NASCAR playoff field coming into focus with four races left

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

For those who don’t like math, the NASCAR playoff qualification system tends to create plenty of headaches.

But with four races left in the regular season — Michigan (2-mile oval), Richmond (0.75-mile oval), Watkins Glen (road course) and Daytona (2.5-mile drafting oval) — things are starting to look fairly clear. And that’s not just for those jockeying to get into the playoffs.

The NASCAR playoff field consists of 16 drivers — the regular-season champion and then 15 winners based on number of wins with the ties broken by points. If there are more winners than spots, then regular-season points standing is the tiebreaker among those with just one win.

As far as the regular-season title goes, Chase Elliott (who has four wins) has a 125-point edge on Ryan Blaney and a 129-point edge on Ross Chastain. So Elliott has pretty much locked it up as Blaney, who is averaging 31.6 points a race, most likely is not going to average 31 points better than Elliott over the final four races.

Ryan Blaney on winless season so far

Ryan Blaney on winless season so far

Ryan Blaney sits in the precarious position of being high in the NASCAR Cup standings but still winless on the season.

As far as the number of winners, there have been 14 (including Elliott). If the playoffs ended today, Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. would have the two spots remaining based on points. The next winless driver is Kevin Harvick, who is 96 points behind Truex — another margin that would be difficult to overcome without a win.

So it’s Blaney and Truex who still have a chance to get in on points. But it’s far from guaranteed. 

Blaney and Truex either need to win or hope that there are no more new winners. If there is one new winner in the next four races (and it’s not Blaney nor Truex), then only one of them would make the playoffs. Blaney currently has a 25-point edge on Truex, which isn’t all that comfortable with four races to go and the potential for at least one new winner.

“The easiest but hardest thing to do is win, and I could stop talking about it,” Blaney said. “But we’ve been trying all year.

“Hopefully, we can get it done and not have to worry about it. But you just have to be in the back of your head of realizing that you’re still points-racing Martin. … You don’t want to be on the bubble if there’s no new winners, and obviously you want to try and win the race, so it’s a balancing act.”

Truex nearly won at New Hampshire but a decision for two fresh tires late in the race instead of four foiled a dominant performance.

“It is what it is,” Truex said last month prior to the race at Pocono. “We have been trying to win all year. We’ve been close. We’ve been running better lately, leading more laps lately.

“We don’t change what we do. … Had we put four tires on [at New Hampshire], we wouldn’t be talking about this conversation right now. But that’s racing. And that’s how things go.”

Martin Truex Jr. on his playoff chances

If Martin Truex Jr. is nervous about making the playoffs, he isn’t showing it as he joked around when asked about it.

There has been only two new winners in the past six races (and three new winners in the past nine), so even with the road course of Watkins Glen and the unpredictable drafting race in the regular-season finale at Daytona, there probably will be only one or two new winners at most in the next four races.

“As of right now, we’re in,” Truex said. “So there’s no reason to be nervous. We need to do our jobs, try to win. And if we can’t win, stack up all the points we can.”

But what if there are three new winners? That would create a scenario for the first time (this format was implemented in 2014) where a driver with a win would not make the playoffs.

Those with two or more wins — Elliott, Chastain, Joey Logano, William Byron, Tyler Reddick and Denny Hamlin — are locked into the playoffs.

Kurt Busch, who will miss his third consecutive race this weekend due to a concussion, is currently the lowest among the eight drivers with one win and would be in jeopardy if there are more winners than spots.

Among those with one win, three can breathe relatively easily: Kyle Larson (182 points ahead of Kurt Busch), Christopher Bell (+155) and Kyle Busch (+148).

The other five drivers with at least one win still need to watch how things play out, and everyone besides Busch mostly just needs to avoid a disastrous race or two that would put them in jeopardy of falling behind him.

Alex Bowman is currently 56 points ahead of Busch and is followed by Daniel Suárez (+50), Austin Cindric (+45) and Chase Briscoe (+25).

They all will obviously put more distance between themselves and Busch with Kurt missing Michigan this weekend. But if for some reason there are four consecutive new winners to make 18 total winners — unlikely but still possible — it would be a more heated battle to get in on points.

“If I would have won Charlotte or won Bristol, then you’re not even talking about this,” said Briscoe, lamenting over some late-race moves that didn’t work.

“There’s a lot of times where I’ve [lost] a lot of points over the last two or three months. Really, we probably shouldn’t be in this spot, but I’ve kind of put ourselves here.”

Chase Briscoe on being on the playoff bubble

Chase Briscoe on being on the playoff bubble

Chase Briscoe blames himself for being on the playoff bubble as the one-win driver with the fewest points this year.

Suárez said his team isn’t talking about whether they will get in the playoffs but on how they’ll approach the playoffs.

“I had a meeting with my team about having the mindset that we’re already in the playoffs, so that we can be in that rhythm once we get into the playoffs with momentum and everything,” he said.

For drivers outside the top-10 in points who don’t have a win, they not only have to worry about getting one win to qualify for the playoffs but then also possibly being on the bubble if there are more winners than spots.

Bubba Wallace, who sits 20th in the overall standings and is 27 points behind teammate Kurt Busch, knows a win might not guarantee him a spot.

“Even if we get one win and still get bumped out of the playoffs, we have a win,” Wallace said.

“We know we can do it. We have a team capable of doing it. … [This scenario] puts the emphasis back on the beginning of the season and how we missed some opportunities.”

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What to watch for

NASCAR wasn’t sure prior to the season whether it would use the 670 horsepower package with a short spoiler or the 510 horsepower package with the big spoiler (the Superspeedway package) at the 2-mile Michigan International Speedway.

After what it saw at Auto Club Speedway in February, how well the Next Gen car raced there at 670hp and the speeds not being so fast that the cars were uncontrollable, NASCAR opted to go with the higher horsepower.

That means it likely won’t be pack racing like Atlanta. But there still will be drafting and potential slingshot passes, which Michigan has had its fair share of over the past several years.

Drivers in the past couple of weeks still seemed a little mystified about what type of racing will occur at MIS. The tires could be an issue, too, as this is a new construction designed for more stability.

So what to watch for? How drivers react and adapt throughout the race depending on how it plays out.

Thinking out loud

Chris Buescher stayed in his car at Indianapolis while there was an electrical fire, another time this year when a driver stayed in the car when everyone watching would think he needed to evacuate.

Why would a driver stay in the car? One of the reasons likely is the rule that once a driver gets out of a car, the driver is out of the race. Buescher knew the car might still be drivable, so he had to inhale all the fire extinguisher chemicals while also in an unsafe situation.

NASCAR must look at this rule. A driver should be allowed to get out during a fire and then get back in if the car is still operational. It just doesn’t make sense for a driver to have an incentive to stay in the car when it is on fire.

Social spotlight

They said it

“I personally think the sport needs more penalties and that NASCAR needs to be handing them out like candy right now to get control of the garage, because we’ve been playing a lot of games for a lot of years. And the games have to stop. The games cost a lot of money.” Brad Keselowski

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!

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