LOUDON, NH — When we left the Darlington Raceway on Mothers Day, the 16 driver playoff grid in the NASCAR Cup Series would remain intact for the next six weeks. In fact, once we got to June leaving Sonoma, we figured it was pretty much set.
Now, we’ve seen this thing get turned upside down two weeks in-a-row.
Heading into Nashville a month ago, Kurt Busch was 63 points down in 18th. Aric Almirola was 186 points arrears in 28th. As we now head to the next race at Watkins Glen in August, both are playoff bound.
Busch, won last weeks race in Atlanta while Almirola won Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. With four races left (Watkins Glen, Indianapolis, Michigan and Daytona), one has to think that we may be far from over in terms of new winners.
We’ve seen 13 different race winners in 22 races completed. With two road courses and Daytona looming, how many more do we end up getting?
We all thought both drivers were down and out heading into June. Busch at one point was 83 points back but here he’s now gotten hot. Almirola was -232 points entering Sunday’s race and now he’s in. This is exactly what NASCAR wanted when they created this format.
Last year, it seemed like shoo-in that Kevin Harvick or Denny Hamlin would win the championship. Harvick, won nine times. Hamlin seven. Neither did. In fact, Harvick didn’t even make the final round and Hamlin was even first or second in the end.
Now, we have a driver that was 27th in points, 232 markers out of the playoffs and now he’s in by winning the fifth to last race of the regular season. Almirola, had no top five finishes in the first 21 races run. He had just two top 10’s at that with 26 total laps led. Three of his first four finishes were 30th or worse. Six of the first eight were 20th or worse. In fact, by time we got to the 16th race of the year in Sonoma last month, he had 12 finishes outside the top 20 including six straight.
Michael McDowell won the Daytona 500 but has since earned eight finishes of 16th or worse in his last eight starts on the season and has also been 13th or worse in 11 of his last 12 overall. Seven of those were outside of the top 20.
These two are playoff bound and if anyone else 17th or worse now in the playoff standings wins, they can be too.
The thing is, it’s entirely possible for it to happen in Daytona. But prior to that, the race to stay off the 16th spot is going to be a race to watch. See, Austin Dillon was 105 points ahead of the cutline heading to Nashville. It bumped up to 108 heading to Pocono 1. Now, he’s five points out due to Busch and Almirola’s wins.
Dillon, entered Sunday’s race 104 points ahead of the cutline so via Almirola’s win, he lost 109 points in one day. His teammate Tyler Reddick is now on the bubble at +5 but he entered on the bubble at +96. He essentially gained on Dillon as he trailed him by eight points for 15th in points and leaves five ahead but also lost 91 points for the bubble spot though too.
Reddick though is outperforming Dillon in the sense that he has seven top 11 finishes in his last 10 tries. He’s also scored 41 stage points over the last five races. Dillon, has only accumulated four stage points with one top 10 in his last 10 tries.
Dillon, hit pit lane just as a caution for Ryan Newman and Quin Houff occurred so not only was he a lap down because of that, he also was penalized for pitting during a closed pit. He’d only finish 17th, one lap down as a result.
Reddick, scored stage points in both stages but came home 13th. Still, he’s the better of the two RCR cars now but the playoff bubble got all that more interesting as we can see a points battle for it.
Kevin Harvick isn’t guaranteed either. He may be +82 but if Denny Hamlin keeps the overall points lead — he’s 13 points ahead of Kyle Larson right now, and also doesn’t win a race either, then he takes another guaranteed spot which gives us 14 drivers in and two spots for the taking for wildcard drivers.
Harvick and Reddick hold those spots but what happens if we get two more winners over the final four races?
It boils down to Dillon, Chris Buescher, DiBenedetto, Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Ryan Preece, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie or Anthony Alfredo and if at least one of them can win one of the final four races?
Well, half of those 14 drivers have never won a Cup race in their careers yet. Buescher and Cole Custer have just one win. Erik Jones hasn’t won in the last 69 races. Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. haven’t won since 2017.
Why would they magically win a race now?
Buescher, is back sliding with no stage points in the last seven races and no finish better than 16th in that span. He hasn’t won a race since 2016.
DiBenedetto has three straight top 11’s but prior to that was eight straight finishes of 18th or worse. He’s had six stage points since the Coca-Cola 600.
Chastain, has 20 stage points since the ‘600 and three finishes of 21st or worse in his last five tries.
Wallace, has had one top 10 all year.
Stenhouse Jr. has 12 finishes of 15th or worse in his last 15 starts on the season.
Suarez, has two 36th place finishes and a 20th place run in his last three races with also just one top 10 in the last nine races overall. He has six finishes of 15th or worse in his last nine races in general.
Then you get guys 23rd on points and further back with them struggling even more.
After that, you have to look at the tracks over the final four races. We go to Watkins Glen next in two weeks to where Martin Truex Jr. has three straight top two results and Chase Elliott has won the last two races there. Elliott, has won two of the last three road course races on the season as well. Again, not an easy track for a driver to steal a victory.
The Indianapolis road course could potentially be with it being an inaugural event, but Elliott has won the last three first time road course races.
After there is Michigan to where Harvick has three straight wins and five top twos in his last six tries. Hamlin has two runner-ups in his last three tries there. Kyle Busch has six straight top six finishes. Truex has four straight top fours. Kurt Busch has five top 10’s in his last six starts including two in the top three. Kyle Larson has three wins there with Ganassi and five top three’s in his last eight starts. Now, he’s with Hendrick. Imagine what he could do there with them. Elliott has nine top 10’s in 10 tries.
Can anyone steal a playoff berth against these guys in the Irish Hills? Not very likely.
That leaves it all up to Daytona for the cut race at the end of August. This is where things can get interesting. DiBenedetto, Stenhouse, Buescher, Chastian, Suarez and Dillon could all easily win the Coke Zero Sugar 400. With all but Dillon facing must wins anyways, this is the point to where a surprise winner from that crop could alter the playoff picture.
That would have the battle to stay off that 16th and final playoff spot an interesting one to watch over the next four races because I can assure you that you don’t want to go to Daytona sitting on it. The 14th and 15th placed drivers in the wildcard standings want to distance themselves from 16th badly. With Almirola’s win, that doesn’t seem very likely now either.