Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman won the Toyota Owners 400 on Sunday, reaching Victory Lane for the first time in 2021. This victory moved him up the points standings but only further complicated the playoff picture. The reason is that Bowman became the eighth NASCAR driver to win in the first nine races.
The current playoff format features only 16 drivers, but there are 26 races in the regular season. With eight drivers already tentatively locked into the playoffs, time is running out for the other hopefuls to make a move. They will need to accumulate stage points by racing in the top 10, and they will need to win some races.
Another issue for the drivers currently trying to reach the playoffs is that there could be more winners than spots available. If more than 16 drivers win a race in the regular season, there will be some left on the outside looking in. They will have a trophy representing their win, but they will not have the opportunity to race for the Bill France Cup.
As an example, Michael McDowell currently sits in 17th in the standings with 199 points. He was the first driver to win a race in 2021, reaching Victory Lane after a wreck-filled Daytona 500. McDowell posted two more top-10 finishes to start the year but has since struggled. He most recently finished the Toyota Owners 400 in 27th place. If the struggles continue, McDowell could miss the playoffs after starting the season with a win.
The NASCAR playoff format focuses on more than wins
While winning a race plays a major role in reaching the playoffs, it is not the entire formula. As Jayski explains, the regular-season points champion locks up a spot in the top-16 regardless of whether he has won a race. The other 15 drivers are those that won the most races in the regular season. If there are fewer than 15 winners, the remaining spots go to drivers with the most points. In 2020, Kevin Harvick had the points lead, but he also won the most races and ensured that he would not miss the playoffs.
The 2021 season is different considering that Denny Hamlin has an 81-point lead in the standings despite failing to win a race. Martin Truex Jr., the first driver to win two races, sits in second place. He is currently the only driver to officially secure his spot in the playoffs.
Defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, Harvick, and Brad Keselowski are all in the top 10 despite failing to win a race. This trio can continue to stack points with strong performances, but winning will greatly improve their chances of reaching the playoffs.
The 2020 season featured fewer winners and emphasized stage points
The playoff field in 2020 featured a mix of statistics. Harvick and Hamlin combined to win 13 regular-season races while some other drivers each only won once. Five of the playoff drivers — Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, and Matt DiBenedetto — reached the next stage of the competition by accumulating enough points.
These drivers remained in contention for the championship, but they entered the playoffs at a slight disadvantage. NASCAR awards playoff points to the top 10 drivers in the points standings. The other six drivers start the playoffs already needing to find success.
Kurt made up this ground during the Round of 16 with eighth, 13th, and 15th-place finishes. He accumulated enough points to move onto the Round of 12 while four other drivers finished below the cutoff line. Kurt then booked his trip to the Round of eight by winning a playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. His championship dreams ultimately came to an end after the Round of eight after four other drivers locked up spots in the championship race.