Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Who’s On the Playoff Bubble With Half the Regular Season Complete?

We’re already at the midpoint of the regular season, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.

With 13 races in the books, just 13 remain until the NASCAR Cup Series playoff grid is set at the conclusion of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend. There are still over three months until the start of the playoffs, and there are still eight playoff spots up for grabs. Who’s sitting pretty at the moment, and who will be sweating bullets until they score a win or build enough of a cushion?

Below are the point standings following the conclusion of Sunday’s (May 12) Goodyear 400 at Darlington. Eight drivers (bolded in red) have scored a win this season, so their spots are guaranteed. All the drivers in blue are currently above the cut line, while all the drivers in black are currently below it.

DriverPointsPlayoff Cut
Kyle Larson486(2 Wins)
Martin Truex Jr.456+140
Denny Hamlin447(3 Wins)
Chase Elliott437(1 Win)
William Byron400(3 Wins)
Tyler Reddick396(1 Win)
Ty Gibbs390+74
Ryan Blaney371+55
Alex Bowman365+49
Ross Chastain358+42
Brad Keselowski344(1 Win)
Chris Buescher331+15
Kyle Busch324+8
Chase Briscoe322+6
Christopher Bell320(1 Win)
Bubba Wallace316-6
Joey Logano292-30
Daniel Suarez263(1 Win)
Noah Gragson 239-77
Austin Cindric232-84

Given how Joe Gibbs Racing has performed this season, both Martin Truex Jr. and Ty Gibbs look to be locks. They’ve already established huge points cushions, and both are knocking on the door of a win with a combined 672 laps led this season.

That brings the total up to 10, and unless we get any upset winners in the next 13 weeks, the current playoff battle looks to be eight drivers vying for six spots: Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Ross Chastain, Chris Buescher, Kyle Busch, Chase Briscoe, Bubba Wallace and Joey Logano.

Blaney, Bowman and Chastain look to be in good shape with their performance this season, but not even last year’s Cup champion has enough of a cushion for me to consider him a lock.

Also surprising is the potential for some big names to miss out. This has not been the year for Logano or Busch, with the former a half race below the cut line and the latter just barely above it. Having those two miss the playoffs? Almost unprecedented. Sure, Logano may have missed out in 2017, but that hasn’t made his performance this year any less shocking.

Get ready and buckle up these next three months, because it’s going to be an entertaining show.

2. Hattori is back. How will Aric Almirola perform in its return?

With 14 wins and the 2018 series championship, Hattori Racing Enterprises has been one of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series’ premier teams ever since it began running full time in 2017.

See also
Truckin' Thursdays: TRICON Continues to Give Drivers Opportunities

That’s why it came as such a surprise to see the team absent from the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in February. And with more radio silence as the season progressed, the rumors and the concerns regarding the future of the team were all over the place.

Hattori won’t be full time in the Truck Series for the first time since 2016, but it will make its triumphant return this weekend at North Wilkesboro Speedway with Cup veteran Aric Almirola behind the wheel.

With Almirola running a part-time NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule with Joe Gibbs Racing to great success this season, there aren’t many drivers better than Almirola for the team’s trial run.

Almirola’s performance will depend on how much funding the team has and how much rust there is after Hattori’s long hiatus from the series. But if the team is anywhere close to its previous performance this weekend, expect Almirola to compete for a top 10 at the very least.

3. Has Tyler Reddick taken that next step?

Tyler Reddick’s overly aggressive move and the ensuing argument with Chris Buescher have become the lasting memories of Sunday’s race at Darlington Raceway. That has (rightfully) become the point of discussion this week, and what’s forgotten about Sunday is just how dominant of a race Reddick was running up to that point.

See also
2-Headed Monster: Does Chris Buescher Need to Start Driving Differently?

Sure, Reddick may have had the first pit stall to his advantage, but he led 174 of the 293 laps, blitzing the entire field for the entire middle stages. Had he been a little more patient with Buescher at the end, we could’ve been talking about how he overcame a poor final restart and made his way back to the lead to complete a near-perfect race. But of course, that’s not what happened.

Sunday marked the first race in Reddick’s Cup career where he led over 100 laps, and while he has had his fair share of dominant wins on road courses, Reddick hasn’t had a powerful performance on an oval quite like this. The performance didn’t come as much of a surprise to me at least, as Reddick has quietly been one of the fastest drivers on ovals this season.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway? It took Kyle Larson aero blocking the No. 45 around the track in the closing laps to deny Reddick the victory. Reddick then led the most laps the following weekend at Phoenix Raceway, and he looked poised to win at Texas Motor Speedway with a dominant long-run car until the race ended with a series of late cautions.

Consistency has been one of Reddick’s struggles in Cup, as he had an average finish of 17.6 in his three-win 2022 season with Richard Childress Racing and an average finish of 15.7 in debut year with 23XI Racing. Finishing 32nd at Darlington didn’t help matters, but Reddick has been a consistency machine for much of 2024, as he had a streak of seven top-10 finishes in eight races between Las Vegas and his win at Talladega Superspeedway in April. When excluding races where he crashed or had a problem like Darlington, Reddick only has one finish worse than 11th all year.

To answer the original question: Yes, Reddick has taken a step up this year. He’s already been a top driver the last two years, but he’s now beginning to show flashes of joining NASCAR’s elite.

4. Rockingham from the top rope?

North Wilkesboro Speedway returned to the Cup and Truck schedules in 2023 after extensive renovations, and all signs point to the 0.625-mile short track returning for a third consecutive year in 2025.

Rockingham Speedway was renovated and repaved through the same funding bill that breathed new life to North Wilkesboro, but it has yet to return to the NASCAR ranks after its final weekend in 2004.

Until now?

During an iRacing live stream earlier this week, Carson Hocevar explicitly hinted at track’s return.

“Have I heard anything about next year’s schedule?” Hocevar said. “Rockingham is coming back, which is really cool.”

Is Rockingham destined to return? There hadn’t been any rumors about Rockingham being added to the 2025 Cup schedule prior to Hocevar’s livestream, and that’s quite the statement to put out in the open if he’s being serious.

I would love to see Rockingham make a return to NASCAR, but there’s not enough talk — at the moment — for me to think it will happen next year. But one can dream.

About the author

Thanksgiving Photo

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch and is a three-year veteran of the site. His weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” He also writes commentary, contributes to podcasts, edits articles and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage.

Can find on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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