Through the Field: An Introduction & the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs
Through the Field: An Introduction & the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs
Welcome to the debut column of “Through the Field.”
Each week during the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, we’ll look at the field of drivers currently in the 10-week playoffs, where one driver will take home a title at Phoenix in November.
We’ll also discuss the experience of traversing ‘through the field’ of life itself, which has turned upside-down for so many of us now that we are in month number six of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I think I can speak for everyone when I say that none of us saw this coming or at least none of us thought it could affect our lives in the Earth-shattering way that it has.
As a college student finishing up a communications degree, I was in a safer position than those who lost jobs and faced truly major consequences. For that reason, it almost feels strange and perhaps unfair to be as down as I have been at times during the pandemic about what changed in my life.
But we have to remember that we all are allowed to have and express emotions and ensure our mental health is in a good place whenever we can.
Most of the extracurricular work I’ve done in college has revolved around sports, from being sports editor at the student newspaper to producing a sports radio and TV show, to even doing live commentary for the streams of university football and basketball games.
So when the pandemic shut sports down, not just at the collegiate level but at the pro level as well, it brought a question to the forefront – what is a guy, whose life has revolved around sports for as long as he can remember, going to do when there are virtually no sports going on?
It wasn’t all bad to hunker down, adjust to my new online coursework, and make a little money picking up the job I had worked the summer before. But some of that leisure time needed to be filled. Enter racing.
NASCAR was the first sport I remember following very closely, week in and week out, back in elementary school, and it was like that for a long time. The long season, traditionally going from February to November, gave you something to be excited about for nearly the entire year. And it stayed that way for a long time.
But after growing up, devoting more time to other sports as well as the responsibilities you acquire from not being a second-grader anymore, racing went on the backburner for a while. Sure, I would still watch the Daytona 500, or the races where Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a good chance to win, but I wasn’t a week-to-week follower anymore.
The pandemic wasn’t the only thing that got me back into the sport as closely; a fantasy league that I was invited into in 2019 by Seth Woolcock, a name you likely recognize if you’re reading this, did part of the job.
But the iRacing series the drivers put on while everything was shut down, as well as the series coming back in May rather than July or August like other notable pro sports, has sold me on becoming a full-time fan, and now a columnist, about the sport.
So, here we are. The nice thing about most fantasy NASCAR I’ve seen is that the finishing position in a race generally has the most impact, just as it does in the actual points standings. That makes it relatively easy to relate general performance predictions to fantasy performance.
As the playoffs begin Sunday night in Darlington, South Carolina., we’ll go through the entire playoff field and look at their performance heading into the first playoff race and how they should perform during it.
NASCAR Current Playoff System Explained
Each driver is bumped up to 2,000 points. From there, everyone is awarded their playoff points, which could be earned throughout the season in multiple ways, such as stage wins and race wins.
The regular season champion, Kevin Harvick, earned additional playoff points for that achievement. Each of the three rounds of three races eliminates the bottom four drivers in the playoffs. Points shown in parentheses show how far away from the “cutline” each driver is.
The Round of 16 takes place at Darlington, Richmond, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee. The playoff opener at Darlington will be extremely unique this year; in each year of this decade, the Cup Series only made one trip to the track per season, but the COVID-19 schedule changes make this the third race of the season here.
That should mean the teams that did well here in May should be in good shape, while those that didn’t could be in trouble. Let’s go through the playoff field and discuss their chances for success in the opening race and round.
#4 Kevin Harvick – 2,057 points (+53)
The No. 4 team is undoubtedly the favorite for the championship. The regular-season champion has won 7 races this year, an average finish of 6.6 and only five finishes outside the top-10 this season. Two of those finishes have come in the last four races, but at wild-card tracks (17th on the Daytona road course and 20th on the Daytona oval) and a win coming in between at the second Dover race.
Kevin Harvick having the most playoff points in the field makes him a no-brainer to advance to the next round, but he may win his way in any way with Darlington starting the playoff. Harvick won the first race back from the COVID-19 layoff at “The Lady in Black” and finished third at that track later that week. He’s also had the best performance of any active driver over the last 10 races at Darlington, with a pair of wins and nine top-10 finishes. The 4 should once again be a safe bet as usual.
#11 Denny Hamlin – 2,047 points (+43)
The biggest threat to Harvick winning his second title is Denny Hamlin. A season which started with his third career Daytona 500 victory has brought on five more wins afterward, most recently at Dover two weeks ago. Hamlin is more motivated in 2020 than he ever has been before and is also a near-lock to advance to the next round.
At Darlington, he’s been the second-best driver there over the last 10 races behind only Harvick, earning two wins, including the second race back from the COVID layoff. The fight for the title between the 11 and 4 teams will be exciting to watch assuming both teams avoid multiple disastrous incidents over the next trio of races – the 11 is just as safe of a pick this week.
