Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: A 2023 NASCAR Playoff Bubble Dilemma … Points Or Win?

Did You Notice? … Shane van Gisbergen’s win at the Chicago street course Sunday (July 2) did the NASCAR Cup Series playoff bubble a big favor?

Without his late-race dash to the front, Justin Haley would have pulled off an upset victory, launching him into one of 16 postseason spots.

Even with the loss, Haley still “won” the weekend. Moving up to 21st in the Cup standings, he sits 45 points behind rookie Ty Gibbs and the playoff cutline, the closest he has been since Phoenix Raceway in March. It’s Haley’s first top-five finish since the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL last October, flexing some muscle on road courses with two more of the track type available for him to win at by the middle of August.

On Monday, I wrote over on CBS Sports that 45 points was too far away from the cut line. There’s a reason for that; I assume somebody outside of the top 16 in points will win over the final eight races, raising the bar on the bubble.

It’s what we saw last year, when Martin Truex Jr. somehow missed out on the playoffs despite sitting top five in points for most of the year. Just as drivers like Haley, Chase Elliott and others come within reach … the goalposts would move out of reach.

But what if the opposite of 2022 happens? What if drivers like William Byron, Truex, Kyle Larson and Ross Chastain maintain the speed that’s left them head and shoulders above the field in recent weeks? 15 winners has been an anomaly under the current playoff format; typically, we end the regular season sitting at 12 or 13 (Right now, that number is 12 with an asterisk; with only one start, van Gisbergen remains ineligible for the postseason).

That would bring points back into play, and boy, what a race we have on the bubble this year. Looking at Elliott, he’s sitting 55 points out of a playoff spot but has gained 65 on the cutline over the last eight races. Consider he’s done that despite a one-race suspension that had him sitting out World Wide Technology Raceway in early June.

If Elliott can do it, so can anybody else, right? So here’s the list of drivers sitting within 65 points of the bubble (along with who else hasn’t clinched).

Current NASCAR Playoff Seedings

PositionDriverPoints+/- Cutline
12.Kevin Harvick523+145
13.Chris Buescher476+98
14.Brad Keselowski463+85
15.Bubba Wallace387+9
16.Ty Gibbs3780
17.Daniel Suarez372-6
18.Michael McDowell368-10
19.AJ Allmendinger354-24
20.Alex Bowman352-26
21.Justin Haley333-45
22.Austin Cindric333-45
23.Corey LaJoie331-47
24.Chase Elliott323-55
25.Ryan Preece312-66

If you’re counting at home, it’s a whopping eight drivers within 65 points, well in position to gain the same amount Elliott did during the final eight regular season races (and Ryan Preece, at 66 back, can’t be counted out). It means a consistent run of top-five efforts by any of them could lead to a surprise playoff bid. The window is wide open in a year when two Hendrick Motorsports drivers sit outside the top 16.

At the same time … those two HMS wheelmen, Elliott and Alex Bowman, can lean on the speed of their teammates. Conventional wisdom says the two of them should win before the regular season is out, raising the bubble up to Brad Keselowski and forcing this entire gaggle of drivers into win-or-bust territory.

It could happen in a matter of three weeks. Elliott is the defending winner this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, while Bowman won at Pocono Raceway back in 2021.

So what do you do if you’re the crew chief on one of these bubble teams? Do you look to point your way in if you’re someone like Michael McDowell, playing it conservative with strategy in order to preserve top-10 finishes with a team that’s building momentum. Or do you go boom-or-bust at one of these road courses coming up? Do you stay out on fuel later than everyone else, hoping for a caution, or try a fuel-only stop to gain track position?

Expect diverging strategies in the coming weeks with a soft playoff bubble making a number of different scenarios realistic. Keep in mind there’s also four “wild card” tracks remaining among the eight: Atlanta, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Watkins Glen International and Daytona International Speedway (which serves as the regular-season finale). You also can’t count out New Hampshire Motor Speedway, either, where Aric Almirola came out of nowhere to pull the upset in 2021.

The only driver who truly feels safe is Kevin Harvick, seventh in points during his final season on tour. But as we learned with Truex and Ryan Blaney last year, you’re never fully out of the woods until you have that “1” next to your name in the win column.

Did You Notice? … The Chicago street course delivered NBC its most-watched NASCAR event in six years? A total of 4.795 million tuned in to watch van Gisbergen’s upset, as the rain delay shifted the finish into the heart of Sunday night’s primetime lineup.

The audience numbers are impressive any way you look at them. It’s the most people to tune into an NBC race since the 2017 Brickyard 400 on the IMS oval (and captured by Kasey Kahne in a huge upset). This year, it’s the second-most watched NASCAR race of 2023, trailing only February’s season-opening Daytona 500. It even won NBC the coveted prize of biggest Sunday night audience among the four major networks; that doesn’t often happen with racing (SRX, for example, had strong numbers and still left CBS third or fourth every Saturday night during its two-year tenure on the network).

If you look at the race last week, hyped up at one of the sport’s more popular tracks (Nashville Superspeedway), it delivered just 3.211 million for NBC in their season opener. That means a 49% increase week-to-week, a significant new chunk of audience that tuned in to see this grand Chicago experiment. And early indications are they liked what they saw, at least if you follow Jeff Gluck’s “Good Race Poll” from The Athletic.

What does this boost mean going forward? Besides proving NASCAR fans will watch street racing, both on TV and in person, there could be a boost of momentum here that carries over. SVG may not be running the next race, but those he bit with the NASCAR bug may go looking just to see what racing on an oval is all about.

Can Atlanta keep the ball rolling? Their last pack event in March was underwhelming; just 52% of fans voted that one a “Good Race.” But New Hampshire follows that (82% in 2022) along with Pocono (79%). The Tricky Triangle also has a reason to put its best foot forward: it’s their 50th anniversary hosting NASCAR.

See also
Only Yesterday: Ryan Blaney's Star Rises at Pocono

Perhaps the biggest roadblock for continuing this momentum will be fans finding what channel the races are on (Coverage moves back to USA Network now for an extended stretch). But the counter to that is after the 1979 Daytona 500, shifting networks didn’t stop interested fans from finding a way to follow a sport that didn’t even put every race on live TV yet.

If fans are that passionate about what they saw in Chicago? They’ll find a way. NBC has to be thrilled, especially as rumors build they’ve re-signed with NASCAR for their next TV contract that begins in 2025.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …

  • The NASCAR Xfinity Series race just shouldn’t have been called before halfway. Leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth and sets an ugly precedent. ‘Nuff said. Can you imagine if those extra playoff points make the difference in sending Cole Custer to the Championship 4? Feels like the race should be treated as an exhibition and no points should be awarded to make it fair.
  • Weird weekend for Kaulig Racing as Haley’s runner-up finish has to be balanced with AJ Allmendinger’s surprising 17th. The ‘Dinger came in with so much street race experience from his time in open-wheel but never really had front-running speed from the start; he struggled just to make the final round of qualifying. Really a shock he never came close to leading a lap, especially coming off the high of winning the NXS race over in Nashville.

Follow @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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Kevin in SoCal

There’s a reason why drivers in 16th-25th place are there: They don’t top-5 very much. Bowman and Elliott are exceptions due to missing races, but don’t expect the other guys to point their way in by now.

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