Editor’s Note: This article was published hours prior to the announcement that there are now two spots available in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs following this weekend’s race, due to Kurt Busch’s withdrawal of his playoff waiver Aug. 25.
The white flag is in the air.
OK, maybe that was a little dramatic, but the NASCAR Cup Series’ regular season has just one race left, and because that race is at Daytona International Speedway, the playoff field is far from set.
What makes that different from a year ago is the fact that thanks to the Next Gen car and the parity it has brought, there is just one single spot not already locked in by a race winner. That means that there are three possible outcomes after Daytona: a new winner makes the show and nobody makes it on points, Ryan Blaney takes the last spot on points, or Martin Truex Jr. makes up 25 markers on Blaney and gets in on points instead.
By the numbers, no driver has really had a breakout season. Chase Elliott is the closest with four wins, but he’s had enough struggles to really keep him from being on any kind of a roll.
As it stands now, the playoff reset has a clear winner … and an even clearer loser. If the field was set right now, two drivers would gain six positions. That jump would mean a much nicer cushion between the round of 12 and elimination.
But another stands to slide 13 spots, to last in the field, already on the brink of elimination before the first race even starts. That gives enough pause to look a little closer.
Without names (though they’re easy to guess), take a look at these two drivers, both currently in the title hunt. One is clearly having a better season in every possible statistical category except for the only one that counts: wins.
|Driver A||Driver B|
|0 wins||2 wins|
|8 top fives (4th among all drivers)||5 top fives (tie-11th among all drivers)|
|12 top 10s (tie-3rd among all drivers)||7 top 10s (17th among all drivers)|
|3 poles||3 poles|
|10.2 average start||12.0 average start|
|13.6 average finish||18.7 average finish|
|417 laps led||371 laps led|
|19 races led||14 races led|
|3 DNF||5 DNF|
|20 lead lap finishes||16 lead lap finishes|
|Lowest points position: 13th||Lowest points position: 35th|
|Weeks outside top five in points: 2||Weeks 20th or lower in points: 17|
Is either driver here having a championship-caliber season? Certainly Driver A is closer to that designation than Driver B, whose numbers beyond the wins are fairly mediocre. Driver B spent most of the regular season outside the top 16, Driver A spent most of it in the top four. By most standards, he’s having an excellent season.
And he’s still in danger of missing the playoffs entirely.
Driver A is clearly Ryan Blaney. Driver B? That’s Denny Hamlin, whose start to the season was absolutely terrible and has really only improved markedly over the summer. Hamlin has just seven top-10 finishes, fewer than Erik Jones and Michael McDowell, both drivers for teams with far less funding than Joe Gibbs Racing.
It’s fewer than his own driver at 23XI Racing, Kurt Busch, and just one better than his other driver, Bubba Wallace. Yet if someone unfamiliar asked if Wallace was a championship threat, many fans would laugh them out of the room. Hamlin’s numbers are much more in line with Wallace’s than with Blaney’s, though.
And while Wallace is often unnecessarily maligned, it’s hard to argue he’s at the level of winning a title this year. Hamlin has that shot.
If Wallace wins Daytona, he will too, but the clamor of fans saying he doesn’t deserve it will be deafening. So why is Hamlin any different?
NASCAR isn’t going to go to a full-season points champion any time soon because that lacks made-for-TV drama some years.
The emphasis on wins came in 2014 in response to fans wanting more points awarded for a victory. And until now, the win-and-you’re-in system has more or less worked. It’s still resulted in some questionable seedings, but at least on the surface, all was well.
Now, when parity among cars has led to more drivers showing that they’re plenty capable of competing when the playing field is level, it shows the issues that were always a possibility, including a driver having a top-flight season either seeding at the bottom or missing the show entirely.
It somehow feels disingenuous to have a top-five driver watching the title race while a driver who’s struggled to crack the top 20 is competing in it. Even if Blaney makes the show on Saturday (Aug. 27), Truex could well end up in that exact spot; he’s currently sixth in points, but just seven out of the top five.
The problem is, there’s no good way to add those deserving drivers. It didn’t go over well when Gordon got a free pass and an extra playoff spot in 2013. NASCAR added Gordon to the already full field as it felt he was the victim of a cheating scandal by Michael Waltrip Racing and may have raced in otherwise. It was a strange situation, but NASCAR wasn’t necessarily wrong to add Gordon given the circumstances.
But there’s no cheating muddying these waters, and nothing seems like the right thing to do. A provisional for top-five drivers just seems lame, even if the first elimination simply included more drivers.
The best scenario fans, and NASCAR, can hope for is Blaney winning on Saturday night and putting it all to bed. Just don’t count on that.
The ending of this tale of two drivers may leave something to be desired.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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