CRANDALL: Amid NASCAR's headlines, playoffs are looming

Image by Kinrade/Motorsport Images

CRANDALL: Amid NASCAR's headlines, playoffs are looming

NASCAR

CRANDALL: Amid NASCAR's headlines, playoffs are looming

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For the last 85-plus days, stock car racing has been swimming in chaos and controversy.

A racial slur led to a champion’s return. Anger at racial inequality led to public conversations and pledges of change. The Confederate flag was banned, and there was a highly emotional and public incident concerning a noose in a Talladega Superspeedway garage stall that so happened to be occupied by the team of the lone Black driver in the NASCAR Cup Series. Seven-time, Jimmie Johnson, missed his first race because of COVID-19. Oh, and the President of the United States inserted himself into the fray, too.

And that has been the last 85 days. In looking wider, the sport has dealt with COVID-19 and its consequences while teams are managing financial worries. The 2021 schedule became the furthest thing from mind as the current schedule looks more like a puzzle (with pieces still missing), Next Gen’s debut was pushed, and Ryan Newman made a miraculous recovery from a horrific crash at Daytona.

You aren’t alone if you feel exhausted. This season, and 2020 in general, have been a hot mess, and at times has made it hard to focus on the on-track racing and its storylines.

So, here’s a big one that will make those who just want to talk about racing happy: there are 10 races left in the regular season. Yes, a championship is still at stake, and the playoffs are fast approaching, meaning NASCAR is in the homestretch to set the 16-driver field. And because this is 2020, no-one knows what that stretch looks like because NASCAR has only released the schedule up until Aug. 2.

Michigan, Watkins Glen, Dover, and Daytona would ordinarily be the four tracks that would fill out the schedule leading into the postseason. Considering nothing about the 2020 season has been normal, no one can be blamed for keeping their expectations low or non-existent as not to be disappointed or confused when things change. It’s far easier to just go with the flow.

Also, that only brings the schedule to 24 races. Two extra races need to appear somewhere to complete the full 26-race regular season. A Michigan doubleheader? Another one at Dover? Those have been two prevailing rumors, and NASCAR should be close to releasing the next portion of the schedule.

Either way, the drivers won’t care. After sitting at home for two months, they have a helmet and will travel to wherever they need to be.

A look at the point standings out of Indianapolis shows that the top eight drivers have clinched their playoff spots through wins. Easy enough to understand. From there, it gets interesting as 111 points separate ninth-placed Aric Almirola and Erik Jones in 17th, the first driver on the outside looking in.

Zero wins and zero playoff points means a lot of work to do for the reigning champ. Image by Motorsport Images

“One of the things I told Buga (crew chief Mike Bugarewicz) right from the very beginning of the season is my goal is for Daytona not to matter,” said Almirola. “I want to go to Daytona and not be in a pressure situation where you got to out-points somebody, or you got to just be careful, or any of those things.

“My goal is to win so that Daytona won’t matter, and we’ll be locked into the playoffs. If we don’t win, (my goal is) to have a big enough points gap that Daytona won’t matter.”

A missing person’s report is out on Kyle Busch, who is 10th in the standings. Busch won the regular-season championship the last two years but is having a much rougher go at things this year, especially without the aid of practice to dial in his Joe Gibbs Racing Camry. Through the first weekend in July, the defending series champion is not only winless, but is also without any playoff points.

Drivers 11th through 16th in points are Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer, William Byron, Jimmie Johnson, and Austin Dillon.

A bucket of stage points in the last few races has pushed DiBenedetto up the point grid. After Talladega, the Wood Brothers Racing driver sat 15th in the standings. Now DiBenedetto, crew chief Greg Erwin, and the group are 12th and look to be serious challengers for a spot in the postseason. It would be the second time the organization has been championship-eligible, and the first time DiBenedetto has been included.

DiBenedetto said leaving Pocono he “100 percent” feels his team is getting closer to being a consistent top-15 to a top-10 finisher. It would put DiBenedetto on par with his Team Penske teammates.

“I think when you’re with a new team working with new guys, it always takes a little time to typically figure each other out,” said DiBenedetto. “We’re really trying to get this 21 car where it’s upfront every week, and I think we’re stepping in that direction. To be honest, every single racetrack, aside from Darlington, we’ve had top 10 speed, so that’s unbelievable.”

Jimmie Johnson slipped three spots to 15th in the standings because he didn’t compete at Indianapolis. When Johnson returns to action is TBD, but he’s become a bubble driver. As a reminder, Johnson missed the playoffs for the very first time last year, and he’s hanging up the helmet at the end of this season. Johnson being a footnote at the end of the year because he’s not in the playoffs would be an unfortunate ending to his career.

On the bubble is Austin Dillon. It’s six points between Dillon and Jones, then comes Dillon’s rookie teammate, Tyler Reddick. Reddick is the wildcard of the playoff battle because he’s fast enough to be a top-10 contender, but just needs a bit more consistency. It would not be surprising to see him sneak into the postseason by knocking out a veteran.

If there is going to be any more chaos on the horizon, one can only hope it stays on track and focuses on the fight for the playoffs. NASCAR has done a commendable job of wading through all the non-racing related fracas and pushing the sport forward. Still, memorable moments and seasons should be what happens on the track, and we could use some more of those headlines given today’s climate.

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