Welcome to the NASCAR playoffs.
Yes, the playoffs are starting a bit earlier than normal this year. With NASCAR moving the final race of the season up to Nov. 8, the Labor Day weekend Southern 500 is kicking off the postseason. And, quite frankly, it’s pretty remarkable that NASCAR is able to start the playoffs on time in the first place.
The Cup Series was on hiatus for 10 weeks from mid-March to mid-May because of the coronavirus pandemic. NASCAR made those races up by running mid-week races at tracks like Charlotte and Darlington and doubleheader races at tracks like Dover and Michigan. The series even ran 11 races from May 17-June 28 to get the regular season completed as scheduled.
The playoffs look a little different too. But that’s by design. NASCAR shook up a stagnant playoff track rotation before the season as it stuck with its 16-driver elimination playoff format. While there are some new tracks in the playoffs, four drivers will be eliminated after each of the first three three-race rounds to leave four drivers to race for the title.
Below is the playoff schedule for 2020. And below that, in alphabetical order, are our best guesses as to who will get eliminated in the playoffs.
Sept. 6: Darlington (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Sept. 12: Richmond (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Sept. 19: Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Sept. 27: Las Vegas (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Oct. 4: Talladega (2 p.m. ET, NBC)
Oct. 11: Charlotte Roval (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Oct. 18: Kansas (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Oct. 25: Texas (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Nov. 1: Martinsville (2 p.m. ET, NBC)
Nov. 8: Phoenix (3 p.m. ET, NBC)
Out in the first round
Playoff starting rank: 13th (2,004 points)
Bowyer was able to make the playoffs for the third-straight season but this hasn’t been a great season by any means. Bowyer missed the playoffs in his first season with the team in 2017 when he had six top fives and 13 top 10s. Bowyer has just two top-five finishes and seven top 10s this year. Extrapolate out over 10 more races and Bowyer won’t come close to matching those 2017 rates this season.
That’s why it’s hard to envision Bowyer doing much in the playoffs this year unless he can simply take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes. He’s failed to finish just one of the first 26 races this season.
Wins: 1 (Kentucky)
Playoff starting rank: 10th (2,005 points)
The most surprising member of the playoff field got in with a win at Kentucky in a late-race thriller. Since then, things haven’t gone well for Custer. He has three top-10 finishes in the nine races since his first-career Cup Series victory but he’s also finished 30th or worse three times. Without the benefit of many playoff points, a finish outside the top 25 in the first round could be devastating to Custer’s chances of advancing.
Playoff starting rank: 16th (2,000 points)
DiBenedetto’s stats look a lot like Bowyer’s. He has two top fives and seven top 10s and his average finish is just a tick worse than Bowyer’s. Oh, DiBenedetto has failed to finish just one race so far this season too. DiBenedetto has spent the last 20 races anywhere between 11th and 13th in the points standings and it’s difficult to see him leapfrogging four drivers given that he’s starting the playoffs with no bonus points.
Wins: 1 (Texas)
Playoff starting rank: 10th (2,005 points)
Dillon’s in the playoffs because of his win at Texas and, like Custer, did not score enough points otherwise to get in without that victory. His average finish of 16.9 is the second-best mark of his career but he’s only scored more than 30 points eight times this season. Richard Childress Racing has shown better speed lately, so Dillon could sneak through to the second round. But it’s not a tempting bet.
Out in the second round
Playoff starting rank: 10th (2,005 points)
Almirola scored the eighth-most points through the first 26 races of the season. That’s the most for any driver who didn’t get a win in the regular season. And he’s on pace for a career season in other categories even if he doesn’t get a win. Almirola already has more top five finishes (5) than he’s gotten in any full season and his 12.7 average finish is the best mark of his career. If he can keep starting in the top 10 — Almirola has started there in 20 of 26 races — he should keep up that points accumulation. But if he starts to lose that opening track position, he’s at a serious disadvantage to other drivers with more playoff points.
Wins: 1 (Auto Club)
Playoff starting rank: 8th (2,009 points)
Bowman and Joey Logano are the only two drivers who won before the Cup Series went on a pandemic hiatus in March. Given that hiatus it’s OK if you forgot that Bowman won at Auto Club on March 1. Since then he’s gotten just two more top five finishes and has just eight overall top 10s. Before finishing fifth at Dover and seventh at Daytona, Bowman was on a run of five-straight races without a top 10. He’s not a title threat barring a massive leap forward.
Playoff starting rank: 15th (2,001 points)
Just five drivers have more top 10s than Busch does (14). But Busch has led just 91 laps. Only Dillon, Custer, Bowyer and DiBenedetto have led fewer among playoff drivers. And it’s worth wondering if Busch and team aren’t as fast as they were earlier in the season. Busch’s last top-five finish came at Kentucky in July. And he hasn’t scored a finish in the single digits in the past seven races. If he can avoid the disastrous first round that he had in 2019 he should be a near-lock to advance to the second round.
