Three races and two venues are all that remain in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series regular-season schedule with the Playoffs less than two weeks away from being set and commencing. With the deficit for the final spots to the Playoffs stabilizing and not decreasing, time is running low for many current and future stars to earn themselves and their team a ticket to the 2020 postseason battle for the series championship.
With a win in the inaugural running of the Go Bowling 235 at the Daytona International Speedway Road Course, Chase Elliott joins a handful of competitors that have won multiple Cup races this season, a list that includes regular-season leader Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. All five, along with Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon and rookie Cole Custer, remain guaranteed spots in the Playoffs by virtue of winning one or more regular-season races. Though Austin Dillon did not compete at the Daytona Road Course event due to suffering COVID-19 symptoms, he is expected to be granted a waiver to qualify for the postseason.
Currently, six spots continue to remain vacant for the 2020 Cup Playoffs with three spots set to be occupied by competitors that have not win this season thus far.
The first competitor who continues to emerge as the highest winless competitor in points is Aric Almirola. Despite starting in sixth place, the Floridian struggled with maintaining and gaining track position throughout the race. A 24th-place result marked his lowest result since finishing in 33rd place at Martinsville Speedway in June. The good news for Almirola and his No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang team is the fact that he is 130 points above the top-16 cutline to qualify for this year’s Playoffs.
“We started to gain momentum there at the end and thought we could have put the Go Bowling Ford Mustang inside the top 10,” Almirola said. “Unfortunately, that caution came out and we pitted. I was caught behind some cars on the restart with nowhere to go. That’s road course racing. Not the day we wanted, but we kept the car on the track and in one piece. We’ll regroup and go to Dover where we know we can bring speed.”
For the Busch brothers, it was a tale of mixed results. For Kurt Busch, he started in eighth place and was battling for a spot in the top 10 throughout the race before he settled in 14th place when the checkered flag flew. Kyle, on the other hand, had a roller coaster run that ended up with misfortunes. It all started in the opening laps when he locked up his front tires while running inside the top five and made an unscheduled pit stop for fresh tires, a move that sent him to the rear of the field. He rallied his way back into the top 10 during the second stage, but spun in Turn 6 after locking up his front tires. While he appeared poised for a strong result despite his early struggles, his race went away under 20 laps remaining when he took his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to the garage due to brake rotor failure. Though he returned to the track, he was involved in a single-car incident with five laps remaining and was unable to complete the race. Through the first 23 races of this season, both Busch brothers remain winless, with Kurt above the cutline by 121 points and Kyle by 100 points.
“I really enjoyed the day today, the track was a fun challenge for us,” Kurt Busch said. “[Crew chief] Matt McCall did a nice job making adjustments on the Monster Energy Camaro, but we burned up the tires on the last longer run and just had to play a little defense in the end. It was a really fun track and I had some fun out there today, I just didn’t have enough in the end.”
Compared to Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer had a strong performance at Daytona. Starting 12th, Bowyer earned top-five results in both stages and collected a number of stage points towards the Playoffs. Though Bowyer could not keep pace with eventual winner Chase Elliott, he remained inside the top five in the final laps and was poised for more before he crossed the finish line in sixth place. Bowyer’s sixth-place result was his highest since finishing seventh and eighth during the Pocono Raceway doubleheader races in June and it snapped his recent seven-race stretch of finishing no higher than 11th. With his sixth top-10 result of the season, the Kansas veteran is 66 points above the top-16 cutline.
“We did what we needed to do today,” Bowyer said. “We had a great Mobil 1 Ford. I thought it was going to be even better there at the end, but we must have gotten hot. [William Byron] got me on the restart and then another car got by me. If I didn’t have anything to lose there I might have been able to get a few more back. But that was a good points day. I hope we are on a roll and we continue this at Dover.”
Right behind Bowyer in points continues to be Matt DiBenedetto, who started in ninth place and brought the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford Mustang in 15th place when the race concluded. With his 15th top-15 result of the season, DiBenedetto is 44 points above the cutline and three races away from making his first postseason appearance as a championship contender.
With an eighth-place result at the Daytona Road Course event, William Byron continues to hold sole possession of the 16th and final transfer spot to the Playoffs by 25 points. Starting 13th, the Charlotte native contended inside the top 10 as he earned top-10 results in both stages and collected valuable stage points towards the Playoffs. Restarting in 34th with 26 laps remaining, Byron and his No. 24 Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE charged his way back towards the front. Following a late pit stop under green and a late caution due to a single-car incident, he was scored in sixth place. During the final three laps, he lost two positions before he crossed the line in eighth place for his seventh top-10 career finish in the Cup Series and to remain in contention for a spot to the 2020 Playoffs.
“It was a good result for us today,” Byron said. “We chose to go for the stage points and had to pass our way through the field a few times because of that strategy. I think we did a nice job of that and getting a lot of those available points. Once we got towards the front top five we kind of stalled out though. Overall, I’m pretty happy with today and getting a good result. We just need to have a couple good weeks with solid races when we go on to Dover for two races and back to Daytona. I’m looking forward to Dover next week for sure though.”
The competitor who trails the top-16 cutline by 25 points is seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who rallied from his share of on-track struggles throughout the summer to post his highest-finishing result since finishing in third place at Bristol Motor Speedway in May. With three regular-season races remaining, Johnson has three opportunities remaining in keeping his hopes for a record-setting eighth championship alive.
The next two closest competitors behind Byron and Johnson in points are Erik Jones and rookie Tyler Reddick. Starting in 20th, Jones was able to notch a sixth-place result in the first stage. The remainder of the race, however, did not go as planned for the Michigan native as he settled in 16th in the second stage before finishing 11th in the overall race. For Reddick, who started 18th, he finished outside the top 30 in both stages and he could work his way only up to 18th when the race concluded. As a result, Jones trails the cutline by 35 points while Reddick trails by 57 points.
The remaining competitors who trail the top-16 cutline by 146 points or more are rookie Christopher Bell, Bubba Wallace, Chris Buescher, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman, rookie John Hunter Nemechek, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Preece, Daniel Suarez, rookie Brennan Poole and rookie Quin Houff.
The battle for the final spots to the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs will continue next weekend at Dover International Speedway for a series doubleheader weekend. The first Dover race will commence on Saturday, August 22, at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN while the second will occur the following day on Sunday, August 23, at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN.