NASCAR drivers might need to adjust strategy after early-season surprise winners
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
Two races. Two winners.
With 24 races left in the NASCAR regular season, is it already time for drivers to get nervous about the playoffs?
Look, this is not meant to be overly dramatic. But Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell was not considered a likely playoff contender, and Daytona road course winner Christopher Bell certainly wasn’t a lock for the playoffs entering his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Now they each have a spot in the playoffs, in which the 16-driver field consists of the regular-season champion and 15 other drivers, based on who has the most wins, with ties broken by points.
While there could be more winners than spots available (tiebreaker is points among those who have one win), every year since this format started in 2014, at least three spots have been available to drivers on points, with at most 13 winners qualified for the playoffs.
In three of the first four years of the format, there were 13 winners. But the past three years, there have been 10 or 11 regular-season winners, leaving five or six drivers to make it on points.
"The dynamic has changed dramatically right now," 2012 Cup champion 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."
With six road-course races in the regular season, instead of just one last year and two in most seasons, that could add some surprise winners — not to mention one at Talladega and then the regular-season finale at Daytona.
Last year’s biggest upset winner, Cole Custer, won on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway track.
The dynamic of the first two race winners could at the very least have drivers knowing they need to capitalize on their best tracks.
"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," Keselowski said.
"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."
Not everyone feels that way. Many believe that Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick will continue to dominate on the intermediate tracks, which include three of the next four races at the 1.5-mile tracks at Homestead, Vegas and Atlanta. Phoenix, which comes between Vegas and Atlanta, is a 1-mile track.
"Having six more road courses in front of us, while nobody is ready to just give them to Chase [Elliott], I certainly expect him to win a couple of them or more," Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson said. "That could influence ... leaving room to fill out a couple of spots with points.
"I don’t think we’re going to have 16 unique winners or come close to 16 unique winners this season. I just don’t see that."
Austin Dillon has gotten into the playoffs on wins three times and on points once. Seeing Bell win didn’t change his thoughts about drivers making the playoffs.
"I think we thought Bell was going to have a great year in the cars he’s in," Dillon said.
"[McDowell] certainly is a surprise -- he's going to be in the playoffs," Hamlin said. "Ninety percent of the people that know anything about the sport, 95 percent really would put the 20 car [of Bell] in the playoffs one way, shape or form anyway.
"I don't think that that's really taking up a spot that wasn't already probably pegged."
Dillon said a driver who gets into the playoffs on points and without a win faces an uphill road because of the lack of bonus points. As a result, the urgency is always there to win to earn the points — called "playoff points" in NASCAR’s system — that a driver can carry through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
"It’s pretty hard to point your way in and be successful when it comes to the playoffs, but there will be, I believe, a couple that point themselves in," Dillon said.
Adam Stevens, crew chief for Bell, said he believes the other three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers (Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin, Kyle Busch), defending Cup champion Elliott and the Team Penske teammates of Joey Logano and Keselowski will win.
"Some of that next batch of cars is really needing to be thinking about if they're swinging for the fence or if they're racing for points," Stevens said. "Maybe one more winner that somebody didn't expect pretty early in the season could really change the complexion."
Bob’s hot take
The NASCAR Cup Series will run its third consecutive event in Florida this weekend and then head west for a two-race West Coast swing that was three races until the California race was moved to the Daytona road course because of the pandemic.
This might be an unpopular opinion in the industry, but a swing of three races all close to one another is not an ideal schedule. It is for the convenience of NASCAR and its partners, but for fans, there probably is a better chance they could go to more races if the events were more spread out.
The argument would be for tourism dollars, as some fans will make it a trip and go to multiple races. But especially for the West Coast, with so few races, spreading them out so fans in that area and adjoining states can potentially distribute the cost and time to go to those events is worth considering.
Stat of the day
With his Cup win Sunday, Christopher Bell became the 35th driver to win in all three NASCAR national series.
They said it
"He’s our first development driver that came all the way from dirt to winning at the highest level of North American motorsports. ... Christopher Bell’s win on Sunday, for me, justifies every dollar we’ve spent, every hour we’ve spent, all the blood, sweat and tears. Jackpot. That’s all it takes. You find one Hope diamond, and all the hours mining make it worthwhile." -- Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson
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.