How the Cup Series playoff positions work and a deep look on why NASCAR’s format is working just as they wanted with each scenario that could happen moving forward this regular season

Ever since NASCAR went away from determining an annual champion based of a seasons worth of accumulating points and the one with the most at the drop of the checkered flag in the season finale being crowned with the title, the format has been questioned.

See, people wish we’d have just never went away from that method. But, in order for this sport to grow, they had to. While the new way of setting a champion isn’t perfect, NASCAR has always tweaked it over the last 18 seasons to make it better.

The current one that we’re in now is actually working just the way that they designed it to do.

See, the whole premise of having a playoff format in NASCAR was so that the champion wasn’t crowned before the end of the year. It also helped ensure that someone couldn’t march through the entire season by winning very few races and taking home championship hardware too.

So, they tried to make the races more interesting. In 2014, they changed it to where we sit now by breaking it down in four rounds – Round of 16, Round of 12, Round of 8 and the Championship 4. Then, stage racing was adopted in 2017.

This mix put emphasis on points and winning and did so for the entire season. Win a race in the first 26 races, you’re automatically in the playoffs so long as you stay in the top 30 in points. That means you have to race the rest of the way even if you win because if you don’t, you won’t be in the top 30. Plus, with stage points and a playoff point per stage win and five playoff points per race win, you had to score as many points as you could still.

In the playoffs, a win guarantees you to the next round too.

That sparked a large emphasis on racing hard every lap, at every race throughout all 36 races. Every lap literally mattered.

The last two seasons have proven this true. Last year, Kevin Harvick won a series-high nine races. He didn’t win the title in the Cup Series. Chase Elliott did. Chase Briscoe won nine races in the Xfinity Series. He also didn’t win the title. Austin Cindric did.

Denny Hamlin won seven races in Cup last year. He too didn’t win the championship.

Then you have this year.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – APRIL 11: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, pits during the NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 11, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Hamlin is winless but is four races away from clinching a regular season championship.

Aric 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.

He won in Loudon and despite being in a tie for 23rd in points, he’s playoff bound.

Michael McDowell has eight straight finishes of 16th or worse. He’s been 13th or worse in 11 of his last 12 tries including seven of those being outside the top 20. He too is playoff bound despite being 19th in points.

Kurt Busch had a stretch of 11 finishes of 13th or worse in a 12 race span. He had one top five through the first 15 races to 2021. He’s now 14th in points but via a win in Atlanta, he’s playoff bound.

Christopher Bell had one top five in a 12 race span, but he won the second race of the year and is going to the postseason too.

That’s 14-15-19-23 in overall points going to the playoffs. In turn, that pushes the Richard Childress Racing duo to Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon to the bubble. Reddick, is 12th in points leading 13th in points Dillon by five markers for the 16th and final playoff spot.

Five of the winners this season aren’t even in the top 10 in overall points at this moment. But, with having 13 different winners though, they’re all in.

So, many are now wondering, what happens next? We have Watkins Glen, Indianapolis (road course), Michigan and Daytona left.

Hamlin (+283), Kevin Harvick (+82) and Reddick (+5) hold the only three wildcard spots remaining with four races to go. Remember, I said there’s an emphasis on winning. If any of those three or even Dillon, Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto, Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Erik Jones, Ryan Preece, Ryan Newman, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie or Anthony Alfredo win over the final four races, then they’re in too.

So, what happens if we get four different winners and all first time winners on the season? That means then we’d have 17 different winners this year and the guy lowest in points among the one win victors (Kyle Busch, William Byron, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Bell, McDowell or Almirola) or if one of the guys on that list below are on this list, will be out. At the moment, if we get four new first time winners and all are ahead of Almirola in points, then despite a win in New Hampshire, Almirola is out. McDowell leads Almirola by 71 points from being in that bottom spot among winners.

But, there’s another layer to this. That’s due to Denny Hamlin. If he wins the regular season championship the he takes a guaranteed spot above all winners. That’s the first playoff spot. Right now, Hamlin leads Kyle Larson by 13 points for that distinction and the way the last few weeks have gone, I fully believe Hamlin will win this title for the regular season but do so without winning a race too.

Again, a prime reason as to why NASCAR wanted this format.

