best look among Chevrolet drivers as he's finished ninth or better in 11 of his last 12 Charlotte starts, which includes three wins. He's been runner-up in his last two starts at Charlotte. Since 2014, if we look at all the results at 1.5-mile track and throw Darlington in as well, Harvick has averaged an 8.9 finish with four wins and led a series high 2,074 laps.

Jimmie Johnson was one of the three drivers other than Truex to lead at Charlotte in May. He finished third. He has series-leading seven Charlotte wins, the last coming in 2014. The reason to suggest he'll be a strong contender Sunday is because of what a recent Chicago test session did for his team in the Sept. 18 race at Chicagoland Speedway. Truex won that race and Johnson settled for 12th, but he also led a race-high 118 laps. He had the best car despite the results. Johnson's two wins on the season came within the first five races, but they were at Atlanta and Fontana which applicable somewhat this week, even though it was so long ago.

Brad Keselowski has two wins on 1.5-mile tracks (Las Vegas & Kentucky) and his only Charlotte win came during the 2013 Chase. He finished fifth in May's Coca-Cola 600.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #4 Kevin Harvick (6/1)
2) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (4/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (8/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (7/1)
5) #2 Brad Keselowski (10/1)

  
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