With the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series regular season in its second half, there are 10 races remaining until the Cup Playoffs commence. Currently, six competitors are separated by 56 points for the 16th and final spot to the Playoffs while eight spots remain vacant for anyone in or out of the cutline to secure an early ticket to the postseason and with an opportunity to contend for the series championship.
Following the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at the Brickyard, the 16th race of the season, eight competitors are guaranteed a spot in the Playoffs based on a win. Kevin Harvick leads the way in the regular-season standings on the strength of four wins, including his recent one at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski, both of whom trail Harvick by 85 and 88 points, are also guaranteed a spot by virtue of a victory. Others that are locked into the Playoffs with wins include Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman.
The first three competitors that occupy eight vacant spots to the Playoffs as winless competitors, following Indianapolis, are Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch. For Almirola, a race where he rallied from vibration concerns and an early unscheduled pit stop to finish third, his fifth consecutive top-five result was a result that stabilized his advantage from the top-16 cutline as he is 105 points inside the cutline and with an opportunity to make his third consecutive Playoffs.
“We’re doing such a good job of being consistent,” Almirola said. “We’re bringing great race cars and we’re being really consistent running up front, so just really proud of this team and just want to keep it going. It’s fun to run up front like that.”
For Kyle Busch, a sixth-place result marked a strong rebound from his 38th-place result last Sunday at Pocono Raceway due to a wreck. The result was his ninth top-10 result of the season as he is 10th in the regular-season standings and is 101 points above the top-16 cutline. The result, however, leaves him with a 16-race winless drought dating back to November 2019 at Homestead as he is still trying to pursue his first win of the 2020 season.
“We just kept getting off on pit strategy with the Skittles America Mix Camry,” Kyle Busch said. “We had a valve stem come off the left rear [tire] on a stop and that put us in the back. Then we had vibrations at various points throughout the race with different sets of tires so we had to stay on top of that and make sure we changed those. Each time, that would put us on the back. I struggled to pass anybody most of the day, but somehow got spots on restarts. I was able to salvage a sixth-place finish and will head to Kentucky next week.”
For his brother, Kurt, an early misfortune on pit road left the driver of the No. 1 Monster Energy/Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet team in 13th when the checkered flag flew. The result dropped Kurt Busch from 10th to 11th in the standings as he is 97 points above the cutline. He is also facing a 33-race winless drought dating back to July 2019 at Kentucky Speedway, which, ironically, marks the next destination for the Cup Series.
Among those still inside the top-16 cutline are Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer and William Byron, who won the first stage but blew a left-front tire in the closing laps of the second stage. With a 27th-place result, which snapped his five-race stretch of finishing in the top 15, Byron and the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team are 32 points above the cutline to the Playoffs.
“Our Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE was super-fast today,” Byron said. “It just sucks because we have had a lot of these things happen this year. It’s not a fault of anyone, it just happens and it’s a bummer for sure. We’ve had fast cars and it feels like we always have bad luck when we do. That’s what hurts even more. We just need to bring that same speed to Kentucky and hopefully we won’t have any issues there. To be leading the race like that and have a tire issue is, I guess, a good way to go out. We’ll just see what we can do in Kentucky.”
Despite missing his first Cup race in 663 races after testing positive of COVID-19, Jimmie Johnson still remains in the cutline by 36 points. His schedule for the remainder of his swan song season as a full-time competitor, however, remains undetermined as he awaits his upcoming COVID-19 tests and clearance from his physicians.
Behind, Austin Dillon holds sole possession of the 16th and final transfer spot to the Playoffs by six points after finishing 18th despite running inside the top 10 the majority of the day at Indianapolis and gaining valuable stage points by finishing in the top five in the first two stages.
“We had a really strong Dow Salutes Veterans Chevrolet today at the Brickyard and it was fun to be able to earn stage points in Stages 1 and 2 and lead laps,” Austin Dillon said. “Our Chevy was handling really well all day so we really only needed to make small adjustments throughout the race…Definitely not the finish we wanted or deserved today, but I’m proud of our effort. We had a lot of positives with earning stage points and leading laps.”
The first competitor who trails the top-16 cutline is Erik Jones. Coming off an up-and-down weekend at the Pocono doubleheader, Jones ended his race in the garage after being involved in a harrowing accident in the second stage when he cut a right-front tire in Turn 3. His 33rd-place dropped him from 16th to 17th in the standings as he is behind by six points.
“It’s a shame; it’s kind of the story of our season,” Jones said. “We’ve just had a rough year, and things are just not going our way. Hopefully, we can just turn it around, keep bringing fast cars and have things turn around for us.”
With an eighth-place result and his fourth top-10 result of his rookie Cup season at Indy, rookie Tyler Reddick is 18th in the standings as he and his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet team trail the cutline by 16 points.
“We had a great No. 8 Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen Chevrolet when we could run in clean air and record some good lap times, but unfortunately we struggled in dirty air, like a lot of our competitors today,” Reddick said. “Any time we were battling someone side by side or from behind them, our car would just build way too tight and make it tough to gain or hold track position. We just had an up-and-down day, falling back early and then playing some strategy to stay out to start Stage 3 from the fifth spot…I was able to capitalize on the final restart with fresher tires and race up to eighth place, which is a great finish for our day. We had to grind it out today, but it turned out in our favor.”
Behind Reddick, Bubba Wallace accomplished another respectable finish this season in his quest to make his first Playoffs. By finishing ninth and notching his third top-10 result of his junior year, Wallace gained two spots in the standings and is situated in 19th, 42 points behind the cutline, as he attempts to place a Richard Petty Motorsports entry in the Playoffs for the first time since 2014.
“I guess it is good to be frustrated when you finish in the ninth place,” Wallace said. “All-in-all, it was a good day for this No. 43 World Wide Technology Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. It was fast. We just did not have the handling underneath us. It was good down the straightaways. It did not want to turn very well – specially behind traffic. One of the more frustrating days being behind cars and just trying to maneuver. So, coming out of there with a top-10 finish is good momentum going to the Kentucky Speedway – another good track for us. We will continue the good vibes and keep staying on [crew chief] Jerry [Baxter] to produce good finishes for us.”
Trailing by 48 is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished 36th after being involved in a bizarre wreck on pit road and ending his day early. Those who are in the top 30 in the points standings and still remain in contention for the Playoffs include Chris Buescher, rookie John Hunter Nemechek, Michael McDowell, rookie Christopher Bell, rookie Cole Custer, Ryan Newman, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Corey LaJoie and Ryan Preece.
The road to the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs continues on Sunday, July 12, at Kentucky Speedway, which will air at 2:30 p.m. ET on FS1.