NASCAR Cup Series
NASCAR Cup Series playoff bubble: Who's likely in and who needs a win?
NASCAR Cup Series

NASCAR Cup Series playoff bubble: Who's likely in and who needs a win?

Updated Jul. 24, 2023 11:03 a.m. ET

LONG POND, Pa. — Brad Keselowski knows about life on the NASCAR playoff bubble and when a driver can feel good and when a driver should feel nervous.

"The only way I am going to feel comfortable is if we have a 100-point lead and a one-car cushion going into Daytona," Keselowski said, exaggerating only a little about how much of a points cushion he would need. 

Keselowski and the rest of the drivers on the bubble can feel good about one thing: There have been 11 full-time Cup drivers win races in the first 21 races this year. Unless five different drivers win the final five regular-season events, there will be spots available to drivers on points.

The NASCAR playoff field consists of the regular-season champion plus another 15 drivers based on number of wins with ties broken by points. That typically leads to at least a few drivers — last year, it was only one — to get in on points.


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It likely will be more this year. There has only been one new full-time driver winner in the past eight races.

"At the end of the race ... you look up and realize that it is a repeat winner [and] in a way, it does help you get that little bit of a sigh that you're not in a different kind of hole as we head into these last handful of races," said Keselowski teammate Chris Buescher.

"It's inevitable. We're going to have some new winners before we get to the playoffs. We just have to make sure that one or two of them is us."

That's easier said than done. After 21 races, these drivers have clinched spots in the playoffs thanks to their wins: William Byron, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Ross Chastain, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Tyler Reddick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

With five spots currently available on points, there appears to be 12 drivers who have a shot to get in on points.

Kevin Harvick (+163 on the current cutoff), Keselowski (+122), Buescher (+111), Bubba Wallace (+27) and Michael McDowell (+17) would make the playoffs if the regular season ended now.

These drivers need to rally: AJ Allmendinger (-17 behind McDowell), Daniel Suarez (-23), Ty Gibbs (-28), Alex Bowman (-46), Chase Elliott (-56), Austin Cindric (-60) and Justin Haley (-62).

Here's a breakdown of how these drivers appear to stack up heading into the final five races of the regular season, which consist of one short-track race (Richmond), followed by a big two-mile track (Michigan), two road courses (Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Watkins Glen) and then a superspeedway (Daytona).

Feeling Good

Harvick, Keselowski and Buescher will all be in on points as long as there are not three new winners.

Does it matter if they get in with a win or by points?

Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are likely to make the playoffs. Does it matter if they make it on points or with a win?

"Mentally a win is always better," said Harvick, who is retiring from Cup racing after this season. "We've been close a few times — some things haven't gone right on days where the cars have been the fastest.

"We keep plugging along and ... you hope that cycle of fortune turns on the day when your car is fast. And if it's not on a day when your car is fast, you hope it is on the right day at the right time."

Keselowski, in his second year as co-owner of RFK Racing, would obviously love to get both of the RFK cars (him and Buescher) into the playoffs. 

"Barring some unforeseen circumstances ... it seems like we'll get at least one of our cars in on points — maybe both, knocking on wood," Keselowski said. "But we'd like to not settle for that. We want a higher standard where we are winning and earning our way in on both criteria.

"We have knocked on the doors a few times, but we haven't really knocked it down. Hopefully, we can do that in the next few weeks."

Harvick won at Richmond and Michigan last year, and Buescher has had two top-10s on road courses this season.

Nervous But With Momentum

Wallace and McDowell increased their margins over the cutoff thanks to decent performances at Pocono — and Suarez's crash that left him 36th in the field.

Wallace was 11th at Pocono; McDowell was 19th. They both can see potential wins in the next five weeks — Wallace was strong at Michigan last year and is one of the best superspeedway racers. McDowell, the 2021 Daytona 500 winner, is always a threat on road courses.

While McDowell made the playoffs by winning the Daytona 500, he has never made it on points. Wallace seeks his first playoff berth.

Bubba Wallace says he feels good about making the playoffs on points, but he still wants a win.

"I hate points racing," Wallace said. "It's always bit us in the butt, but we've got to start doing that. We've had speed. It's been a minute since we've had a winning car, but we've had speed to run in the top-5 for sure.

