Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: A NASCAR Playoff Race Defined by Near Misses

Did You Notice? … That there are only nine NASCAR Cup Series winners this season with 10 regular season races remaining? That’s the fewest number of winners at this point in the year during the Next Gen era.

It should mean some winless drivers high up in the point standings should be breathing a sigh of relief. Umm… not exactly. With two winners (Austin Cindric and Daniel Suarez) sitting outside the top 16 in points, the bubble has already risen to 14th-place Bubba Wallace.

Those on the bubble got temporary relief after Kyle Larson’s charge to the front at Sonoma Raceway prevented Michael McDowell from pulling another upset. But there are still plenty of chances for underdogs to sneak through in the next two months. You have races like the Chicago street course, Daytona International Speedway and even Iowa Speedway this weekend lurking on the schedule that could favor another surprise winner.

See also
Holding a Pretty Wheel: It's Not Easy Being Green in NASCAR Cup Series

What’s weird about this year’s postseason race is just how close these winless drivers fighting for a spot have come to pulling off a win. I can’t remember another year filled with so many almosts that could have provided months of relief.

Let’s take a closer look at the seven winless drivers currently on the right side of the bubble (and a few that aren’t) to see just how many sleepless nights they’ve already racked up.

Martin Truex Jr. (5th in points, +128 points above the cutline): Truex was despondent after running out of gas mere feet from the finish line in Sonoma. Already doomed to second after Larson passed him late, crawling to the line added insult to injury.

“Run out of gas on the last corner,” Truex said. “Just one of them years.”

That’s tame compared to what happened at Richmond Raceway, a short track special Truex dominated and should have won. Truex’s No. 19 Toyota was cruising out front until an accident between Larson and Wallace forced overtime. From there, a late pit stop and a poor restart, one he thought teammate Denny Hamlin jumped, ruined a night Truex led a race-high 228 laps.

Could that mean a playoff miss for the second time in three years? Truex is in better shape than 2022, battling fewer winners and holding a 42-point lead on the next driver below him, Ty Gibbs. That means it would take an unheard-of seven new winners in the final 10 races to knock him out.

But would anyone have thought Truex would have bowed out of the playoffs two years ago? These continued blows to his confidence (and failed strategy calls by crew chief James Small) bear watching.

Ty Gibbs (8th in points, +86): Gibbs rose as high as second in points, armed with the best average finish in Cup for the first two months before fading as of late. He’s currently the only driver in position to make the playoffs who doesn’t have a career Cup win.

There are two chances for Gibbs that fell through his fingers. Bristol Motor Speedway was the big one back in March. His No. 54 Toyota was muscling through the field, winning the first two stages while others dropped off due to excessive tire wear.

But in the final stage, veterans adjusted and Gibbs burned through his Goodyears too much, blowing a tire and eventually winding up a lap down in ninth place. Then, there was Darlington Raceway in May, when contact in front of him left Gibbs second behind Brad Keselowski. He cut the deficit to within half a second before the 2012 Cup champ dug deep and closed it out.

See also
Sonoma: The Race JGR Would Like to Forget

Ross Chastain (10th, +73): Chastain was on the front row in overtime at Texas Motor Speedway, in perfect position to outmuscle Chase Elliott on the outside. He ended that April race on a wrecker after failing to clear the No. 9, fading into the clutches of William Byron and getting turned on the backstretch during the final lap.

Of all the drivers listed thus far, Chastain could be replaying that final restart in his head come September. Trackhouse Racing has struggled with inconsistent speed this year and Chevrolet has shown signs of losing ground to Ford’s new chassis over the past few weeks.

Alex Bowman (11th, +65): Bowman has led just six laps this year, making it seem like he’s been nowhere close to victory lane. But it’s easy to forget that wild Daytona 500 finish where Bowman passed his teammate Byron for the lead on the white flag lap.

Here’s the problem: NASCAR determined the caution lights came on just before the pass. That left Bowman with his winless drought still intact while Byron stole all the momentum he could have used.

“It stings a little bit to be that close, right,” Bowman told Frontstretch’s Stephen Stumpf the next week. “A guy pushes a button a tenth of a second later and you get a trophy.”

With the fewest laps led among all drivers fighting on the playoff bubble, that tenth of a second could really come back to bite Bowman this fall.

