By Bob Pockrass
Over the weekend, the National Hockey League started its 24-team playoff, with seeding on the line. The National Basketball Association is finishing off its regular season with an upcoming playoff format that will settle in on eight teams from each conference.
If it seems either a little confusing or a little extra intriguing, considering there could be some unexpected contenders and playoff matchups, that is an area of in which NASCAR has thrived with its current playoff format as well.
For the four weeks entering the race Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the first driver on the outside looking into the 16-driver playoff grid has been different. Of those, two right now are in the field and the other two are outside the bubble. It’s literally so close, yet so far.
With six races left in the regular season, some of the biggest names in the sport are on the outside looking in, including 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson, 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, two drivers who made the playoffs last year in Ryan Newman and Erik Jones, as well as young drivers such as Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell.
And yet they, and others, still have a path in – a simple path in. NASCAR is the only sport where you just need one great day – or one timely rain shower – to make the postseason.
The 16-driver playoff field consists of the regular-season champion and then 15 drivers based on the number of wins, with ties broken by points. Typically, there are not more than 16 winners in the 26 regular season races, so at least a few spots go to winless drivers based on points. The only requirement for a winner to get into the playoffs is to be top 30 in the standings and have started every race (or get a waiver to that rule for extenuating circumstances or injuries).
So it would make sense that the drivers closest among those vying for the final spots on points have the best chance to make it in. But here’s the catch – with a win in their sights, those drivers hesitate to take potential risks when it comes to fuel mileage or strategy if the move it too risky and could potentially lead to them losing more points.
There are 10 drivers with wins who have locked themselves in the 2020 playoff field – Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon and Cole Custer. Three more – Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch – appear to have a big enough cushion, as long as there aren’t four different winners in the final six races.
Just a month ago, Dillon was on the outside looking in and Custer wasn’t in the playoff conversation. Then Custer won at Kentucky and Dillon won at Texas. The domino effect was that their victories moved the cutoff line much higher in points for those winless drivers. Before Custer’s win, Matt DiBenedetto had a 59-point cushion, Clint Bowyer was 56 points up, William Byron could breathe a little at 38 points, and Johnson was up 36 points.
Bowyer and DiBenedetto are now in a battle to qualify for what appears to be the final three spots in the playoffs, barring any upsets. Bowyer has a 43-point edge on Reddick – the first driver right now on the outside looking in – with DiBenedetto 40 points ahead and Byron with just a 15-point cushion.
Johnson – who missed a race following a positive test for COVID-19 and had a race earlier this year where he lost 45 points because his car failed postrace rear alignment inspection – has slumped to 25 points behind with six races left.
Jones is 31 points behind.
The rest of the drivers, such as Wallace, Newman Kenseth and several others, are too far back to make up ground in six races. They’re going to have to go for wins. And if they win, all of a sudden it’s not Byron battling Reddick, Johnson and Jones for a spot – it’s likely Bowyer and DiBenedetto battling Byron and Reddick.
There are 55 points available to a non-winner in each race through a combination of stage points and race-finishing points. The top 10 at the end of each of the first two stages of the race earn points on a 10-to-1 scale. At the finish, second earns 35 points and each earns one fewer point. Stage points tend to be where drivers can make up the most ground, but it has been hard for anyone to make up much.
At New Hampshire, DiBenedetto and Byron finished with 32 points, Reddick with 27, Johnson with 25 and Jones with just 13.
The six races remaining in the regular season include two next weekend at Michigan, a trip to what will be an unpredictable Daytona road course, two races at Dover, and then the finale on the Daytona oval, where upsets are known to happen.
"[Our previous] two races really, really hurt and you want as much cushion as you can, but we’ve had a lot of speed, so I feel great about that part of it," DiBenedetto said. "The thing that I worry about the most is I want as much cushion as humanly possible going to Daytona because that’s just a real crap shoot.
"So the more cushion we can have going to Daytona the better."
That’s the other thing about the NASCAR system. The winless driver with the fewest points on the inside of the bubble entering the regular-season finale can’t just hold serve because an upset win puts that driver on the outside – unless that driver can pass another winless driver in the standings.
It is a scenario that at least gives everyone hope. Take a look at Wallace, who has won a truck race at Michigan in his career and can point to those races as potential victories. He also has a second-place finish at the Daytona oval on his resume.
"We’ve got six races left to get a shot at the playoffs, so we’ve got to get our mojo back," Wallace said. "It seems like we’ve been searching for it for the last couple of weeks and we’ll keep after it. So on to Michigan."
On The Air
Gander RV Trucks 200 (Michigan), 6 p.m. FS1
Xfinity Henry 180 (Road America), Noon, NBCSN
Cup Firekeepers Casino 400 (Michigan), 4 p.m., NBCSN
Cup Consumers Energy 400 (Michigan), 4:30 p.m., NBCSN
Stat of Note
Two rookies – Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick – have finished in the top 10 in four of their last five races.
They Said It
"This has been a really good challenge for me. In a lot of ways, it removes some sacred cows in the ways I approach things ... To remove the sacred cows from me and my way of thinking, that can be really healthy." – Brad Keselowski on the results of the crew chief change following last season