Given how the 2020 NASCAR season has played out so far, the Cup Series playoff has felt like almost an afterthought. Nevertheless, the Cup Series regular season is almost halfway complete. Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway was the 12th event of the revised Cup schedule in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 14 races remain until the regular season ends at Daytona International Speedway August 29.
Usually, the races that run this time of year are held against the backdrop of the ongoing playoff bubble. As NASCAR catches up with the original schedule in terms of the number of races run, the postseason picture will become a bigger storyline.
Yet for as much attention as the playoffs get during the summer, there often is not as much movement by drivers in and out of the postseason grid as you might think. Most of the drivers who will qualify for the 2020 championship chase have already secured their spots.
In three previous years with the current points format, including stage wins and playoff points, the postseason field was largely set by this point. After 12 races in the 2017 season, 14 of the 16 drivers who were in position to make the playoffs that year did just that. The net changes occurred due to Kasey Kahne’s win in the Brickyard 400 and Matt Kenseth accruing enough points to move above the cutline. Kahne’s and Kenseth’s success came at the expense of Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer, who ultimately missed the postseason. Otherwise, the playoff grid held steady.
The 2018 season had even less movement. All 16 drivers who were in position to make the playoffs after the 12th race held their spots. No surprise winners combined with no major points swings created a stagnant postseason battle through the summer.
Last season proved to be the same as 2017. The final 14 races of the regular season saw only two drivers out of 16 switch into the postseason field. Neither Ryan Newman nor William Byron won a race in 2019, but they both earned enough points in the second half of the regular season to reach, and keep, a playoff spot. On the other hand, Daniel Suarez missed the playoffs along with Jimmie Johnson. It was the first time in his career that Johnson did not participate in the postseason.
The current playoff field consists of seven race winners and nine drivers who are in on points. The seven winners are all virtual locks and should expect to make the postseason. Among the non-winners are drivers like Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Johnson and Bowyer who are all well above the cutline. It is not a guarantee they will make the playoffs, but each has a decent amount of security for the coming weeks.
The drivers more likely to be displaced, then are the last four on the current playoff grid: Matt DiBenedetto, Aric Almirola, Erik Jones and Byron. Yet, as noted above, chances are that if you are in a position to advance now, you probably will.
The biggest playoff battle stories in 2020 may wind up involving two drivers who recently made Cup Series comebacks. Both Kenseth and Newman rallied from points deficits in their most recent full-time seasons to reach the postseason. Can they do it again?
In Newman’s case, he wound up missing three races this year while recovering from a terrible crash at the end of February’s Daytona 500. Kenseth had not planned to compete in 2020 but was called out of retirement as Kyle Larson’s surprise replacement at the end of April. When Newman and Kenseth were granted playoff waivers by NASCAR, speculation abounded as to whether or not they could make another comeback.
But after eight races, Newman’s and Kenseth’s options appear to be limited. Newman has climbing in points since his return, but he remains over 70 points below the playoff cutline. Kenseth has fared much worse and only broke into the top 30 after Sunday’s race. Even though both of them are steady, capable drivers, points alone are unlikely to be enough for Kenseth and Newman this time.
If either of them hopes to make the postseason at this point, it will probably take a win. That seems increasingly unlikely for both drivers. Newman has not had a top-10 finish since his return and his last victory was over three years ago. Kenseth has struggled to mesh with the No. 42 team and a lack of practice time has no doubt made his transition back to weekly competition in NASCAR steeper.
Sure, it’s not a hopeless case for either driver. Newman nearly won the last two superspeedway races while Kenseth got more competitive by the end of his partial season with Roush Fenway Racing in 2018. Time may be the only missing ingredient they need to succeed. But as far as making the playoffs is concerned, the hourglass will quickly run out in the coming months.
Besides Kenseth and Newman, there are several drivers closer to the cutline who could realistically reach the postseason. Austin Dillon and Chris Buescher have both made the playoffs previously. Dillon’s teammate, Tyler Reddick, could also become a postseason contender. Reddick won the last two NASCAR Xfinity Series championships and has arguably been the most impressive rookie of the 2020 season. But history suggests that among Dillon, Buescher, Reddick, Newman and Kenseth, only two of them will make it in, if that.
Expect the playoff battle to remain a big story this summer. The progress of Kenseth and Newman will be worth following, as will the results of whoever winds up near the cutline in August. But expect actual movement in and out of the playoffs to be relatively minimal. From this point on in the season, surprise winners and points comebacks will be the exception, not the rule.