With seven races remaining until the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs commences, the battle for the final six vacant spots within the top-16 cutline has changed course yet again. Following Thursday night’s Super Start Batteries 400 at Kansas Speedway, some on the bubble had good nights and kept themselves in contention for the postseason while others struggled and are setting their focus towards next weekend in making up the points lost.
Ten Cup competitors are still guaranteed a spot to this year’s postseason battle for the championship. This includes Denny Hamlin, who earned his fifth win of 2020 at Kansas as he continues to pursue his first Cup championship. Among others who are guaranteed a spot in the Playoffs include Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon and rookie Cole Custer.
The first winless competitor who is inside the top-16 cutline continues to be Aric Almirola. For Almirola, who started third based on a random draw, it was another strong night for the Floridian and his No. 10 Smithfield/Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang team as he finished in the top 10 in both stages, racked up a handful of stage points and survived the late calamity to finish sixth for his best result at Kansas, the same track where he suffered a compression fracture to his T5 Vertebra following his harrowing accident in 2017. While it was another week without a win, the sixth-place result marked Almirola’s 11th top-10 result of the season, eighth in a row, as he is 134 points above the cutline.
“I’m pretty eager to get a W,” Almirola said. “Man, this race team’s being doing a great job. We’ve been running really good. A long time ago, I would’ve gave anything to just run top 10 every week and run like we’ve been running. When you start tasting victory and you run upfront, you race around those guys, you wanna seal the deal and go to Victory Lane, but tonight, we were just a little bit off. We didn’t have as good of a car compared to the field as we have the last several weeks. Proud of my guys. We just keep chipping away at it, we keep building up that points buffer to the cutoff, which is nice, but now, we’re ready to go get a W and get some bonus points for the Playoffs. So, I think we’re capable and we got a really good race team.”
Next up are the Busch brothers. For Kyle, who started eighth, the majority of the race had him and his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry towards the front and battling for the lead. After winning the first stage and leading 52 laps, Busch appeared to have a top-five run and even, a late charge for the win established until he made contact with the wall nearing 40 laps remaining. The contact forced Busch to pit under green as he lost a lap to the leaders during his stop. Following two late cautions, however, Busch was able to race his way back onto the lead lap. For the remainder of the race, he worked his way from the top 20 to finish in 11th. Despite remaining winless through the first half of the 2020 season, the reigning Cup Series champion is 120 points above the top-16 cutline.
“That wasn’t the finish this M&M’S Fudge Brownie Camry deserved today,” Kyle Busch said. “We were tight most of the race and I just got into the wall there. We are making progress and think we showed that tonight. We will go back, get ready and head to New Hampshire next week.”
For Kurt Busch, who started ninth, Thursday’s race at Kansas was a race where the 2004 Cup champion struggled with adjustments around the track and keeping pace with the leaders, though he remained within sight of the top 10. After finishing in the top 15 the first two stages, Busch battled loose conditions, but was able to work his way into the top 10 in the final laps. He was able to gain one additional spot on track before the checkered flag flew to finish in ninth for his 12th top-10 result of this season. With the finish, Busch and his No. 1 Monster Energy/Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team are 119 points above the cutline.
“The car was a little tough at times throughout the race,” Kurt Busch said. “We struggled on some of the restarts with tires on heat cycles, but thanks to my guys on this Monster Energy Chevy. We battled hard together and never gave up on working to make it better and try to find the sweetest spot to run. We just need to keep after it and turn these top 10’s into better results.”
For Clint Bowyer, there is no place like home as the Emporia, Kansas, native arrived back at his home track with an opportunity of locking up a spot in the Playoffs for himself and his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang team. The Cup race on Thursday at Kansas, however, was a difficult one for Bowyer, who started 19th, struggled with handling issues, finished outside the top 15 in both stages, sustained minimal damage from a late multi-car wreck and could only work his way up to 14th when the race concluded. The one positive Bowyer was able to walk away with following the race at Kansas was being 42 points above the cutline.
“Man, we were so loose in the first two stages,” Bowyer said. “We worked hard on it and got it better in the final stage. I don’t know how the heck I didn’t wreck in that [Lap 177] big wreck. We got some damage then we dodged a couple more [wrecks] after that. It was a tough race, but nobody on our One Cure team gave up and our pit crew helped us out a bunch tonight. It’s good to be back in the top 12 in points. That will help our qualifying spot in New Hampshire. It’s always good to be back home in Kansas. I just wish we could have had the fans here tonight. We really missed them and ready to get them back to the track.”
Unlike Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto and his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford Mustang team were not so fortunate after a late accident cost the driver and the team a handful of points in remaining inside the top-16 cutline. The first half of the race saw DiBenedetto appearing in and out of the top 10 after starting 12th, though he remained poised and in contention for a decent finish. That all came to a crashing halt around 100 laps remaining when he got hit by two cars on the backstretch and made hard contact with the outside wall as he was involved in a multi-car wreck. The damage was beyond repairable for the No. 21 team as DiBenedetto sustained his first DNF of the season and his fourth result outside the top 20. The silver lining for DiBenedetto is the picture of being 35 points above the cutline.
“I couldn’t tell what was going on,” DiBenedetto said. “I just tried to go low. I saw guys checked up off of [Turn] 2. I didn’t see it. I just got clipped in the right side. Nothing I could do different. I am not going to lie. I am pretty frickin irritated. We have had garbage luck the last couple of weeks.”