Wins: 1 (Daytona)
Playoff starting rank: 9th (2,007 points)
Byron is here after getting the first win of his career at Daytona on Saturday night. That win was his second-straight top five finish. That’s the good news. The bad news is that those are the only two top fives Byron has scored all year. If you’re a believer in momentum, then Byron certainly has some heading into the playoffs. But it’s far easier (and smarter) to look at his season as a whole and realize that he’s probably capped out at round two.
Out in the third round
Wins: 1 (Talladega)
Playoff starting rank: 7th (2,013 points)
After leading the points for a couple races before the pandemic break, Blaney climbed to second in the standings on two occasions over the summer. Since then he slipped back to seventh thanks to bad finishes at Indianapolis, Michigan and the Daytona road course. Blaney’s had a ton of speed in 2020 — he’s led nearly 600 laps and has eight top five finishes — but it sure feels like there’s something missing in the equation that makes Blaney a legitimate title contender in 2020. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising if Blaney and company found that missing piece in the playoffs.
Playoff starting rank: 14th (2,003 points)
Busch is the only driver outside the top seven that has legitimate title aspirations. And yes, we’re well aware of Busch’s lack of playoff points and his lack of a win so far in 2020. But there are reasons to be optimistic about Busch’s chances to make the third round (or even beyond). The defending champion has 11 top fives and is the most well-rounded driver in the Cup Series. He’s won at nine of the ten tracks that make up the playoffs. Busch could win Sunday night at Darlington and it wouldn’t be a shock to anyone. Hell, he could reel off three-straight victories at some point in the playoffs and it wouldn’t be all that unexpected.
Wins: 2 (Las Vegas, Phoenix)
Playoff starting rank: 4th (2,022 points)
As Logano won two of the first four races of the season it sure looked like he was going to rack up a bunch of regular season wins. He did not.
Logano has still been very good, however, and he’s been racking up the top 10s recently. Logano has scored eight of his 14 top 10s in the last 11 races and was in position for a potential win at Daytona on Saturday night until he was one of the main pieces in the massive late wreck that helped lead to Byron’s win.
Wins: 2 (Charlotte, Daytona road course)
Playoff starting rank: 5th (2,020 points)
Is this the year that Elliott gets past the third round of the playoffs? Sorry, it had to be done. It’s going to be asked over and over and over again until NASCAR’s most popular driver does make the final round as Elliott has been eliminated in the third round in each of the past three seasons.
What makes 2020 the year of the final round? Well, Elliott already has 10 top fives — his career high is 12 — and with 71 more laps led over the playoffs he’ll have a career high in that category. If there was more than one road course in the playoffs we’d really like Elliott’s chances of getting to the finals. He’s won the last three road course races and four of the last six.
In the final round
Wins: 6 (Daytona, Darlington, Homestead, Pocono, Kansas, Dover)
Playoff starting rank: 2nd (2,047 points)
Our preseason pick to win the title is well-positioned for his first Cup Series championship. All he has to do is get to the final round. Hamlin has finished in the top six in seven of the last eight races and has enough of a playoff points cushion to cruise through the first and maybe even second rounds of the playoffs. A third round that includes Martinsville and Kansas lines up well for him and he won the fall race at Phoenix in 2019.
Wins: 7 (Darlington, Atlanta, Pocono, Indianapolis, Michigan, Michigan, Dover)
Playoff starting rank: 1st (2,057 points)
Good grief, Harvick has been ridiculously good in 2020. It took him until the ninth race of the season to finish outside the top 10 and even that was simply an 11th-place finish at Bristol. He bounced back the next week at Atlanta for his second win of the season.
And over the summer, Harvick went nine races without finishing outside the top five and won four races in that span. The 2014 Cup champ has finished outside the top 20 just once in 2020 and has been running at the end of every race. That recipe of excellence and consistency is a great one for title contention.
Wins: 3 (Charlotte, Bristol, New Hampshire)
Playoff starting rank: 3rd (2,029 points)
Keselowski is currently on a streak of four-straight seasons with three wins. He’d like to break that.
Keselowski has been in the top five in the points standings since he won the Coca-Cola 600 and climbed as high as second in August until a crash while racing with teammate Ryan Blaney at the front of the field dropped him to third. Keselowski has racked up the top 10s this season (19) and joins Harvick as the only drivers to have average starting and finishing positions in the top 10.
Martin Truex Jr.
Wins: 1 (Martinsville)
Playoff starting rank: 6th (2,014 points)
Truex has been really, really good since he crashed out at Indianapolis in July. He’s finished outside the top four just once in the last 10 races and had a ridiculous stretch of five-straight third-place finishes. He broke that streak at Dover two weeks ago by finishing second in back-to-back weeks. Dammit Truex, way to break a crazy streak by doing even better. While Truex doesn’t have near the playoff points that the other three drivers in this final group do, his recent performance makes him an easy choice for the final four.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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