With the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs beginning this weekend at Darlington Raceway, there is a sigh of relief to be had. We made it; the postseason is here. Ten races to go.
With so much uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic, it was easy to wonder if the sport would get this far. After having to hit pause after running four races back in the spring, Cup Series teams made up 22 races since May. Granted, it took doubleheaders, running during the week, and multiple visits to one track to make up for venues that lost a race, but it got done.
We know all about how teams had to do it on limited rosters and without any previous track time, i.e., practice and qualifying. It has been an unprecedented season, one that amazingly got back on schedule with the second Dover race.
Before we dig into the playoffs, let’s take a moment to appreciate what happened over the weekend in Daytona Beach. The host of the regular-season finale had everything, including intensity worthy of the cutoff race, the drama of bold moves from desperate drivers, and a first-time winner in William Byron.
Take the night’s two big wrecks. Contrary to expectations that Daytona would be a wreck-fest, they were the only two of the race, and didn’t happen until late in the going. The first occurred because Tyler Reddick made a mistake while racing aggressively to try and make the playoffs. Reddick needed a win because nothing else would be good enough to put him in the postseason with RCR teammate Austin Dillon.
The second accident was also the result of aggressive driving. Byron wasn’t going to lift as Joey Logano and Bubba Wallace bounced off each other, and he squeezed his way through the middle.
Richmond and Indianapolis were gracious hosts of the cutoff race from 2004-19, but Daytona had the hype and excitement the sport has longed for with its final race. And in the end, Daytona pushes the series into the postseason on a high note.
So, that is where we are now – headed back to tough old Darlington for the third time. The Round of 16 is a challenge, with Darlington and then the two short tracks of Richmond and the elimination race at Bristol.
The Round of 12 starts at Las Vegas. But then come two potential wild card races in Talladega and the Charlotte road course.
The Round of 8 has two intermediate tracks with Kansas and Texas. Then, for the first time, we decide the championship contenders at Martinsville. Although it hasn’t been the elimination race before, Martinsville has provided memorable playoff moments over the last few years. Chase Elliott vs. Denny Hamlin. Martin Truex Jr. vs. Joey Logano. Now the last chance for a driver to punch their ticket to the title race, the expectation will be high for drama.
Who has the best chances of getting to Phoenix? Let’s break it down:
Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Duh. They’ve been the class of the field and have all but inked their names – in Sharpie – for Phoenix. The bonus points Harvick and Hamlin have accumulated will help push them through each round should they have problems. But if the first 26 races have shown us anything, it’s that these two rarely have bad weeks.
A good shot
Four drivers will be championship eligible at Phoenix, so who will join Harvick and Hamlin? These next three drivers should be considered first: Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., and Joey Logano.
Keselowski finished the regular season third in the overall standings with Truex fourth and Logano fifth. What that shows is they were “the best of the rest” behind Harvick and Hamlin with consistency, race wins, laps led and gathering playoff points. All of which a team needs to be able to do to succeed and advance through the postseason.
The question is which two of the three can do it well enough to take a spot at Phoenix?
Might heat up
Entering the conversation now is Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, and Aric Almirola. These three were sixth through ninth in the overall standings, meaning they were consistent but also had some ugly days. In the playoffs, teams need to be hot from start to finish. Mulligans are going to be hard to overcome.
Blaney and Elliott could have won more than they did in the regular season, but they also should have had better results at other places. Both were hot at the start of the year and through the first month or so after the sport returned from the pandemic, then things cooled, and it’s been up and down.
Something has happened to the speed at Hendrick Motorsports. After Daytona, Elliott was already discussing the need to be more consistent and with that have the speed to keep up with Harvick and Hamlin.
Almirola went on a streak of nine consecutive top-10 finishes during the summer, something he had never done before. The No. 10 team has been on the verge of winning, and if the timing works out to where that happens in the playoffs, then Almirola could be a dark horse.
There is always a bunch of them. The 2020 longshots are William Byron, Austin Dillon, Cole Custer, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch.
Performance and the numbers from the regular season should explain some of those names. Yes, they made the playoffs, but realistically can they go head-to-head with the likes of Harvick and Hamlin and beat them? Anything is possible, but again, there is a reason why they are labeled long shots.
Seeing reigning series champion Kyle Busch on this list is weird. But facts are facts; this has not been a great season for the No. 18 team. It has gone from waiting for them to show up and turn things around because that’s what they do, to showing up each week and waiting to see what bad thing happens next.
With that said, there could be one variable that helps Busch in the playoffs. Eight of the 10 tracks (Richmond and the Charlotte Roval are the outliers) have already held a race this season, meaning Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens have a notebook. Part of what has hindered Busch this year has been the inability to dial in his car during practice, so having a notebook from the first race could make the team better prepared this time around.
Or, the last 10 weeks will continue to be 2020, and Busch will not be a factor for the championship.
Who knows? But we’re going to find out because the playoffs are here. So, take that deep breath and fill out your playoff grid.