NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture: One spot left with one race remaining
One race remains to determine who gets the final NASCAR Cup Series playoff spot.
One very unpredictable race.
Cup drivers head to where they started 2023 as the regular-season ends Saturday night with 400 miles scheduled for Daytona International Speedway. Many know their destiny while others face win-and-in situations at a track where the cars run in tight packs, which can cause big wrecks, and where the aerodynamic draft evens the field where the right push from the car behind at the right time will result in the win.
The 2020 Cup champion, Chase Elliott, who faces a must-win situation to make the playoffs, indicated just how precarious a task he and others face.
“To show up there and be in a must-win situation is like going to Vegas and having to hit the nearest slot machine for the jackpot,” Elliott said. “That’s just silly.”
While some years there could be plenty of math going on as far as who could be in and who could be out, this year it is relatively straightforward. The Cup playoff field consists of the 16 drivers based on number of wins with ties broken by points. The regular-season champion, in the rare instance of being winless, would get one of the spots.
“We run 26 races in the regular season, and they all are the same,” said Cup driver and team owner Denny Hamlin, whose driver, Bubba Wallace, is among those on the bubble. “So Race 3 meant just as much as this one. It just does. We’re talking about five points here, 10 points there.
“There’s opportunities. That’s why it’s so hard in the Cup Series because you have to be good the entire regular season and if you’re not, you’re going to find yourself on the bubble most years.”
There are 13 drivers in the playoffs thanks to wins: William Byron, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Chris Buescher, Tyler Reddick, Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, Ross Chastain, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell.
There are three drivers, if the winner doesn’t come from one of the 15 locked-in drivers or a non-full-time driver, who could get in on points.
If there is no new winner at Daytona, Wallace would clinch the playoff spot with 24 points (13th if no stage points) no matter what anybody else does at Daytona. Gibbs needs to gain 32 points (33 if his finish isn’t third or better) on Wallace; Suarez needs to gain 43 on Wallace (Suarez has tiebreaker, which is best finish).
There are 14 drivers whose only chance to advance is with a win: Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, AJ Allmendinger, Austin Cindric, Justin Haley, Aric Almirola, Ryan Preece, Corey LaJoie, Todd Gilliland, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon Harrison Burton, Chase Briscoe and Ty Dillon.
Here’s a look at those trying to make it into the postseason.
Bubba Wallace: Wallace has enjoyed some of his best finishes at Daytona and earned his first career victory at Daytona’s sister track of Talladega. If he doesn’t wreck, he’ll most likely get in on points as long as there is no new winner.
“You just have to go out and run your own race,” Wallace said. “Who knows what can happen Lap 1 for us next weekend? You have to go with a positive mindset and believe.”
Ty Gibbs: The rookie was 13th a year ago at Daytona subbing for Kurt Busch and 25th in the Daytona 500. He likely will need his first career Cup victory to make it into the playoffs.
“I don’t really know what mindset to have going there,” Gibbs said. “Just stay clean and try to make it to the end and have a good finish.”
Daniel Suarez: The up-and-down regular season for Suarez will end at a place where he has inconsistent finishes. His best Daytona finish was seventh this year in the Daytona 500.
“At Daytona, anything can happen,” Suarez said. “Somebody else can make a mistake in front of me and that’s it.”
Chase Elliott: Elliott has won in his career at Talladega but never Daytona, where he has a pair of second-place finishes. This year, he has missed seven races — six because of injury, one because of a suspension.
“Nobody’s fault but mine that we’re in the spot that we’re in,” Elliott said.
Chase Elliott says going to Daytona needing to win is like going to Vegas and needing to hit the jackpot
Alex Bowman: Bowman has one top-5 finish at Daytona, and that was his fifth in February. But at least he knows that if he’s in position, he should have some fast Hendrick teammates to help push him (of course, they might have to make a choice of pushing him or Elliott). Bowman missed three points races earlier this year with a broken back.
AJ Allmendinger: Allmendinger has finished in the top-10 in his past five Cup starts at Daytona. The veteran hates the superspeedway style of racing and likely saw his best chances for a win slip away at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen the past couple of weeks.
Austin Cindric: Cindric pulled off the upset in winning the 2022 Daytona 500 as a rookie. He’d love to pull off another one.
Justin Haley: Haley’s only Cup win was his victory in a rain-shortened Cup race at Daytona in 2019. He finished sixth in the 2021 regular-season finale. If he can find his way into position at the end, he could have a chance.
Aric Almirola: Almirola won the 2014 summer race at Daytona and has found himself leading or near the front of several races there only to get caught up in a crash. He won one of the Daytona 500 qualifying races in February. In what possibly is his final season, it would be a career moment if he can earn the walk-off win.
“We have a great opportunity when we go there,” Almirola said.
Ryan Preece: Preece was fourth in this race two years ago. He has crashed in four of his seven Cup starts at the track.
Corey LaJoie: LaJoie has run well at the superspeedways, although Daytona hasn’t been the most kind to him with just one top-10 finish in his past six starts.
Todd Gilliland: Gilliland has crashed in each of his three Cup starts at Daytona, but he would likely get some help from teammate McDowell if he needs it at the end.
Erik Jones: Jones won the 2018 summer race at Daytona and was third in the 2019 Daytona 500. Since then, he hasn’t finished in the top 10 at Daytona in eight starts. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be in the mix.
Austin Dillon: Dillon won this race last year thanks to a push from teammate Tyler Reddick. The 2018 Daytona 500 winner might need a push from his current teammate, Kyle Busch, to get it done this year.
Harrison Burton: Burton hasn’t finished better than 19th in his three Daytona starts. And yet he still has hope.
“It’s always chaos,” he said. “So trying to navigate that and understand that there are going to be a lot of other guys in the same boat, I see it as a legit, feasible chance. If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t even show up. I feel like it’s part of what makes race car drivers tick.”
Chase Briscoe: Briscoe was third in the 2022 Daytona 500, but that is the only Daytona race he has finished without getting caught up in a wreck in his past four starts.
Ty Dillon: Dillon has one top-5 finish in his 13 Cup starts at Daytona.
Thinking Out Loud
It was a mistake in the sense that he wheel-hopped, but it didn’t seem Mayer was likely going to avoid that as hard as he went into the corner.
It was a move that a driver should make to win a race to get into the playoffs. But is it a move a driver should make when the driver already has a win, as Mayer had?
It would seem that this close to the playoffs, it’s best not to make other drivers angry, and Mayer made Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing drivers upset.
The JR Motorsports driver got the valuable five playoff points and another trophy. But only time will tell if it was worth it or if it comes back to bite him when he might need a favor during the playoffs when it comes to give-and-take battling for position on the track.
In The News
–Austin Hill has signed a multiyear contract extension with Richard Childress Racing to continue driving in the Xfinity Series for the organization.
-Legacy Motor Club has named Josh Berry as its driver for the No. 42 Cup car at Daytona.
–Shane van Gisbergen was given his official release from his Supercars team to allow him to explore opportunities in NASCAR in 2024.
Stat of the Day
At 1 hour, 58 minutes, 44 seconds, the Cup race at Watkins Glen was the quickest Cup race run to its scheduled distance since a 100-mile race at Hickory that took 1 hour, 22 minutes and 25 seconds on Aug. 28, 1971.
They Said It
“I don’t think I had one lap where I said I was going to suck, so it was good.” —Bubba Wallace on his 12th-place finish at Watkins Glen
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.
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