Following a 25-race regular-season stretch spanning seven months and a bizarre season highlighted with doubleheader races and midweek races to make up the lost time amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it all comes down to one regular-season race to determine the 16-car field to this year’s Cup Playoffs and the rest who will set their championship sights for next season. With Daytona International Speedway set to host the regular-season finale next weekend on Saturday, August 29, NASCAR is in for an all-out, competitive show of pack racing and every competitor giving it their all every lap for momentum or for a final push to the Playoffs.
Two competitors that have momentum for this year’s Playoffs are Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin after both emerged victorious following both Dover Cup races. While Hamlin reignited his pursuit for his first Cup championship with a win on Saturday, Harvick knocked another one out of the park after claiming his seventh victory of the season and wrapping up the regular-season championship.
Both Harvick and Hamlin remain as two of 10 Cup competitors to have already clinched a spot in the Playoffs based on winning throughout the regular season, a list that includes Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon and rookie Cole Custer.
Following the Dover doubleheader races, however, 13 spots have been reserved for competitors involved in the Playoffs. The first to qualify based on points was Aric Almirola. Since June at Homestead-Miami Speedway, consistency was on Almirola’s side as his No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang team logged in nine consecutive top-10 results all the way through early August at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Despite recording two top-10 results during the previous five races, including both Dover races, the seventh-place result at the Monster Mile on Sunday was enough for the Floridian to qualify for the postseason after being 112 points above the top-16 cutline. With that, Almirola will make his fourth career appearance in the Playoffs as a championship contender.
“Great job from everyone on bouncing back today,” Almirola said. “I need to do better, we all need to do better, and we just need to keep grinding with the playoffs coming up. We didn’t have a clean race today again and still found ourselves leading laps and running in and around the top-five. Our goal when we started the season was to make Daytona not matter before the playoffs and we accomplished that goal by clinching our spot in the playoffs today. Looking forward to heading there with no pressure and racing one last time for that regular-season win.”
In what has been a roller coaster season a year after winning his second Cup championship, Kyle Busch capped off an up-and-down weekend at Dover by securing his spot to the Playoffs with a 91-point cushion above the top 16 in the standings. Since the green flag waved in February at Daytona International Speedway, the majority of the regular season has been filled with near misses and disappointment for Busch and his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team. Despite scoring 11 top-five results and 13 top-10 results, the Las Vegas native sustained eight finishes outside the top 20 throughout the regular season as he struggled in claiming his first victory of the season. With no additional winners throughout the regular season, however, Busch was able to maintain his place inside the top-16 cutline and will now set his sights towards the Playoffs with an opportunity to defend his series title.
“It was a long day with our Interstate Batteries Camry,” Kyle Busch said. “We worked on the car overnight and wanted to improve on yesterday’s finish. Got run into the back of near the beginning, and I’m not sure what exactly that did to our car. We just couldn’t quite get it handling like we wanted to or even like it did yesterday. We just kept fighting all day and did the best with what we had.”
Like brother Kyle, Kurt Busch has had an up-and-down regular season mired with four top-five results and 14 top-10 results with his last victory still dating back to last July at Kentucky Speedway. With consistency being key to his season, nonetheless, the Las Vegas native and his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team were able to make the Playoffs with a 72-point cushion as Busch will receive an opportunity to win his first Cup title since 2004.
“We have been consistent in our hunt for the playoffs all season,” Kurt Busch said. “With today‘s finish, not what we hoped for, but we locked-in! I’m proud of everybody at Chip Ganassi Racing. Teamwork is what it’s all about.”
Despite an up-and-down weekend at Dover, Clint Bowyer remains in prime position of making his ninth career appearance in the Playoffs. In a season filled with two top-five results and seven top-10 results, all with new crew chief Johnny Klausmeier, Bowyer can clinch his spot for the Cup Playoffs early should he collect enough stage points within the first stage of next weekend’s race at Daytona.
“Overall, a good weekend,” Bowyer said. “Good day yesterday, had a decent day going today doing what we needed to and had a little hiccup with left front on the last stop. We’ll have to wait until next week to lock us in the playoffs.”
If there was one competitor left grinding his gears following a pair of Cup Dover races, it was Matt DiBenedetto. After finishing 20th on Saturday at the Monster Mile, DiBenedetto started on pole position on Sunday and received an opportunity to collect more points and build on his cushion towards the top-16 cutline. Despite a strong start, where he led the first 11 laps, he ended his race in 17th place when the checkered flag flew. DiBenedetto’s 21st top-20 result of this season left him with only a nine-point cushion approaching next weekend’s race at Daytona.
“Dover killed us,” DiBenedetto said. “We were pretty horrendous both days. I just tried to make the most of it that we could and it just wasn’t much. It was the perfect storm of really losing a lot of points and having a rough weekend. Going to Daytona. I hate to be negative but if we were going somewhere else I would feel better about it because we have been pretty strong at most tracks aside from here. I have struggled here. Going to Daytona and the Ford’s are strong but I have ended up at the infield care center the last two years there. We keep getting caught up in everyones mess. I am going to sit and hope and pray all week that we can just come out of there clean and make the playoffs. We shouldn’t be this close to the bubble. It is frustrating. A couple weeks messed us up. Getting wiped out at Texas and Kansas and then really hurt us points wise and then we come here and really hurt ourselves here. It has been a tough go of circumstances and going to Daytona is going to make it quite an uncomfortable week.”
In the battle for the 16th and final spot to the Playoffs, four points separate Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers William Byron and Jimmie Johnson with Byron and the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team ahead of Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team.
While Johnson remains in prime position of pointing his way in, Erik Jones’ hopes of making this year’s Playoffs took another hit following two results outside the top 10 at the Monster Mile. In a season highlighted with five top-five results, eight top-10 results and with his future uncertain, Jones’ results of 12th and 22nd have the Byron, Michigan, native trailing the cutline by 50 points entering Daytona.
Another competitor who will likely need to win at Daytona next weekend to make the Playoffs is rookie Tyler Reddick. Despite recording two top-five results and seven top-10 results throughout the regular season, having no victories logged in have left the Californian and the reigning two-time Xfinity Series champion behind in points. Following results of 13th and 18th at Dover, Reddick trails the cutline by 69 points.
“We started off with our No. 8 Cat App Chevrolet a lot better than yesterday,” Reddick said. “I was able to roll through the turns a lot smoother and just needed a bit more rear security. I thought maybe that issue would be cleared up as the track began to rubber up, but it just never tightened up quite as much as I needed it to. The adjustments that my crew chief, Randall Burnett, and the team made through Stage 1 and 2 helped fight that looseness, but I still needed even more stability to really carry speed into the corner like I needed to. At the end of Stage 2, we took a big swing on our adjustments, which did help solve the rear security issue, but took it almost to the other extreme and made it too tight to turn. The day didn’t go how we wanted it to, but I’m proud of our team. No one gave up, and we worked hard all race long. This isn’t over for us yet. We still have one more chance to make the Playoffs at Daytona International Speedway, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
The rest of the competitors who trail by 176 or more points and will need a win or a miracle at Daytona next weekend to qualify for the Playoffs include rookie Christopher Bell, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell, Ryan Newman, rookie John Hunter Nemechek, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Preece, Daniel Suarez, rookie Brennan Poole and rookie Quin Houff.
The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series regular season and the battle for the final spots to the Playoffs will wrap up next weekend on August 29 at Daytona International Speedway, which will air at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.