#2 Brad Keselowski – 2,029 points (+25)
Brad Keselowski has flown largely under the radar since his third victory of 2020 at New Hampshire seven races ago but is in a great spot because of those victories to battle for the title.
Team Penske is arguably the strongest overall in the Cup Series this season, and for now, that will help Keselowski as well as teammates Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney. It could become more competitive as time goes on, and we could see a repeat of Michigan where Keselowski and Blaney crashed battling for the lead, but that shouldn’t be an issue in this round.
The 2 car has been fifth-best at Darlington in the last 10 races, earning five top-10s and a win in this race in 2018. Keselowski finished 13th and fourth here earlier this season.
#22 Joey Logano – 2,022 points (+18)
Although the No. 22 team hasn’t won a race since the season restarted, two victories before the shutdown along with relatively good consistency from Logano puts him in a strong spot this round.
Riding the momentum of six consecutive top-10 finishes heading into Daytona, Logano won both Stage 1 and 2 before being caught up in a crash near the end of the race. He’s never won at Darlington but has earned four top-10 finishes there in the 22 car, including a sixth-place finish in the second race there this season.
With that being said, Logano has five finishes outside the top 15 there as well, finishing 18th in the other Darlington race in 2020. It’s a track of inconsistency for the 2018 champion, but with how strong the team has been of late, I wouldn’t necessarily steer you away from picking him.
#9 Chase Elliott – 2,020 points (+16)
The top Chevrolet in the standings is Chase Elliott, a two-time winner in 2020 and second-place finisher last week at Daytona. The No. 9 Team has been strong lately as well; if you take away the early crash in the second Dover race, Elliott has finished top-10 in the other six races, which includes the victory at the Daytona road course.
He’s been the top Chevy and Hendrick driver all season long, and the question is not if he can contend for a championship, but when he will reach that level.
16 points above the cutline is still relatively safe, but one mediocre finish could have him sweating. Elliott was competitive in both 2020 Darlington races, finishing fourth in the first and running second in the second before spinning out as a result of contact with Kyle Busch. If you can’t get or aren’t super comfortable with Harvick or Hamlin, Elliot is your man.
#19 Martin Truex Jr. – 2,014 points (+10)
It feels like Martin Truex Jr. should be higher in the standings, doesn’t it? He has the third-most top-five and top-10 finishes in 2020, but has only one win, coming at Martinsville in June.
The No. 19 team has been the most consistently good team in the Cup Series since the restart. Truex hasn’t finished worse than fourth in eight races, and his most recent finish outside of the top-10 that didn’t involve an on-track incident or wasn’t at a superspeedway came at Homestead nearly three months ago.
Since 2015, Truex has finished top-15 in every Darlington race, which includes five top-10s and a win in 2016. The 2017 champion finished sixth and 10th respectively in the two Darlington races in 2020 and should, as usual, bring home another good finish this weekend.
#12 Ryan Blaney – 2,013 points (+9)
It also feels like the No. 12 team should be higher in the standings; they were on a tear for a while earlier in the summer, earning six top-five finishes in seven races at one point, bookended by the team’s lone win of 2020 at Talladega.
Since then, it’s been tougher for Blaney; he’s been 20th or worse more than he’s been in the top-10 since that victory, which also includes three finishes outside the top 30.
Darlington is not a good track for Blaney either, as he’s never earned a top-10 finish there. He was 16th and 21st in the two 2020 races at “The Lady in Black” and could be on the outside looking in of the playoffs if the team can’t improve there this week.
#88 Alex Bowman – 2,009 points (+5)
Alex Bowman should consider himself lucky to not only be five points ahead of the cutline but to also have a cushion of four other drivers behind him before falling out of a playoff spot for the next round.
The No. 88 team has finished outside of the top-20 eight times since the season restarted in May and has not been a serious contender for a win since Charlotte when Bowman won three stages in the two races but finished 19th and 31st when it was all said and done.
Without the victory at Auto Club in February, Bowman may not have even held onto a playoff spot at all. The first Darlington race this season went well for Bowman as he finished second, but in four races since starting at Hendrick Motorsports at the track, that’s his only top-15 finish. Two top-10 finishes in a row for the 88 car could be a sign of momentum, but it’s not going to be easy for Bowman to hang on in this round.
#24 William Byron – 2,007 points (+3)
I’m sure no one will come into Darlington happier than William Byron; he clinched a playoff spot after earning his first career victory at Daytona this past weekend, and the extra playoff points boosted his seeding from 14th to 9th to start the opening round.
The joy may not last long for the No. 24 Team, though. Before the last two races, Byron hadn’t had a top-five finish all season, and before those races, the team only had three top-10s in the last 12 races. The 22-year-old has a pole at Darlington in four starts there but has never finished better than 12th there, with all three other finishes being outside the top-20.
There’s a strong chance Byron will be the underdog again to advance in the playoffs, but that may be just what the team wants to thrive as they have lately.