With a 10th-place result on Thursday night at Kansas that included one of his best performances this season, William Byron drew himself back inside the cutline. Starting 15th and racing with interim crew chief/veteran Keith Rodden, the Charlotte native struggled on restarts and could not keep pace with the leaders throughout the first two stages. The final stage was where Byron and the No. 24 AXALTA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team appeared poised for the win as he remained on track on old tires and low fuel in the closing laps, a move that worked to his advantage as he led 27 laps in total. Following a pair of late restarts, however, Byron lost track positions to competitors running on four fresh tires and he was able to hang on to finish 10th when the checkered flag flew. With his sixth top-10 result of this season, Byron holds sole possession of the 16th and final spot to the Playoffs by 10 points.
“It was a solid finish for us – we needed that for sure for the playoffs,” Byron said. “We started the race way off. We were really loose – just really struggling. The guys, Keith and everybody made a lot of great adjustments throughout the race. It really got us in a position where we could attack. As soon as we got probably 10 laps on our tires, the car felt pretty good. We just stayed out there on no tires, really ran there with [Keselowski] and was able to pass him back for the lead. I thought we were looking really good. Unfortunately, the two tires didn’t really work out for us there at the end. I think we just had too many laps on the left side and struggled there.”
The first Cup competitor who is a spot below the cutline is rookie Tyler Reddick. Coming off a career-best runner-up finish at Texas Motor Speedway, Reddick, who started 23rd, rocketed his way towards the front as he finished sixth in the first stage. He went on to finish 15th in the second stage while fighting grip and loose conditions to his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. While Reddick had a strong car throughout the race at Kansas, he struggled with balance in the final stage and just missed out for a top-10 result as he settled in 13th when the checkered flag flew. The top-15 finish, nonetheless, allowed Reddick to draw himself to be 10 points below the cutline.
“We had a fast No. 8 I Am Second Chevrolet on the long runs tonight at Kansas Speedway,” Reddick said. “We just needed a little more on the short runs. It was a tale of two extremes almost, where we fired off extremely loose but about halfway through the race built way too tight. I was able to run the top during Stage 1 before anyone else really could, and that allowed us to climb well up into the top 10 to get some valuable stage points. As the night went on and our car got tighter, I wasn’t able to run up there as well and had to search around for speed to try to keep up with the changing track conditions. Luckily, we were able to avoid a handful of wrecks during Stage 3 and started to climb back up through the field once we were able to loosen our Chevrolet back up a little bit. In the end, we just needed a couple more longer runs to really be able to get back into the top 10 tonight.”
Trailing behind him is Erik Jones, who needed another strong run in his hopes of making his third consecutive postseason appearance. Starting 21st, Jones was able to carve his way towards the front and notch a 10th-place result in the first stage to collect a valuable stage point. From there, Jones kept himself in contention towards the top 10 and following a series of late cautions and multi-car wrecks, Jones and his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry team were able to drive their way into the top five and finish fifth. The top-five result was Jones’ fifth of this season and first since finishing third at Pocono Raceway in June. The finish also allowed the Michigan native to cut his deficit from the top-16 cutline in half from 24 to 12.
“This is what we needed; we needed a really good points day,” Jones said. “It kind of seems like we’ve been in this spot the last couple of years unfortunately. It feels good to climb out of it. The Reser’s Camry was really good. We started really deep and just could never quite get up to the front and get some clean air. I kind of made a mistake on that last restart, I was trying to push too hard to get to the outside and gave up some ground there on those guys and had to make that back up. Good effort. Pit crew did good and the team gave me a good car. We just have to keep doing that and keep wracking these points up and hopefully get a win.”
The competitor who took the biggest hit in the points following Kansas was Jimmie Johnson. Starting 20th, Johnson was able to methodically work his way towards the top 10 and remain poised for a decent result following a dismal run the previous race at Texas Motor Speedway. Everything changed with approximately 100 laps remaining when Johnson was involved in a multi-car wreck on the backstretch and sustained significant damage to his No. 48 Ally/Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. While Johnson’s crew tried to repair the No. 48 machine to keep the seven-time Cup champion in contention for the remainder of the race, he was unable to meet the minimum speed requirement to continue with the repairs and was forced to end his race in the garage and in 32nd place, his sixth result this season outside the top 20. Prior to Kansas, Johnson was two points above the top-16 cutline. After Kansas, he is 18 points below the cutline and in jeopardy of missing the Playoffs for the second year in a row and in his final full-time Cup season.
Another competitor who had a disappointing run at Kansas was Bubba Wallace. Starting 17th, Wallace’s troubles started at the 100-lap mark, when he spun entering Turn 4. More than 70 laps later, Wallace’s race went from bad to worse when he could not avoid a spinning Matt Kenseth entering Turn 4 and broke a right-front suspension during the wrecking process. The damage was enough to terminate Wallace’s long night in the garage as he is 100 points below the cutline.
Like Johnson and Wallace, Chris Buescher had a dismal run at Kansas. Starting 13th, Buescher’s troubles started under the competition caution when he was penalized for an uncontrolled tire violation during his pit stop and was sent to the rear of the field for the ensuing restart. On Lap 143, he spun in Turn 2, but was able to recover. He was not, however, able to avoid a vicious multi-car wreck with less than 90 laps remaining that involved his teammate Ryan Newman and ex-teammate Ryan Preece. The damage to the front of Buescher’s No. 17 Fifth Third Bank/Roush Fenway Racing Ford Mustang was enough to end his race in the garage and in 33rd place for his ninth finish outside the top 20. The run at Kansas has Buescher 107 below the cutline.
Other competitors who continue to trail the top-16 cutline by deficits of 111 points or more include Michael McDowell, rookie Christopher Bell, rookie John Hunter Nemechek, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Corey LaJoie, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Preece, rookie Brennan Poole and rookie Quin Houff.
The battle for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs will continue next Sunday, August 2, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which will air at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN.