Examining the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Bubble

After NASCAR shut their doors in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic it was fair to question whether or not another race would take place in 2020, much less a full regular season of events for each sanctioned series. As luck would have it, NASCAR ended up getting a full slate of races in while also taking hold of the sports world on multiple occasions in the process. From being the third sport in the world to return to action (behind UFC and the Bundesliga) to becoming a leader in fighting racial inequality, NASCAR experienced a slight bump in popularity that wouldn’t have occurred this year in normal circumstances. It’ll all culminate this weekend for the Cup Series under the lights at Daytona in the 26th and final race of the regular season.

Following Saturday night’s event, 16 Cup drivers will be locked into the playoffs which are composed of 10 races over four rounds. The seasons for the other 20 or so drivers aren’t over if they don’t qualify for the playoffs, though; they’ll still race for the final 10 weeks but they aren’t able to compete for the championship. The points each driver has earned throughout the season will be reset to 2,000; additional points (known as playoff points) are added to that starting total based on a number of factors:

– Drivers earn 5 playoff points for each of their regular-season wins

– Drivers earn 1 playoff point for each stage win

– The regular-season champion earns 15 playoff points. Second place in the final regular-season standings earns 10 playoff points, third place receives eight points, and the points awarded decline to one point for 10th (fourth = seven points, fifth = six points, etc.).

If the playoffs started today, for example, Kevin Harvick would begin with 2,057 points—35 playoff points via seven wins, seven points via seven stage wins, and 15 points for being the regular season champion for a total of 57 playoff points that are added to his initial total of 2,000.

Daytona is a wild super-speedway where anything can happen, so being on the bubble to make it into the playoffs isn’t where any driver wanted to find themselves. Because drafting is so crucial at a track like Daytona, the cars will be very close to each other throughout much of the race. A playoff hopeful who gets involved in an early wreck (even through absolutely no fault of their own) would see their playoff hopes crushed. Likewise, a driver on the bubble can have a relatively clean race but not make the playoffs because a driver outside the bubble managed to win the race—as long as a driver is in the top 30 of the Cup Series standings, a win qualifies them for the playoffs.

Here’s a look at the how the field will look heading into Daytona.

Mathematically Qualified for Playoffs (13)

Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Cole Custer, Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch

Every driver on this list up to rookie Cole Custer won a race during the regular season and remained in the top 30 of the points standings, locking them into the playoffs as mentioned above. Almirola and both Busch brothers weren’t able to find victory lane but due to their week-to-week consistency these three drivers were able to lock themselves into the playoffs on points alone. While these 13 drivers are already guaranteed a playoff spot, you’ll likely see them be aggressive at times in an attempt to earn additional playoff points to add to their starting total of 2,000. Even the smallest advantage in regular season playoff points can make a big difference, especially if a driver struggles mightily to open the postseason.

On the Positive Side of the Bubble (3)

Clint Bowyer (+57), Matt DiBenedetto (+9), William Byron (+4)

The maximum number of points a driver can earn in this race is 60 (which would require winning the first two stages and the race), so Bowyer is relatively safe with a 57-point advantage to the playoff cut-line. Even if the Stewart-Haas driver finds himself involved in a wreck, he’s very unlikely to fall out of the final three playoff spots—it would require someone currently outside of the playoffs to win while DiBenedetto and Byron outpoint Bowyer. All of this is to say that it would be beyond shocking if Bowyer didn’t find himself in a playoff spot by the end of the night.

DiBenedetto and Byron aren’t so lucky. Even with relatively clean runs, one or even both of these drivers could very well find themselves on the outside looking in at the end of the night. Byron especially has no room for error; with his Hendrick teammate breathing down his neck, the slightest misstep on the track or on pit road could knock the 22-year-old out of the playoffs.

On the Negative Side of the Bubble (2)

Jimmie Johnson (-4), Erik Jones (-50)

In what will presumably be his final campaign, Johnson started off strong before the shutdown. He proceeded to finish 38th and 40th in two of the first three races when the sport came back but battled back and found himself 11th in points following the Talladega event in late June. Two unlikely winners in Dillon and Custer, a missed race due to a positive COVID test, and a couple poor finishes in July have made Johnson’s job a lot more difficult. Four points at a track like this isn’t insurmountable, but luck hasn’t been on Johnson’s side at the super-speedway recently—of his last eight races at Daytona, five have ended early due to being involved in a crash. In the three races he finished, though, Johnson came across the line 12th, 9th, and 3rd; a showing like that could be enough to vault him into the playoffs.

Jones, who recently learned that he’d be out of the #20 Joe Gibbs Camry after the season, can still mathematically point his way into the playoffs. That would require an almost perfect run with a lot of stage points and a high placing when the checkered flag flies. It’s more likely that Jones will need to cross the finish line first to make the playoffs for the third consecutive year. He did win the summer race at Daytona two years ago, so perhaps he can rekindle that magic again.

Need a Win (13)

Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell, Ryan Newman, John H. Nemechek, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Preece, Daniel Suarez

These 13 drivers are too far out to point their way into the playoffs so they’ll need to hope luck is on their side to take the checkered flag. The neat thing about Daytona is that any of these drivers could conceivably win—because of the heavy draft reliance, most advantages the higher-tier teams have over the lower-tier teams aren’t on really on display like they are at most other tracks on the schedule. This means that a driver like Preece, who currently finds himself 30th in the standings, has about as good a chance to win as almost anyone else in the field. Suarez currently finds himself 31st in points (28 behind Preece), so while he could theoretically win he’d need either Preece or LaJoie to have at least some minor issues throughout the race to pass them in the standings.

If you’ve never caught a NASCAR race before, this Saturday’s Cup Series finale would be a great one to start with; the high speeds and close racing will provide entertainment all night long. Coverage starts at 7:30 PM Eastern on NBC.

(Cover Photo via Getty Images)

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