#3 Austin Dillon – 2,005 points (+1)
The next two drivers in the standings are 2020s fluke playoff drivers, which you will get with winning being the most important thing in the current format. Austin Dillon is the only driver in the playoff field who has missed a race this season, stepping out of the 3 car after a positive COVID-19 test at the Daytona road course.
That could be a good omen when you consider we’ve had a champion relatively recently who also has missed races (Kyle Busch, 2015). Without a doubt, Dillon earned his victory at Texas, holding off many good cars for multiple restarts late, but with so many drivers so close together in points, the lone Richard Childress Racing driver in the playoffs won’t find it easy to remain above the cutline and hold onto a playoff spot.
Dillon does have a top-five at Darlington from 2017, but also has three finishes of 16th or worse, including the second race there this year, finishing 20th. He finished 11th in the other Darlington race in 2020 and is 14th-best there among active drivers overall.
#41 Cole Custer – 2,005 points (+1)
The 2020 Rookie of the Year (clinched as he is the only rookie to make the playoffs) is in by virtue of his late charge to a win at Kentucky. Both of Cole Custer’s top-five finishes came in consecutive weeks, with a fifth-place finish at Indianapolis preceding his first career Cup victory.
It’s been a rough time for the No. 41 team since that victory, though; they’ve finished outside of the top 20 five times in the nine races following the win, which includes three finishes of 30th or worse. Custer should be extremely proud of his win and playoff berth, but it would be a shock to see him advance to the next round, let alone contend for a title.
Custer’s only two Darlington starts in Cup came this year, with finishes of 22nd and 31st. He’s finished top-10 in three Xfinity starts there, however, including a win in 2019 following a failed inspection from Hamlin.
#10 Aric Almirola – 2,005 points (+1)
Aric Almirola, who was just re-signed for another year in the 10 car, has been consistently strong all season. Though he’s still in a winless drought dating back to the 2018 fall race at Talladega, his five top-fives and 14 top-10 finishes were enough to get him a playoff spot.
The team’s best run came in the summer, earning nine consecutive top-10 finishes and building the largest points advantage of any driver without a win. In the six weeks following that run, the No. 10 Team has had only two top-10s, and Darlington has not traditionally been a good track for Almirola.
Though he’s had the 12th-best stats there among active drivers, his only top-10 finish there came in the second 2020 race. Luckily for him, 12th would be good enough in this round of the playoffs.
#14 Clint Bowyer – 2,004 points (-1)
The lowest-seeded Stewart-Haas Racing car in the playoff is Clint Bowyer, and while the No. 14 team has been decent in 2020, they strongly benefit from the expanded playoff field. They solidified a decent spot on the border of qualifying with two consecutive sixth-place finishes at the Daytona road course and the first Dover race.
Bowyer has been remarkably average at Darlington, with his only top 10 there coming in 2019. He finished 17th and 22nd in the two races there in 2020 and it would be a surprise to see him fight for the win this week.
#18 Kyle Busch – 2,003 points (-2)
2020 has been an abysmal year by Kyle Busch standards for the younger Busch brother, as the defending champion has not won a race and could only earn three playoff points all season.
The rest of the playoff field is certainly hoping that the No. 18 Team’s bad luck continues into the playoffs, as anyone who has followed the Cup series in the last decade knows how dominant Kyle Busch can be when he’s on.
In the last 10 Darlington races, Kyle Busch has the third-best stats, earning a trio of top-three finishes, which includes the 2019 race and 2020’s second race there. I would imagine no driver will want to solidify his fate more at “The Lady in Black” moving forward in the playoffs, but he’ll need to be careful and not make a mistake going for a win or a great finish.
#1 Kurt Busch – 2,001 points (-4)
The elder Busch brother continues his career resurgence with Chip Ganassi Racing, making another playoff appearance, but without the benefit of a victory in 2020. The main argument for Kurt Busch to advance is his experience; even though his title came in 2004, the driver of the No. 1 knows how to compete.
They’ll be hoping they’ve used up most of their bad luck in the last few weeks, with the team being involved in crashes in two of the last three races. At Darlington, Kurt Busch has finished in the top-seven in five of the last seven races there, which includes a third-place finish in the first 2020 race.
#21 Matt DiBenedetto – 2,000 points (-5)
The 16th and final seed in the playoffs belong to the Wood Brothers and Matt DiBenedetto, who mainly scraped in because of Jimmie Johnson’s involvement in a crash at Daytona.
He’s the only driver to not have a single playoff point coming with him into the postseason and the team has been sinking as of late, earning just three top-10 finishes in the last 10 races and placing 15th or worse in six of those.
This has been a great season for DiBenedetto and the Wood Brothers, but it’s not going to be easy to advance into the next round. The No. 21 team did finish 14th and ninth at the Darlington races in May, so that could build some positive feeling in their garage.
My Pick to Win this Week
Kyle and Kurt Busch
Who Will be Eliminated After the Round of 16
Austin Dillon, Cole Custer, William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto