Stewart-Haas Racing takes on the field as NASCAR playoffs begin Round of 8

As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series gets set to begin the third round of the playoffs, one seemingly unstoppable force looms over the proceedings.

Like an imperial army advancing on its foes, preparing to lay siege to another battlefield, Stewart-Haas Racing marches forward with unparalleled strength and rigid discipline. The only thing standing in the way of total conquest is a small band of resistance fighters led by two mighty champions and joined by a battle-tested warrior and a talented young upstart, the last men left standing after other foes and allies fell by the wayside.

Of course, the NASCAR playoffs are not war, but it’s difficult to view the Round of 8, which begins with Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), as anything other than SHR vs. the field.

Four of the remaining eight championship contenders hail from Stewart-Haas. Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola have combined for 11 wins this season, with Harvick leading the way with seven. Almirola won two weeks ago at Talladega Superspeedway. Bowyer enters Sunday as the most recent Martinsville winner, one of his two regular-season wins. And Busch scored his lone 2018 victory two months ago at Bristol Motor Speedway, the only other track on the circuit comparable to the .526-mile track at Martinsville, where short-track skills are put to the test.

“The toughest part about Martinsville is you just never have a moment to breathe,” said Busch, who has twice taken the checkered flag at the Virginia track (2002, 2014). “You have to be on your game non-stop for 500 laps because somebody’s on you, or you are on top of somebody the whole time, and there’s just no room for error.”

That somebody could be a competitor or a teammate. The close-quarter racing leaves virtually no room for separation, which could put the SHR drivers in a bind.

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