"We just haven't executed to do that. We've got to put it all together — get points and get us a win and it will be good."

The veteran McDowell, who drives for an organization (Front Row Motorsports) that has never made the playoffs on points, also is delivering an air of confidence.

Michael McDowell is attempting to make the playoffs via points for the first time in his career.

"I don't feel any inexperience, even if I haven't been in this spot per se," McDowell said. "I'm a student of the sport, watching other people that have [been in this position] and watching where mistakes happen and where people haven't executed.

"And also, too, what's gotten us here is just doing what we're doing so just trying not to overanalyze it too much."

Combine Good Fortune With No Mulligans

Allmendinger and Suarez both won at road courses in the past couple of years while Gibbs is in his rookie season, so just vying for a playoff spot should be considered a respectable season for him.

Suarez was just one point behind the cutoff before getting caught up in an accident at Pocono.

"I have to focus right now on Richmond and go one race at a time," Suarez said. "We have a couple of road-course races over there. We know that I can win those.

Daniel Suarez discusses his battle for a playoff spot.

"I think we should be OK. We just have to avoid big catastrophic races like this. These are the kinds of races that we're going to be in the last race of the season and we're going to be fighting for one point, two points and these are the kind of races that you're going to say, ‘Man, I didn't get wrecked.' But it is what it is. We move on.'"

Victory Likely Needed

Pretty much the remaining full-time drivers — Bowman, Elliott, Cindric, Haley, Todd Gilliland, Aric Almirola, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Preece, Erik Jones, Harrison Burton, Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe, Ty Dillon and Noah Gragson — need to win a race.

Bowman, Elliott, Cindric and Haley would need to have great races earning stage points with other drivers having trouble to rally on points.

"[If] we are fighting for top-5s and fighting for wins on a weekly basis, I am good," said Elliott, who has missed seven races this year (six with a broken leg, one for a suspension). "The rest of the stuff is going to work itself out eventually.

"That has always been my headspace, so it's no different. No different today and I think we are very capable of doing that. We just have to put the pieces together at the right time and extract our potential and we will be fine."

Bob Pockrass examines whether Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman are in must-win situations to make the playoffs.

Maybe the driver with the biggest reason to be frustrated is Bowman, who had a 60-point penalty earlier this year. He also missed three races with a broken back.

Bowman has not finished in the top-10 in his past 11 starts.

"It's certainly frustrating to be where we're at," Bowman said. "We need to be better than where we are."

All of these drivers on the bubble know their season — and possibly some careers — hang in the balance over the next five weeks.

"You would like to think making the top 16 is not that hard," Suarez said. "But the competition and winning races, that really makes a difference. We are a team that should be part of the playoffs.

"We deserve that. We are strong enough to make some noise in the playoffs. We have to do whatever it takes to do it."

Thinking Out Loud

NASCAR will review Austin Dillon's throwing his helmet at Tyler Reddick's car to determine whether to penalize Dillon.

Dillon did take a few steps up the track but nothing egregious as far as approaching the cars that were running under caution.

Austin Dillon describes why he was mad at Tyler Reddick and how he wishes he would have timed his helmet throw better.

And, yes, throwing a helmet has an element of danger, but it is one of those expressions of emotion that NASCAR should allow. Now if it impacts the results of the race (damaging the car that it was thrown at), then maybe there needs to be a penalty.

But in this situation, no harm (except to maybe Dillon's helmet), no foul.

In The News

--Trackhouse Racing announced that Shane van Gisbergen, who won the Chicago street race in his Cup debut, will drive its No. 91 car next month on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. He won't be the only Australian Supercars driver in the field as Richard Childress Racing will field the No. 33 car for Brodie Kostecki, who raced in a NASCAR regional series several years ago.

--Denny Hamlin doesn't have a contract extension yet at Joe Gibbs Racing, but team owner Joe Gibbs indicated that getting that deal done is a mere formality. Gibbs said: "We're working on everything in our place. We know Denny's going to be here."

Social Spotlight

Stat of the Day

Toyota now has 600 victories in the three NASCAR national series: 177 in the Cup Series, 196 in Xfinity and 227 in trucks.

They Said It

"They can boo my rock out here in a few years." Denny Hamlin on fans booing and his expected "rock," a statute of sorts reserved for the most accomplished drivers at Pocono

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.

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