Race Weekend Central

It’s Time to Think About the Playoffs

Yes, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs aren’t necessarily top-of-mind just yet. After all, we’re only nine races in — and two of them basically don’t count per se, since the Daytona 500 and Atlanta Motor Speedway’s pack-racing roulette don’t exactly reflect a driver’s performance.

You know, might as well throw out Circuit of the Americas, too. It’s a road course, and we all know that’s a different kind of racing. No one could have expected the chaos that the bumps at Texas Motor Speedway brought last weekend, and obviously, the unexpected extreme tire wear at Bristol Motor Speedway gives the Food City 500 a bye.

Setting aside those five exceptions, really, 2024 has barely started, so Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski (the ex-champions currently outside of the top 16) don’t have anything to worry about. 

And tell you what, since as we all know, at Talladega Superspeedway you’ve got a ’50-50 chance of survival,’ they shouldn’t be worried about Sunday’s GEICO 500, since that race won’t really count either.

Wait – what do you mean we’re a third of the way through the regular season?

You might say that the early dominance of Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing has brought an end to the parity of the Next Gen era, but in that case I’d urge you to look at the points table – and particularly, to compare it to last year’s.

See also
Did You Notice?: Is NASCAR Parity with the Next Gen Really Wearing Off?

Yes, Kevin Harvick’s Sunday best isn’t fireproof any more, so the No. 4 team isn’t expected to make the postseason, but Ty Gibbs has emerged as a consistent threat at the front of the field and the top of the table. Chase Briscoe (currently 13th in the standings) has rediscovered his mojo, helped by a noticeable lack of triple-digit penalties in the early weeks of the year. And I doubt Rick Hendrick would let 15th-place Alex Bowman derail his season with injury again – I wouldn’t be surprised if “Mr. H” had engineered some type of Bubble Boy situation, only to be opened in case of victory (as of last Sunday, Chase Elliott is a free man once again). 

Daniel Suarez eked out his playoff berth by the narrowest of margins after missing the postseason in 2023, but the rest of the currently locked-in drivers made the playoffs last year. It’s the usual suspects: William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, and Christopher Bell.

The 23XI Racing duo of Tyler Reddick and Bubba Wallace haven’t skipped a beat since last season, and Martin Truex Jr. is over a hundred points up on the cut line. Last year’s breakout star Chris Buescher is still ticking off top 10s with enough regularity to inspire a new nickname, and his teammate/team owner/hype man Keselowski isn’t far behind.

Busch has never had a winless season in his Cup Series career, and at this point we should all know not to count out Ryan Blaney, Ross Chastain, or Joey Logano (in an even-numbered year).

That’s 18 names. Eighteen drivers who are “supposed to” make the playoffs, and that’s setting aside the Legacy Motor Club teammates Erik Jones and John Hunter Nemechek, both within a race’s worth of points of 16th place. 

Nine races into 2024, and we’ve seen the fewest different winners since the Next Gen car debuted. There’s nothing to suggest that the current run of HMS/JGR dominance will subside any time soon (Talladega crap-shoot notwithstanding). Should that trend continue deep into the regular season, big names are going to need to point their way in — and that’s before any wacky winners pull that cut line a few spots up the grid.

See also
Happy Hour: Chase-ing the Fallout from Denny, Ross & Tyler Falling Short at Texas

Austin Dillon has made a habit of stealing playoff spots in the summer; Michael McDowell and Austin Cindric could easily clinch a win in a pack race or a road course, let alone pack-racing aces like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Corey LaJoie, both of whom likely see Sunday as their penultimate chance to save the season.

Talladega is a crap shoot. In Harvick’s words, it’s 50-50. Drivers, fans, and gamblers alike know it’s all but impossible to predict a result, at perhaps the most difficult track on the schedule to have a good points day.

But a good points day is exactly what they need. At least two deserving drivers – and likely as many as four – will not be competing for a championship come September.

Yes, you win one race and you’re in, but for any driver not among the lucky six with a win in their back pocket, the difference between crashing in stage one in the GEICO 500 and cruising to the finish could come back to bite them in the golden horseshoe.

About the author

Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.

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Bill W.

Really!

wildcatsfan2016

oh my dear heavens! Considering that that they start talking about the playoffs from the very first race, I suppose there is really no choice. But personally I want to enjoy each race and see how the season progresses. I know that the old points system isn’t going to come back, but having the focus be more on the races, rather than who gets into the championship crapshoot, made it way more fun for me.

Jeremy

I spend all my time wishing “the playoffs” would go away!

OK, slight exaggeration. But I do wish they would quit trying to force racing into a stick and ball mold. It don’t fit!

Shayne

The NHL playoffs begin on Saturday for my Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes won their season opener back in October, yet they had to play hard all season to make the playoffs. There’s no, ” Win and you’re in” nonsense during the regular season.

It doesn’t make sense in NASCAR either, yet here we are.

Kevin in SoCal

Fans have been wanting to make wins count for more for a long time. Now NASCAR does, and the fans still complain.

DoninAjax

A driver still does NOT have to win an event to get the title. So wins still do not count more than points. If a driver does not have a win and does not win the last event he can still get the title. All he has to do is finish ahead of the other three with more POINTS..

Echo

You watch hockey ! Tennis and bowling probably too .

DoninAjax

Why not? It’s been a subject since the last event last season! The names are still the same and won’t change. And that is why the speculation is POINTLESS!

Last edited 29 days ago by DoninAjax
Echo

LaJoie has as much chance as Burton, give that song up. Bubba isn’t a given although I think his new shrink has helped him. Oh and a Gibbs car.

DoninAjax

Isn’t it amazing that a car can make such a difference to a driver? A good driver in a good car will win races. A good driver in a bad car will do better than the car deserves. A bad driver in a good car is still a bad driver.

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