Hamlin would join the other 13 race winners then leaving just two playoff spots left. What happens if we still get four new first time winners. That’s then 18 spots but two have to be eliminated. It would then be the bottom two among one-time winners this year.

While this season has been wildly unpredictable, I don’t really expect a first time winner to happen in the first two weeks back. Chase Elliott has won six of the last eight road course races in the Cup Series and was runner-up in one of the two that he didn’t win and should have won the other. Kyle Larson was runner-up to Elliott in COTA but won in Sonoma and had a top three cars in Road America.

You can also never count out Martin Truex Jr. either. He was 12th on the Daytona road course earlier this season but that’s because of a bad ending. He crashed in the rain in COTA and was third in Sonoma and had a top 10 in Road America. From 2017 through 2020, Truex had three wins, two runner-ups and a third place effort in nine road course starts. The only reason its not four wins is because he crashed with Jimmie Johnson on the last lap in the last corner of the ROVAL race at Charlotte while leading in 2018.

Elliott has won each of the last two races at Watkins Glen in beating Truex Jr. in both. A year before his reign started, Truex Jr. did win.

These two to go along with Larson are the favorites for the Glen.

Then it’s to the Indy road course to where Elliott has won the last three inaugural road course races. I don’t think he goes 0-for-2 out of the break.

From there it’s to 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.

By this point, it’s likely going to come down to the RCR duo vs. Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto, Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Ryan Preece, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie and Anthony Alfredo for the final spot. That’s one driver out of 15 that gets in and it’s likely either going to come down to points (Reddick vs. Dillon) or a win among them.

By this point, even if Hamlin or Harvick don’t win a race, I think they’re solidly in.

Well, half of those 15 drivers have never won a Cup race in their careers yet. Buescher and Cole Custer have just one win each among them. 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.

But, Daytona is the great equalizer and these guys could each have a case as to why they could win.

Since the ‘Win and Your In’ format to the Playoffs was initiated in 2017, Erik Jones’ 2018 summer race win and William Byron’s last year are the only summer race at Daytona to catapult a driver into the postseason – the other three winners were either not eligible for the Playoffs due to not competing for a championship in the series (Haley in 2019) or the drivers had already previously won in the same season (Keselowski in 2016 and Stenhouse in 2017).

In the third iteration of the Playoff championship format from 2014-Present – Only one driver outside the Playoff cutoff has raced their way into the Playoffs in the regular season finale through points or last-minute wins.

  • From 2014 to 2018 – the drivers that won or were inside the top 16 that were expected to make the Playoffs did, no drivers raced their way into the Playoffs in the regular season finale on points or wins.
  • In 2019, heading into the regular season finale at Indianapolis, Ryan Newman was tied with Daniel Suarez for the 16th and final transfer position to the Playoffs. Newman finished eighth in the regular season finale to Suarez’s 11th, earning the final transfer spot into the postseason.

But, for the Coke Zero Sugar 400, three of the last four winners have earned their first career Cup victories. The other was just his second. A total of 21 drivers have posted their first NASCAR Cup Series win at Daytona; 11 of the 21 drivers posted their first win in the summer race – the most recent was the 2019 July race with winner Justin Haley and Spire Motorsports and last year with William Byron. Does that bode well for Saturday night for someone on the outside looking in?

DiBenedetto is winless and was 12th in this race last year but just 33rd in the Daytona 500. He did lead the most laps in the 2019 Daytona 500 though and was seventh and eighth respectively with Go Fas Racing in this very race in 2017 and 2018.

Chastain is winless in Cup but the Florida native did win an Xfinity Series race here in 2019 and was seventh back in February.

Wallace was fifth in this very race a year ago and had a really fast race car in February.

Preece had a top six in his Duel in February to race his way in, was second in the first stage and sixth in the Daytona 500.

LaJoie has three top 10 finishes in his last four Daytona starts including a ninth place run in February.

I’d watch out for them. But, they’re not the only ones.

Buescher, has one career Cup win but does have five top 10 finishes in his last eight Daytona tries including three of those being in the top five.

Stenhouse Jr. and Jones are each past winners of this event and do some their best work on superspeedway’s.

Newman is a past Daytona 500 champion and has five top 10 finishes in his last eight Daytona starts.

That’s 10 drivers below the cutline that could make Reddick or Dillon each very uneasy.

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