Two surprise winners in the first two weeks of the season have already made the NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture worth watching.
“The dynamic has changed dramatically right now,” Brad Keselowski said. “We’re very early in the season, and it’s now turned into a points race for those last few spots. Hopefully, it doesn’t matter for us.
“I think that we’ll be able to go to Richmond and Martinsville and some of those tracks and contend for the win and hopefully bring home wins, but if you don’t win, you’re in a lot of trouble right now because it’s not looking like you’re going to be able to get in the playoffs right now without a win.”
Michael McDowell picked up a surprise win, his first in the series, in the Daytona 500, and Christopher Bell picked up his first career win Sunday on the road course. The victories clinch spots in the postseason for both drivers — as long as they stay in the top 30 in points.
Bell is the first of the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers to clinch a spot. His three teammates, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Martin Truex Jr., are playoff veterans, and all are expected to be there again.
McDowell could be looked at as having stolen a spot from another driver expected to be there. McDowell and Bell will make postseason appearances for the first time in their careers.
A few reminders: 16 drivers make the postseason and any driver with a win in the regular season automatically gets a postseason berth. The regular season is 26 races long with Daytona again being the cutoff race.
Where it gets interesting and already puts the pressure on the rest of the field is for the playoff grid at the end of the regular season. If McDowell and Bell aren’t in the top 16 in points, both drivers will move onto the playoff grid by kicking out drivers who are there on points but who don’t have wins.
Contact between leaders!@keselowski locks them up!
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) February 21, 2021
It is worth noting that NASCAR has not had 16 different winners since the elimination format was introduced in 2014. The final few spots on the playoff grid are usually determined on points, with drivers trying not to be near the bottom of the grid for fear of being left out because a driver further back in points has a win and guaranteed spot.
Denny Hamlin agreed that drivers in the mid-field should be worried about how things are shaping up.
“Absolutely,” Hamlin said. “I think the 34 (McDowell) certainly is a surprise. He’s going to be in the playoffs. The 20 (Bell), I guess 95 percent of the people who know anything about the sport would probably put the 20 car in the playoffs one way, shape, or form anyways. I don’t think that’s really taking a spot that wasn’t already probably pegged.”