With nine races remaining until the 2020 NASCAR Cup Playoffs commences, a new name has been added to the postseason field.
After his thrilling, four-wide pass for the win on Sunday in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, rookie Cole Custer has gone from being an Xfinity Series title contender to a Cup Series rookie and now, a Cup Series winner in a span of nine months. Of all the records he accomplished with his victory at Kentucky, the biggest one of all is guaranteeing himself and his No. 41 Haas Automation/Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang team a spot in the postseason with an opportunity to contend for a Cup Series championship. In addition, he is set to become the 37th competitor to make the Cup Series Playoffs since its inception in 2004 and the first rookie contender to make the Playoffs since Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher qualified in 2016.
Custer’s win at the Bluegrass State also stirred a major shakeup to the Playoff field with the Californian leaping from 25th to a spot within the top-16 postseason field. Through the first 17 Cup races of the 2020 season, nine competitors, including Custer, are guaranteed spots in the Playoffs by virtue of a win. That leaves seven spots vacant and many big names on the bubble or looking on the outside of the cutline with the postseason more than a month away from starting.
The first competitor on the bubble is Aric Almirola, Custer’s teammate. Almirola and his No. 10 Smithfield/Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang team had a race-winning setup at Kentucky after leading a race-high 128 laps and winning the first stage. An eighth-place result was a result that was not in mind for the Floridian, who has not won a Cup race since Talladega Superspeedway in October 2018. The good news for Almirola is he holds a 133-point cushion above the top-16 cutline and he recorded five consecutive top-five results prior to Kentucky, which indicates that his No. 10 team is hitting their strides late into the regular season while preparing for a title run.
Like Almirola, Kurt Busch had a strong run at Kentucky. Starting seventh, Busch was shuffled out of the top 10 at the start of the race, but he was able to work his way back towards the front as the run progressed. Restarting fifth with two laps remaining, the 2004 Cup champion also had an opportunity to repeat his magic from last year’s Kentucky race, where he won in a thrilling two-lap shootout against his brother, Kyle. This year, however, Busch could only work his way as high as fifth when the checkered flag flew. While he did not earn his first win of the 2020 season, he and his No. 1 Monster Energy/Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team are 104 points above the cutline.
Unlike Kurt, Kyle Busch had a disappointing run at Kentucky. A two-time Cup winner at the Bluegrass State, he started on pole by virtue of a random draw. After leading the first nine laps, things fell apart for Busch’s No. 18 M&M’s Toyota team, where they struggled in keeping pace with the leaders as the driver also fought grip issues. With less than 100 laps remaining, Busch nearly wrecked in Turn 4, but he was able to straighten his car and continue at the expense of losing multiple spots on the track. A 21st-place result left the reigning two-time Cup Series champion winless for another week into the 2020 season, but he remains 89 points above the cutline.
If there was someone who had a great run at Kentucky on Sunday, it was Matt DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford Mustang team. Starting 10th, DiBenedetto ran within the top five and top 10 throughout the race. On the final restart, he was able to charge his way from eighth to third when the checkered flag flew. DiBenedetto’s third-place result was his best since finishing in the runner-up spot at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in February. The podium spot was enough for DiBenedetto to stabilize himself above the cutline by 85 points.
For Clint Bowyer, the Kentucky race was a day where late restarts hindered Bowyer’s run for a top-10 result. Starting 15th, Bowyer was able to work his way up to ninth when the first stage concluded. He was also in position for a top-10 result in the second stage, but a caution during a round of pit stops under green cost Bowyer spots as he could work his way back as high as 13th. In the final laps, Bowyer was in position to notch a top-10 result, but he was shuffled back to 14th when he crossed the finish line under the checkered flag. Bowyer’s eighth top-15 result of the season kept him 64 points above the cutline.
For William Byron, it was a salvageable day for the Charlotte native and the No. 24 AXALTA/Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team. Starting 21st, Byron made his way within the top 10 in the opening laps, but struggled on the bottom lane the ensuing restart. He worked his way up to 15th when the first stage concluded. The second stage was where Byron struggled the most with loose conditions as he settled outside the top 20 when the stage concluded. Making his way up towards the top 15 in the final stage, an opportunity presented itself for Byron during a cycle of pit stops under green and he was leading with 38 laps remaining. The caution allowed Byron to pit for four fresh tires and line up in sixth for the following restart. The bottom lane, however, hindered Byron’s progress to move towards the front. Despite starting seventh with two laps remaining, he was shuffled back to 11th when the checkered flag flew. With his 11th top-15 result of his junior season in the Cup level, he is 47 points above the cutline.
A week after COVID-19 symptoms prevented him from racing for the first time since his debut in the Cup Series, Jimmie Johnson came roaring into Kentucky with vengeance and with a grand opportunity to leap himself into the Playoffs in his swan song season in the series. For much of the race, it appeared that Johnson and his No. 48 Ally/Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team were growing closer and closer towards the front, working their way from starting 20th and running within the top 10. In the closing laps, Johnson was able to muscle his way into the top five and was lined up in third on a restart with 19 laps remaining with an opportunity to snatch the lead and his first win in over two years. Then, it came to a crushing blow when contact from Brad Keselowski sent Johnson sideways and out of contention. While Johnson was able to continue, the damage was done as he could only work his way back as high as 21st when the checkered flag flew. Even after missing last weekend’s race at Indianapolis followed by his result outside the top 20 at Kentucky, Johnson holds sole possession of the 16th and final spot to the Playoffs by 24 points as he is, already, setting his sights towards the upcoming regular-season races.
With a 13th-place result, Austin Dillon finds himself outside the top-16 cutline by 24 points. The same goes for his Richard Childress Racing teammate and rookie Tyler Reddick, who trails by 41 points and continues to pursue his first Cup career win. Erik Jones, who struggled all race long at Kentucky with handling issues, finished 22nd as he and his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry team trail by 42 points. Like Jones, Bubba Wallace struggled with keeping up to pace with the leaders, and his 27th-place result, two laps behind, marked his seventh result outside the top 20. Wallace and the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team, however, remain in pursuit of the top-16 cutline by 84 points.
Other notables that trail the top-16 cutline include Chris Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell, rookie John Hunter Nemechek, Ryan Newman, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Preece and Daniel Suarez.
Next on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule is the All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15, which starts with the All-Star Open at 7 p.m. ET on FS1 before the All-Star Race commences at 8:30 p.m. ET on FS1. The next Cup points race is scheduled at Texas Motor Speedway on July 19, which will air at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN.