LOUDON, N.H. -- NASCAR's 2017 Cup playoffs came into sharper focus Sunday in the ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Among the things learned?
* It helps to drive a Toyota.
* Being Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr. is a good thing.
* Misfortune can strike at any time in the most unexpected of ways.
* There's a long way to go to the Homestead finale, but four of the 16 playoff drivers are getting eliminated at Dover next week, and we have a pretty good idea who those four may be.
Busch pulled away to victory, dominating the final half of the race after somehow avoiding a wreck just one lap shy of the halfway point and the end of Stage 2, which he also won thanks to some luck and skill.
"Getting through that smoke was the defining moment of the race for sure," he said. "And we've got a good pit crew and they did everything right today. Today was a good catch-up moment for us."
He had led 39 laps to start after winning the pole on Friday and led 187 of the 300 laps in his Toyota, beating Chevrolet's Kyle Larson by more than 2.6 seconds for his third career win at New Hampshire and 41st overall.
"This is what it's all about, you know?" Busch said. "We're supposed to do these things and it feels even better when we can do those things and, you know, we've missed out on a lot of opportunities I feel like this year, but today we were able to execute all day long.
"We were able to get the things that we needed done done."
The wreck started on Lap 149 when Austin Dillon and Kevin Harvick tangled, sending Harvick into a tire-smoking spin that confused everyone who approached it. Getting through was more of a guessing game than anything.
Truex, for his part, managed to come all the way back to finish fifth after the wreck took his Toyota out of the lead and dropped him to 18th. With his win last week, Truex didn't even need to continue to race to advance to the second round of the playoffs, which starts Oct. 8 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"I could not see anything and I was just approaching the smoke and I'm like, 'Oh no, where am I going to go?'" Truex said. "I mean, literally I couldn't see anything and my spotter said go low. By then, it was kind of too late and I was already like to the smoke and I couldn't commit. I just kind of like just kept slowing down and the 33 [Jeffrey Earnhardt] just came by me on the outside and hit me and spun me down through there, so just unfortunate, you know?
"We were coming to the green-white-checkered to win the second stage ... you know we had damage and had to fight from the back of the pack the rest of the day, so proud of our effort to run fifth after all that, but it definitely hurt our day."
But as important as identity of the winner and front-runners Sunday, was the misfortune that befell Kurt Busch and Harvick in that wreck as well as a breakdown on Kasey Kahne's car late in the race.
While Harvick is likely to make the second round at 15 points ahead of the cutoff and in 10th place, Ford teammate Kurt Busch and Chevy's Kahne likely need to win at Dover -- or benefit from a lot of misfortune for the four drivers directly in front of them in the standings -- to move on as they find themselves 15th and 16th, respectively.
"It's tough when you're running where we were," Kurt Busch said. "We were just trying to limp it to the end of Stage 2 and I heard, 'Car spinning off of two' in my ear. I saw smoke up ahead. A lot of times they'll come back up, and I tried to leave the high side or the low side and then, boom, as soon as the smoke cleared I'm looking at Harvick's door, my teammate.
"We're both running for the playoffs and it's a shame that the handling is off and we're both running where we were, but we were still going to fight all the way to the end, but now we don't have a chance. I cannot understand the bad luck that we're having."
Larson and Ford's Brad Keselowski have clinched the second round of the playoffs on points and are second and fourth in the standings, respectively. Toyota's Denny Hamlin, who finished 12th, and teammate Matt Kenseth (third) also look safe at fifth and sixth in the standings, respectively. Kenseth is the lowest ranked of the four Toyota drivers.
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is seventh, with Ford's Ryan Blaney eighth and Johnson's Chevy teammate Chase Elliott ninth. Chevy's Jamie McMurray is 11th, nine points ahead of the cutoff.
Ford's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the final driver who would advance as of now in a tiebreaker over Chevy's Dillon. Chevy's Ryan Newman is a point behind Stenhouse and Dillon.