With August in its early stages of the year 2020, another race of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series schedule has been completed as the Playoffs near its initiating phase. With six regular-season races remaining, the battle for the final six Playoff spots continues to intensify with some big names either on the bubble or still on the outside and looking in.
Following an intense battle between two veterans giving it their all, Brad Keselowski prevailed over Denny Hamlin for his third Cup victory of the season at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on August 2 as he continues his pursuit for a second series title. Like Keselowski, Hamlin had a productive afternoon of racing as he recorded a strong runner-up finish behind Keselowski. With the strength of five victories throughout this season, including last week at Kansas Speedway, Hamlin and his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team continue their pursuit for a first Cup title. Keselowski and Hamlin also remain as two of 10 competitors to be guaranteed a spot in the Playoffs by virtue of a victory this season. Also locked in include Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, rookie Cole Custer, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.
The top winless competitor who continues to occupy one of the transfer spots to the Playoffs is Aric Almirola. For Almirola, who started on pole for the third time this season by virtue of a random draw, Sunday’s race at New Hampshire did not result in a win for the Floridian. Nonetheless, a seventh-place result, which marked his 12th top-10 result of this season and ninth in a row in recent weeks, along with stage points in both stages were enough to keep Almirola and his No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team 145 points above the top-16 cutline.
Unlike Almirola, Sunday’s race at New Hampshire was not magical for the Busch brothers. For Kurt, he started the race in 10th place and finished in 17th place. While the finish snapped his three-race string of top-10 results, the 2004 Cup champion remains 112 points above the cutline. Kyle’s race, however, was cut short 15 laps into the event following a wreck into the Turn 3 outside wall caused by a blown right-front tire. The incident marked Kyle Busch’s third DNF of the season and his seventh result outside the top 20. With no victories recorded throughout the first 20 races, the reigning Cup champion is 94 points above the cutline.
For Clint Bowyer, his run at New Hampshire was primed for a strong result after starting in sixth place and finishing in the top 10 in both stages as he collected a handful of stage points. When the checkered flag waved, however, Bowyer ended his run in 18th, which marked his fifth consecutive finish outside the top 10. Even worse, Bowyer’s crew chief, Johnny Klausmeier, faces a one-race suspension due to two loose lug nuts discovered on Bowyer’s No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang during post-race inspection process. The lone good news for Bowyer continues to be that he is 43 points above the cutline.
Coming off a late accident at Kansas Speedway, Matt DiBenedetto rebounded with another strong performance at New Hampshire. A year after recording a solid fifth-place result at New Hampshire, DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford team posted a sixth-place result on Sunday. His sixth top-10 result of this season has DiBenedetto 40 points above the cutline and still in position of making his first Playoffs appearance.
Lastly, William Byron had another strong run in the making with crew chief Chad Knaus back atop the pit box. After starting in 16th, Byron methodically worked his way towards the front and was able to collect a handful of stage points following a fifth-place result in the second stage. In the final laps, Byron was primed for a top-10 result before he crossed the line in 11th place and in between his fellow competitors and targets battling towards the Playoff cutline. With his 13th top-15 finish of this season, his third in a row at New Hampshire, the Charlotte native continues to hold sole possession of the 16th and final transfer spot by 15 points.
The first competitor who is outside of the cutline continues to be rookie Tyler Reddick. For Reddick, Sunday’s race at New Hampshire produced another strong performance for the Californian after starting 13th and fighting for a top-10 spot, including battling against his fellow rookie contenders Cole Custer and Christopher Bell. In the final laps, Reddick was able to charge his way to post a 10th-place result. With Byron finishing a spot ahead of him and gaining a handful of stage points, however, Reddick did not gain additional ground towards the cutline. He, nonetheless, remains in contention of pointing his way into the Playoffs as he trails by 15 points.
The good news for Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team is that Sunday’s race at New Hampshire produced a decent outcome for them as they rallied from an early spin to cross the line in 12th place, which marked their highest result since finishing 10th at Martinsville Speedway in June. The bad news for them is that with Reddick and teammate Byron finishing ahead of them, Johnson and his team continue to trail the cutline as the 2020 Playoffs near its establishing point. By being 25 points behind, the seven-time Cup champion continues to remain on the hunt to move himself inside the cutline and receive a final opportunity to pursue his record-setting eighth championship.
Unlike Kansas, Erik Jones did not have a good run at New Hampshire. The Michigan native suffered an early pit road penalty for pitting outside his pit box and struggled on the track in keeping pace with the leaders. By finishing 24th, a lap down, Jones trails the cutline by 31 points in his quest to make his third consecutive appearance in the Playoffs.
The remaining competitors who still remain eligible to make the Playoffs while trailing by 125 or more points include Michael McDowell, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, rookie Christopher Bell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., rookie John Hunter Nemechek, Ryan Newman, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Corey LaJoie and Ryan Preece. With his 26th-place finish at New Hampshire, Daniel Suarez is two points below the top-30 cutline in the regular-season standings. Should Suarez move himself back into the top 30 in the standings and record a win between next weekend at Michigan through the final regular-season race at Daytona International Speedway on August 29, he will receive an opportunity to be eligible for the Playoffs.
The NASCAR Cup Series will compete at Michigan International Speedway in a doubleheader feature on August 8-9. The first Cup race at Michigan will occur on Saturday, August 8, at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN while the second race will occur the following day, August 9, at 4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.