Cup Series

After nine winners in 10 races, how is the NASCAR playoff field looking?

April 29

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

NASCAR Cup Series drivers could look at the standings after 10 races and have a good vibe on their chances to make the playoffs.

With nine winners in 10 races this year and five road courses instead of two in the final 16 races of the regular season, those who might have had confidence in the past probably don’t have as good a feel for their postseason chances this time around.

The Cup playoff field consists of 16 drivers: the regular-season champion and 15 drivers based on their number of wins, with ties broken by points. Since this format started in 2014, at least three winless regular-season drivers have gotten in on points every year.

Breaking it down even more: The past five years, there have been two seasons (2017 and 2019) in which three drivers went from being in the playoff grid after 10 races to not making the playoffs, two seasons (2020 and 2016) in which two drivers went from being in to being out over the final 16 races and one season (2018) in which just one driver went from in to out.

Only in 2017 did a driver who was in the top 11 of the standings fall out. That year, Joey Logano (sixth) and Clint Bowyer (ninth) each saw his season go into freefall after the 10th race.

Looking at history, that means Denny Hamlin (first in the standings), Kevin Harvick (seventh) and Chase Elliott (eighth) should feel good about getting in – and the fact that they combined for 21 wins last year should give them at least some hope of winning.

Hamlin, though, is the only driver who has consistently led laps so far this season.

That leaves Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chris Buescher – the last four drivers who would be in on points at the moment – potentially feeling a little uneasy if they can’t find victory lane. There are six drivers – Matt DiBenedetto, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Preece and Tyler Reddick – within 40 points of the cutoff, and with surges over the next four months, any of them could find his way in on points.

But right now, even those with wins are a little uneasy about the possibility of having more winners than spots in the field. Michael McDowell is currently three points ahead of Alex Bowman, who is the lowest in the standings among drivers with one win.

"I feel like we're doing a good job of managing what we can manage," said McDowell, who finished third Sunday at Talladega, won by Brad Keselowski. "But winning another race would obviously put us in a really good spot.

"Having Brad Keselowski check that box is not bad because we knew he was going to win a race at some point throughout the year. That's kind of a double win for me on that aspect because, obviously, there could be another surprise winner."

Only one driver, Martin Truex Jr., has two wins this year and thus doesn’t have to worry about there being more winners than spots. Drivers with one win: Logano, William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, McDowell and Bowman. Of those, Bell (39 points ahead of Bowman), McDowell and Bowman are the only ones who should have a bit of worry.

On the other end, Aric Almirola, who made the playoffs last year, sits 26th in the standings and 70 points outside the cutoff. He sees winning as his only shot of making the playoffs.

"We haven’t scored a lot of stage points anyway, and our cars have been off, so a good day for us is similar to what we ran at Richmond," Almirola said. "We flirt with the top-10, you score a few stage points and get a top-10 finish.

"That’s what we’ve been capable of lately. ... I don’t know that we’ll be able to point our way in. We’re going to need to win."

Drivers on the bubble know that with five road courses, there is the chance for an unexpected winner or at least someone who isn’t dominating on the ovals. And there are drivers, such as Stenhouse, Almirola and DiBenedetto, who aren’t known for their road-course prowess.

"We’re doing what we set out to do this year, and that’s to be consistent, get those top-15 finishes, try to average a 14th-place or better finish and just see where things shake out," Stenhouse said.

"It’s nice to be in the mix. ... There are a lot of races left until the cutoff, so yeah, there are a lot of winners, but you never know how it’s going to shake out."

How quickly can things turn around? DiBenedetto ranked 28th in the standings after five races. He now ranks 17th, having tallied the seventh-most points on the circuit in the past five races.

"Every week and every race matters so much," DiBenedetto said. "I pay attention to [the standings] pretty hard-core every week.

"That is the goal of the season: to make the playoffs. That is everything. That is all. That is step No. 1 and the first box you want to check — to make the playoffs and dig hard after that."

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What To Watch For

Joey Logano won at Kansas Speedway last fall, Denny Hamlin won the two previous races, and Brad Keselowski won in spring 2019 – and they all should be factors Sunday at the 1.5-mile oval. Hamlin, Logano and Kevin Harvick each have three career Cup wins at the track.

In October, the teams had a new right-side tire for Kansas, which was designed to give more grip. But how it reacts Sunday – with temperatures more than 30 degrees warmer than they were in October – could be different. In the previous race, four tires seemed to be the best strategy, rather than trying to gain spots with a two-tire pit stop.

Kansas is a fast track with some long runoff areas that have caused some violent wrecks the past five years, including scary incidents for drivers Ryan Preece, William Byron and Aric Almirola.

Thinking Out Loud

Everything is bigger in Texas – including the number of pages it takes to explain the NASCAR All-Star Race format set for June 13 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The event will feature three inverts (including one full field invert) and average finishes in the first four segments to determine the lineup heading into the fifth of six segments.

It will be fun to see drivers with fast cars work their way through the field. That should generate considerable interest and hopefully have people glued to their televisions, but it’s a lot to digest as far as what is happening when and what a finish in each segment will mean.

Granted, the all-star race is a challenge when it comes to finding a format to attract interest because all of NASCAR's stars compete against one another every week. But anything that requires math and explanation has the potential to confuse and/or turn away fans.

NASCAR didn’t keep it simple. Hopefully, it doesn’t need to be simple to be a fun and competitive night.

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Darlington paint

With the throwback race weekend May 7-8, a flurry of Darlington paint schemes were released last week. Here are some of the interesting ones:

William Byron has a Neil Bonnett throwback.

Joe Gibbs Racing had fans vote for Denny Hamlin’s throwback.

Jeb Burton is doing a tribute to his father for the Xfinity race.

Social Spotlight

They said it

"As soon as we win another race, hopefully soon, you guys will be forced to talk about us, and the competition will be forced to deal with us." – William Byron

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!

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