Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: The Playoff Picture Is Officially Wild

1. It’s Impossible to Even Make Sense of the Playoff Cutline Right Now

When May first arrived, the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season looked like a pretty drama-free affair.

Parity was dead, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing were running roughshod over the competition and Ford was sporting a goose egg.

Just a few weeks later, that script is on the verge of being torn up, or at the very least, in need of extensive reshoots. Brad Keselowski got Ford off the schneid at Darlington, but something even more interesting happened when Ryan Blaney‘s unexpectedly empty gas tank handed the World Wide Technology Raceway win to Team Penske teammate Austin Cindric.

See also
Stock Car Scoop: How Much Does Austin Cindric's Gateway Win Solidify His Spot at Penske?

Cindric became the second Cup Series competitor this year (Daniel Suarez was the first) to win despite being outside the top 16 in points. History in the playoff era suggests they’ll likely stay that way, meaning that for now, eight drivers are in the playoff field on points, with Chase Briscoe just four points in the clear over Joey Logano.

Alas, for now is doing a lot of heavy lifting in the previous sentence, because NASCAR still hasn’t given Kyle Larson the playoff waiver we all assume is coming. That means that it’s really Chris Buescher who is in the last spot, 10 points ahead of Briscoe.

Unless, of course, NASCAR is really so upset about Larson shunning the Coca-Cola 600 for the Indianapolis 500 that there’s no waiver coming, in which case we should all stock up on popcorn and watch everything melt down.

That uncertainty is fascinating in its own right, even if it ends up being cleared up soon. But the wins from drivers outside the top 16 are going to make the cutline dance intriguing no matter what happens, and if someone else joins that group this season (Noah Gragson? Michael McDowell?), the relative monotony of the first few months of 2024 Cup Series racing are going to seem like a distant memory.

2. Brad Keselowski, Hottest Driver in the Cup Series Garage

To be clear, we’re not talking about subjective attractiveness or physical temperature but results. While Ford was floundering around to start the season, Keselowski at least showed some spark with three top-10 results in his first seven starts (as well as three finishes of exactly 33rd, but hey).

He and the No. 6 RFK Racing team have absolutely found another gear since then. Beginning with a second-place effort at Texas Motor Speedway, Keselowski has finished in the top three five times in seven races after coming home third at Gateway.

Can he keep it rolling at Sonoma Raceway? Maybe; he’s never been particularly strong in wine country, with an average finish of 16.1 over 13 career starts. His lone top five came back in 2017 and things have changed a lot since then.

Regardless, we’re just two years removed from Keselowski looking like he might have a fork in his back while recording zero wins and finishing 24th in his first season with RFK. He deserves all the credit in the world for adapting to a new team and new car in short order and his current form is just about as good as it gets.

3. Ryan Blaney Has Been on the Good End of a Similar Situation

The lap-after-lap battle between Blaney and Christopher Bell was as thrilling as any this year, and it was strange indeed that neither driver ended up in victory lane. Blaney was unquestionably stung by failing to grasp a win that seemed all wrapped up for him, watching the third-place car taking the checkered flag.

Yet if he’s being honest, Blaney has been where Cindric was: the beneficiary of misfortune befalling two cars in front of him, going from third to first when it mattered most.

Let’s go back to the ROVAL in the fall of 2018 …

Not an apples-to-apples comparison, you say? Fair enough. That was two cars racing hard for a victory, whereas Blaney simply ran out of fuel and Bell had engine issues at Gateway.

The point is that while Blaney was no doubt heartbroken at seeing a victory slip away like that, he’s been racing long enough to know what goes around, comes around. Sometimes you’re in first heading to the checkers and don’t win, other times you’ve mentally settled for third and end up celebrating with your crew.

4. Is This Going to Be a Lost Season for Kyle Busch?

Despite memorably telling Stenhouse that “I suck just as bad as you” during their All-Star Race melee, Kyle Busch does not, most of the time, actually suck.

Excluding his first full-time Cup season in 2005, Rowdy has never finished worse than 14th in the standings at the end of a campaign. He also wins at least one race every year.

Busch looked more like his prime self at Gateway, running up front and lurking as a contender. That was until he got into a two-Kyle tangle with Larson, leading to a 35th-place finish.

It’s not that Busch has been bad by most definitions. He has as many top fives with less than DNFs than Blaney, for example.

See also
Kyle Busch Frustrated Over Mid-Race Wreck with Kyle Larson

But the days where he appears to have one of the fastest cars at any point during a race seem less frequent, enough so that he can’t just shake off a result like Gateway the way he once did. He’s currently outside the cutline for the playoffs, whether it’s Larson-adjusted or not.

There are still plenty of races left in 2024, but the thought of a winless, playoff-less season for Busch isn’t as unthinkable as it would have been even a few years back.

5. The One SHR Driver to Feel Sorry for Most Is …

Now that a bit of time has passed since Stewart-Haas Racing announced it’s shutting down at the end of the season, it’s easier to sift through the emotions about the demise of a once-great organization. Some of its employees will go on to find jobs elsewhere in the industry, but others may not, and that’s always sad.

As for the drivers, it’s natural to feel sorry for them too, even though they will probably all land on their feet in some capacity. Chase Briscoe is the closest thing SHR has to a proven commodity. Gragson has the most upside potential and is already turning heads this year. They’ll be fine.

Ryan Preece may not end up in a Cup car in 2025, but he’s a racer’s racer who may just go back to other disciplines. That leaves Josh Berry as the one who fate has dealt the cruelest blow.

To this point, Berry’s story has almost been a fairy tale: a late model legend whose talent caught the eye of Dale Earnhardt Jr. He finally got his shot in a NASCAR Xfinity Series car and showed he could hang there, then got tapped to try to fill the boots of Kevin Harvick.

Now he may never get to see if he could. It’s a decidedly non-Hollywood twist to his personal journey, one that unquestionably stinks.

At 33, Berry isn’t young enough to be a prospect but he’s also not old enough to abandon his dream. Here’s hoping someone allows him to write a new draft for the next chapter of his story after the first one got caught up in SHR’s expiration.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via