Ryan Blaney (12th, +64): Blaney’s booboo is still fresh in everyone’s head, running out of gas heading to the white flag while leading at World Wide Technology Raceway earlier this month. He could only sit and watch as teammate Cindric, not the reigning champ, locked down a postseason spot that potentially saved his spot alongside Blaney at Team Penske.

“I’m heartbroken for the [No.] 12 team,” Cindric said afterward. “They deserved to win this race.”

Some would argue Blaney also deserved to win at Atlanta Motor Speedway, leading heading to the white flag only to get nipped in that phenomenal three-wide ending by Suarez and Kyle Busch. For a guy who’s known for his pack racing prowess, Blaney made a fatal mistake in not blocking the runs behind him effectively entering turn 3.

It all adds up to a winless season and increasing pressure on Penske’s latest champion. We’ve seen this movie before, right? Tony Stewart in 2006, Brad Keselowski in 2013. No reigning champ has missed during the 16-driver playoff era but Blaney’s in a danger zone where he needs to be careful.

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Chris Buescher (13th, +32): Buescher may have the most heartbreaks of anyone on this list. In just a two-month span…

  • Falling short to Larson at Kansas Speedway in May, a side-by-side finish that’s the closest in Cup history (0.001 seconds).
  • The very next week, Tyler Reddick made contact with him while fighting for the lead at Darlington, cutting tires for both drivers with less than 10 laps to go.
  • At Sonoma this weekend, Buescher was third and would have won if his strategy prevailed and the race maintained its caution-filled pace. Instead? The final stage ran under green-flag conditions after eight cautions within the first 57 laps.

Some would say the racing gods owe Buescher one. But the reality is Lady Luck has left last year’s surprise Round of 8 contender vulnerable. It’s why he’s still sitting there irritated at Reddick; the 23XI Racing driver had a victory by Darlington that locked him into the field, able to use a level of aggression that could wind up costing Buescher a playoff spot.

Wallace (14th, +8): Wallace is the only driver on the bubble, really, who can’t make a case he came this close to a victory this season. But the whole reason he’s in a playoff spot right now…

Busch (15th, -8): Is because Busch wound up 0.003 seconds behind Suarez at Atlanta. If Busch wins that race, maybe the entire season at Richard Childress Racing turns around and we don’t see a month of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. fighting, Larson dissatisfaction and the type of general frustration from Busch we haven’t seen since the final days of his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing.

That’s one heck of a list of almosts, right? And with drivers like Joey Logano, McDowell and Erik Jones in must-win situations, further down the list, there’s at least one of these drivers in position to suffer as a result.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…

  • Shane van Gisbergen appears to have turned a corner. It may have been on his bread and butter (road courses) but it feels like he’s about to go oval racing and take a major step forward. It’s now hard to impossible to see Trackhouse keeping him sitting in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for a second year. What that does to Zane Smith, enduring a nightmare rookie season, we’ll have to wait and see…
  • AJ Allmendinger’s average finish this season in the Cup Series after a sixth-place finish at Sonoma? 10.8. That blows away Daniel Hemric’s 23.1 average as ‘Dinger runs circles around the No. 31. Even his NXS numbers are worse: a 14.1 average finish and 32 laps led all season (he has 12 in his five Cup starts). Explain to me why Allmendinger got demoted again?

Follow Tom Bowles on X @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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Christopher

Hemric is a career mid-fielder. He won his Xfinity championship only by booting Cindric out of the way. He brings sponsorship money; he’s certainly not in a Cup car because of his amazing racing skills.

Bill B

AJ Allmendinger’s average finish this season in the Cup Series after a sixth-place finish at Sonoma? 10.8.

Really Tom?
Allmendinger has only run 5 races… two of which were road courses on which he’s always been competitive, another Daytona which everyone knows a restrictor plate crap shoot.

Do you really think he would have a 10.8 average finish if he’d run all the races?
If so, you are the only one.

The only way he would ever have a 10.8 average finish in Cup is if all the races were on road courses.

Last edited 1 day ago by Bill B
Carl D.

I hate to agree with you… Dinger is such a likable driver, and on a personal level, we share the same birthday (not year). Although I think he could run respectably in cup, he would most likely never be a serious championship contender. So why not keep Dinger in Xfinity, and running selected cup races where he has a decent shot at winning? Not saying Hemric is the right guy for the #31, but I do think Dinger is the right guy for Kaulig’s Xfinity team.

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