Dissecting the Cup Series Playoffs
By Bob Pockrass
The 16-driver 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoff field is set, and only 10 races remain.
NASCAR enters its seventh year of an elimination-style format where four drivers – those lowest on points who didn’t win in the rounds – are eliminated. Drivers carry playoff points: 5 points for a race win, 1 point for a stage win, and a regular season bonus for the top-10 on a 15-10-8-7-6-to-1 point scale – into each round until the championship race.
The first round is Darlington, Richmond and Bristol. The second (quarterfinal) round is Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte road course. The third (semifinal) round is Kansas, Texas and Martinsville. The championship – where the driver among the four contenders who finishes the best wins the title – is Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway.
Here’s a breakdown of the 16 drivers and the playoff picture as a whole.
Championship Favorites: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick
This is pretty easy. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin have dominated the series this year. Harvick has seven wins and 57 playoff points and Hamlin has six wins and 47 playoff points. Harvick has led 1,117 laps this year and won the regular season championship. Hamlin has led 771 laps – 28 percent of all laps this season.
Pencil them in – actually, you can use an ink pen – to make it to the championship at Phoenix. And then who knows? Phoenix used to be Harvick’s playground but since the reconfiguration in 2018, it hasn’t been that way.
They both have been the top drivers in two of the strongest organizations. Harvick has all three of his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates in the playoffs while Hamlin has two of his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates in the playoffs.
They are the two of the five oldest drives in the playoffs, as Harvick is 44 and Hamlin is 39. The others among the “veterans” include Kurt Busch (42), Clint Bowyer (41) and Martin Truex Jr. (40),
Knocking on the Door: Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr.
So who joins Hamlin and Harvick among the championship contenders at Phoenix? Look at these three drivers who have not only led laps and won races this year, they have been through the playoffs several times in the past and have made it to the finals. And all three have a championship.
Keselowski has won three races and led 638 laps. The Team Penske driver hasn’t found the playoffs all that kind, considering he made it to the championship just once in the new format. He is in a good position, though, as he ranks third in playoff points with 29. Keselowski won the title in 2012 before the elimination format began in 2014.
Logano has won two races and led 657 laps this year. The Team Penske driver won the title in 2018, the third time he was among the four finalists. He ranks fourth in playoff points with 22.
Truex has won one race and led 566 laps this year. He has made it to the championship in four of the last five years and won it in 2017. The JGR driver’s issue is he ranks sixth in playoff points with just 14. But here’s the kicker: He had a seven-race stretch of finishing second or third snapped Saturday at Daytona.
Young and Unproven: Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott
This duo has yet to make the championship round despite having periodic success over the last few years. They have victories this year and if they meet or exceed their potential, they could be a factor.
Elliott has two victories this year. The 24-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver has 10 top-5s and 15 top-10s this year with an average finish of 12.8.
Despite just one win, the 26-year-old Team Penske driver Blaney has eight top-5s and 11 top-10s this year with an average finish of 14.8.
Just Win, Baby: Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch
These veteran drivers didn’t have to worry about getting in the playoffs but they have so few playoff points, they probably are going to run better than their average finish this season – or finally win – to advance deep in the playoffs.
Almirola has five top-5s this year, 14 top-10s and an average finish of 12.7. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver rides a 67-race winless streak.
Kurt Busch has just four top-5s this year but 14 top-10s and an average finish of 13.4 He owns a 43-race winless streak.
Kyle Busch has 11 top-5s this year and 13 top-10s, but with five races where he did not finish and an average finish of 15.2 He has a 26-race winless streak after winning the 2019 regular season title with a victory in the 2019 championship race.
Three, Maybe Six and Out: Alex Bowman, Clint Bowyer, William Byron, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon
These drivers have had some big moments this year but not enough to think they can consistently run well enough to make the semifinal round. They all have fewer than 10 top-10s this year while the rest all have at least 10. And they all have fewer than five top-5s – all the rest in the playoffs have at least five.
Four of these drivers got in with a victory this year – Hendrick’s Bowman at Auto Club (California) Speedway, SHR’s Custer at Kentucky, Richard Childress Racing’s Dillon at Texas and Hendrick’s Byron in the regular season finale at Daytona. SHR’s Bowyer and Wood Brothers Racing’s DiBenedetto were the final two drivers to get in on points.
Why doubt these drivers? Here is their average finish this year: Bowyer (14.7), DiBenedetto (15.0), Byron (16.1), Dillon (16.9), Bowman (17.0) and Custer (19.9). And laps led: Bowman (388 but just 12 in the last 18 races), Bowyer (182), Byron (97), Dillon (80), DiBenedetto (51) and Custer (five).
Xfinity: Haley Benefits From Teammate Wreck
Justin Haley shot through the gap after his Kaulig Racing teammates Ross Chastain and AJ Allmendinger wrecked while battling for the lead on the final lap Friday at Daytona.
“We’re supposed to go for the win,” Chastain said. “Our team rule is [race] the last 10 laps. ... Coming to the checkered. What am I supposed to do? Just finish second? Not this guy.”
There are four races left in the Xfinity regular season before its seven-race playoff series.
Trucks: Creed Wins With Shove
Sheldon Creed won at WWT Gateway Sunday, but he did so in part when he got by Todd Gilliland in a not so savory manner. He got underneath Gilliland, got loose and ran into the side of Gilliland. Gilliland had won the opening two stages and appeared to have the best truck.
Creed knows he messed up and what that could mean going forward.
“He’s going to wreck me back somewhere, which I mean hey, race the way you want to be raced,” Creed said. “That’s a bumper. ... Obviously you do not want to get wrecked in the playoffs.
“He could not. He could. It’s up to him. I’ll talk to him. He has every right to not be happy with me right now.”
On The Air
Xfinity SportClips 200 (Darlington), 12:30 p.m., NBC
Gander RV Trucks SC Education Lottery 200 (Darlington), 2 p.m., FS1
Cup Cookout Southern 500 (Darlington), 6 p.m., NBCSN
Stat of Note
Jeff Gordon and William Byron are the only drivers to win in the No. 24 car. Gordon earned his first win at age 22 years, 9 months, 25 days. Byron is younger – 22 years, 9 months, 1 day old.
They Said It
“The one thing to be selfish from my standpoint is I wanted to get to Victory Lane with a car number as a crew chief without Jimmie Johnson on top of the door. Nothing against Jimmie or any of that, but just to do it, to see if I could accomplish it.” – Chad Knaus