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NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Primer

A task that seemed improbable several months ago has incredibly come to fruition. After a grueling 15-week sprint that included 22 regular season races (along with the yearly All-Star Open and All-Star Race), the NASCAR Cup series is set to begin the first race of the playoffs this Sunday evening. 16 drivers clinched a playoff berth but only one will be able to lift the trophy on November 8th following the championship event. Below is all the information you’ll need to prepare yourself for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

Schedule (all times Eastern)

Round of 16

Sunday, 9/6 (6:00 PM): Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway

Saturday, 9/12 (7:30 PM): Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway

Saturday, 9/19 (7:30 PM ET): Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway

Round of 12

Sunday, 9/27 (7:00 PM): South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Sunday, 10/4 (2:00 PM): YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway

Sunday, 10/11 (2:30 PM): Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course

Round of 8

Sunday, 10/18 (2:30 PM): Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway

Sunday, 10/25 (3:00 PM): Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway

Sunday, 11/1 (2:00 PM): Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway

Championship – Round of 4

Sunday, 11/8 (3:00 PM): NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway

For those that might be new to the sport, the Cup Series playoffs include 10 races that take place over four rounds. If a playoff driver wins a race, they automatically lock themselves into the next round. After the final race of each round, the four drivers who are below the cutline are eliminated from the playoffs. 12 drivers are ultimately eliminated leading up to the Championship, leaving four contenders to battle for a title at Phoenix Raceway in a winner-take-all scenario. The highest finishing driver at Phoenix will win the Championship; while the highest finishing driver doesn’t necessarily need to win, that’s what has happened in each of the past six seasons under the current playoff format.

This will be the first time since 2001 that Homestead-Miami Speedway will not host the final race of the season; while it’s already been announced that the 2021 championship event will also take place in Phoenix, the Cup series may look to rotate the location of the title race in future years. Darlington is also a new addition to the playoffs from 2019, taking Dover’s spot.

Initial Playoff Standings

Driver Tiers

Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick

Harvick far and away outclassed the field en route to a regular season championship. He enters the 2020 playoffs with 57 playoff points, which puts him at a very comfortable 53 points above the cutline. Even if he gets into trouble for whatever reason (crash, mechanical failure, etc.), Harvick should still be in a good position to reach the Round of 4. With seven wins, 17 top 5’s, 21 top 10’s and an average finish of 6.6, the 20-year Cup veteran is without a doubt the favorite to win the title. For these reasons and many more, he deserves his own tier.

Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin

Don’t count out Hamlin, though, who’s had an impressive season of his own. Six wins (including a season-opening victory at the Daytona 500), 15 top 5’s, and 17 top 10’s have the 39-year-old eyeing the first Cup championship of his career. With a 43-point advantage above the cutline, Hamlin is also in a fairly safe position should anything troubling happen early in the playoffs. While he might be the 1b to Harvick’s 1a, the Virgina native also deserves his own tier.

Two of these drivers will likely make the Round of 4

Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr.

Assuming both Harvick and Hamlin make it to Phoenix unscathed, it would be somewhat surprising if two drivers from this group weren’t racing with the top two seeds for a shot at a championship.

Keselowski found victory lane three times in the regular season and outside of getting involved in crashes at the Daytona 500 and the 2nd Michigan race the Penske driver been pretty consistent, posting an average finish of 9.7. Since the season restarted at Darlington in mid-May, Keselowski has finished outside the top 10 just four times in 22 races including eight top 5’s. He might not quite be on Harvick or Hamlin’s level this year but he’s pretty close.

Penske teammate Logano won two of the first four races in 2020 before the sport was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic but struggled when racing resumed in May. He began to turn his performance around in July with a 10th place finish at Indianapolis and while he wasn’t able to bring home another checkered flag he was able to pick up some momentum—Logano finished in the top 10 in seven of the final nine regular season races.

Hendrick Motorsports started off the season incredibly strong, leading some to wonder if 2020 would be a resurgent season for the team. While Hendrick as a whole did fall back down to earth a bit following the season restart, Elliott has been the fastest and most consistent of the bunch. He picked up two wins and likely would have had more if not for bad luck and questionable decisions by crew chief Alan Gustafson. He’s finished 5th in the final standings twice in his career and 2020 could definitely be the year he makes the Round of 4.

With new crew chief James Small at the helm following Cole Pearn’s sudden resignation in the offseason, on-lookers were interested to see if Truex’s performance would suffer. Some detractors certainly were heard loud and clear following a rough string of races to begin 2020 but it looks as through Small and Truex will have the last laugh as they seem to be peaking at the right time. Here are the New Jersey native’s last 10 finishes leading up to the playoffs: 2, 29, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 2, 2, 4. Think he’s ready for the playoffs?

Potential Dark Horses

Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch

Only one of these drivers has a win in 2020 and it’s Blaney, who took the checkered flag in a wild finish at Talladega. A combination of inconsistency and bad luck has the 26-year-old just nine points above the cutline heading into the Round of 16. He has the potential to rip off some solid finishes and make it deep in the playoffs but the possibility also exists that he puts together a couple top 20s and bows out early.

You could almost say the same thing about Almirola; the Stewart-Haas driver had an average finish of 12.7 this season and showed speed at several races despite not having a win to show for it. He’s had an up-and-down campaign, though—there was a five-race stretch in June and July where Almirola finished 5th, 3rd, 3rd, 5th, and 3rd, but in the four races leading into the playoffs he finished 24th, 17th, 7th, and 18th.

The defending champion, Kyle Busch had a very uncharacteristic 2020 and currently finds himself below the cutline heading into Darlington, albeit by only two points. He couldn’t find victory lane, he only won a single stage, and he posted an average finish of 15.2 which would be his lowest since 2014. Busch is arguably the most talented wheelman in the field today and he shouldn’t be counted out—going on a 2011 Tony Stewart-esque playoff run and winning multiple races wouldn’t be totally surprising. With how the season has gone, though, it also wouldn’t be surprising to see him get eliminated in the Round of 12 or, if things go really bad, the Round of 16.

They might make it to the Round of 12

William Byron, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto

Byron is the only driver out of this group that won a race in the regular season and he did it in thrilling fashion, taking the checkered flag at Daytona on Saturday to clinch a playoff spot. Still these four drivers just haven’t shown the speed to make a deep playoff run a realistic possibility. It’s likely that two of these drivers will make it to the Round of 12 but barring a win at Talladega or something unexpected happening, that’s the ceiling.

At least they made it

Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Cole Custer

Each of these drivers found victory lane once, which automatically qualified them for the playoffs. That’s about as far as Bowman, Dillon, and Custer will likely get. These three drivers have the lowest average finish out of all the playoff drivers (17.0, 16.9, and 19.9 respectively) and it would be shocking if any of them were still in contention following the Round of 16.

(Cover Photo via NASCAR)

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Rank Driver Current Points +/- Playoff Points
1 Kevin Harvick 2057 +53 57
2 Denny Hamlin 2047 +43 47
3 Brad Keselowski 2029 +25 29
4 Joey Logano 2022 +18 22
5 Chase Elliott 2020 +16 20
6 Martin Truex Jr. 2014 +10 14
7 Ryan Blaney 2013 +9 13
8 Alex Bowman 2009 +5 9
9 William Byron 2007 +3 7
10 Austin Dillon 2005 +1 5
11 Cole Custer 2005 +1 5
12 Aric Almirola 2005 +1 5
13 Clint Bowyer 2004 -1 4
14 Kyle Busch 2003 -2 3
15 Kurt Busch 2001 -4 1
16 Matt DiBenedetto 2000 -5 0