Kevin Harvick ended a near 2 year winless drought by becoming the 15th different NASCAR Cup Series driver to win a race this season. That puts him into the playoffs. It also made the bubble watch way more interesting too.
That’s because Harvick was the only driver within 100 points of the cutline heading into last weekend’s race at Michigan. Now, the bubble is down to just 19 points separating Ryan Blaney to Martin Truex Jr.
1 of the 2 aren’t going to be in unless they both win among the final 3 races of the regular season. If that happens, then it would push someone who has already won this year out and that likely someone is Kurt Busch who’s fallen to 46 points behind the next driver to have won just 1 race this season. His status for this weekend’s race is unknown too.
Which is why at the onset, this playoff battle for the final spot between Blaney and Truex Jr. is a big one as it’s 2 of the big teams in the sport of Penske vs. Joe Gibbs Racing battling for a playoff berth. Normally these organizations are battling for Championship 4 berths not the final wildcard position.
The thing is, could Sunday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (3 p.m. ET, USA, MRN) be a must-win for Truex though?
Yes he can still points his way in and could easily do so with stage points at Watkins Glen at Daytona. However, while he’s been good recently at Watkins Glen (5 straight top 10’s, 4 of the 5 in the top 3), his road course finishes have been abysmal in 2022. He’s finished 7th, 26th, 13th and 21st respectively in them. It’s not just a Truex problem but a Toyota one all around. Which would leave just Daytona, a place he’s never won a Cup race at (0-for-34) and has a combined 0-for-71 in superspeedway races if you combine Daytona, Talladega and the 2 at Atlanta this year, as a spot he has to win in. He’s only had 6 top 5’s in those 71 races at that.
So it’s not very likely he wins at either Watkins Glen or Daytona which leads me to believe that he’ll elect for stage points in both. Why not? He swept the stages in February’s Daytona 500 so there’s a potential for 40 points on the line in stages just in those 2 races alone.
Which is why he could also make this easy on himself by winning at Richmond, a place that he’s been so good at lately. Truex has 8 straight top 5 finishes at Richmond including 4 top 2’s in his last 6. He was 4th this spring after leading 80 laps and scoring a stage win.
This is his time.
Plus this isn’t necessarily a strong track for Blaney who’s never had a top 5 in 12 Richmond starts. While he dominated Stage 1 from the pole this past spring, that was more about track position than anything else.
Watkins Glen could be a solid outing out of him. Blaney has two top 10’s in his last four Watkins Glen starts and a top 11 in 3 of the 4 road races run in 2022. Solid won’t do it though. He needs a win and unlike Truex, his best shot may be at Daytona.
He won this race last year. He was 4th in the Daytona 500. He has 6 top 6’s in his last 7 Daytona starts and that also includes the Duels. He’s also won 2 of the last 6 Talladega races.
The thing is, you never want to enter Daytona needing a win but there’s a lot of other guys who can win there to steal a playoff berth from Blaney and Truex too if they don’t win either.
Bubba Wallace is inching closer with 4 straight top 8 finishes in 3 of the 4 being in the top 5. Toyota’s are good at Richmond. He’s good at Daytona (runner-up this past February). He also won the playoff race at Talladega last October too.
You just get a sense that a win is coming for him and Daytona could be just the spot.
I don’t necessarily think a new winner outside of Truex or Wallace comes this weekend but Watkins Glen next week and Daytona the following week could be.
Watkins Glen is intriguing in the sense that through the first 3 road course races run this season, each were won by a 1st time winner. Ross Chastain picked up his first career Cup win in COTA, while his teammate Daniel Suarez followed suit in Sonoma. On July 3, Tyler Reddick did the same in Road America.
Also, 6 of the last 11 road races being won by a driver scoring their 1st or 2nd win on them.
Among the 2 races at Daytona and Talladega this season, Austin Cindric picked up his 1st career win at Daytona and Chastain his 2nd career win at Talladega. Bubba Wallace scored his 1st career win last Fall in Talladega too while Michael McDowell did the same in 2021 Daytona 500.
Plenty of drivers fit this criteria for the final 2 races.
Winless drivers like rookies Todd Gilliland (4th in Indy) and Harrison Burton (3rd in Indy) could steal at Watkins Glen victory. They could each win Daytona too with both running up front in February’s Daytona 500 too.
So could Chris Buescher who has 3 straight top 10’s on road courses this season. Hell Buescher could win Daytona too as he won a Duel in February too. He has 1 career win (217 starts ago) and would play into the category for both Watkins Glen and Daytona.
Michael McDowell also has just 1 career win (Daytona 500 last year) but is always a threat on these types of tracks. He also has 3 straight top 8’s on road courses in general too.
The rest may have to get it done at Daytona only though.
Brad Keselowski has to come to the top of that list with 7 superspeedway victories. I feel like it will be hard for the driver who’s had no top 5’s all season to win at Richmond or Watkins Glen. He’s riding a 49 race winless streak (Talladega April 2021) and RFK Racing hasn’t won since Daytona in 2017 (183 races ago).
That last RFK Racing win was Ricky Stenhouse Jr’s last win which happened to be in this same Daytona race. A year later, Erik Jones scored his 1st career win during the Daytona summer race. A year after that it was Justin Haley’s turn. A year after that it was William Byron’s.
That’s right, 3 of the last 4 Coke Zero Sugar 400 winners have earned their 1st career wins in it. 4 of the last 5 their 1st or 2nd if you include Stenhouse Jr.
Does that favor Corey LaJoie who had a car capable of winning this race last year and had a shot at a win last month in Atlanta?
I even like Aric Almirola (2 of his 3 wins at superspeedways) or Austin Dillon (won Daytona 500 before) who each swept the Duels a couple of years ago. Dillon was also runner-up at Talladega this past April too.
Jones even could back up his 2018 win with a victory as he was strong in February and leading the end of the Talladega race before being shuffled back to 6th on the last lap.
That’s why it’s not too far out of the realm to see some new winners again at Watkins Glen and Daytona which could in theory bump Blaney and Truex Jr. both out which would be historic.
Blaney is 2nd in points right now. Truex is 4th. They could both not make the playoffs.