The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are only one race deep, and four drivers are in need of some positive momentum before the first round of cuts. The list includes Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch, two drivers that won multiple races each during the 2021 regular season.
The two men entered the playoffs with an advantage in the points standings over Aric Almirola, Michael McDowell, Kevin Harvick, and Tyler Reddick due to reaching Victory Lane multiple times and contending for stage points throughout the regular season. However, both experienced significant issues during the race at Darlington, dropping them below the cut line while Denny Hamlin won and Kyle Larson finished second.
Bowman suffered damage early after contact with the wall and a collision with teammate William Byron. He headed to pit road for repairs but could never recover from the early-race incident. He fell multiple laps down and finished 26th overall, falling into a tie with Reddick on the cut line. Though the Richard Childress Racing driver has the current tiebreaker after finishing 18th.
Busch, on the other hand, slammed into the outside wall after a collision with Austin Dillon. He tore the rear off of the No. 18 Toyota Camry and immediately drove to the hauler, ending his race after only 125 laps. Busch left Darlington two points below the cut line with two races remaining in the Round of 16.
Bowman & Busch Are in Better Positions Than Other Playoff Drivers
While the two drivers are currently below the cutline after winning multiple races, they have no reason to despair just yet. They are both within reach of the top 12 and can fight for their spots at tracks where they have previous success.
Busch has a combined 14 wins at Richmond and Bristol, the two remaining tracks in the Round of 16. He will enter both races among the favorites due to a consistent history of success. Bowman, on the other hand, has not won at Bristol but has posted one top-five finish and two top-10s. He has similar stats at Richmond, but he reached Victory Lane at the short track back in April.
For comparisons, the other two drivers below the cut line — William Byron and Michael McDowell — are in a worse position. Bowman’s teammate is nine points below the cut line after a broken valve stem caused a flat tire, sending him into the wall and destroying the No. 24 Chevrolet. Byron finished the race 34th and in need of strong performances at two tracks where he has two combined top-10 finishes.
McDowell’s No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford Mustang was the first to suffer catastrophic damage during the playoff race. He lost control of the stock car in Turn 2 and hit the inside wall, destroying the front end and ending the day 37th overall. McDowell now sits 20 points below the cutline heading to two tracks where he has one top-10 finish in a combined 41 starts.
Most Playoff Drivers Struggled at Darlington
The playoffs started wildly for the majority of the 16-driver field. Some dealt with brake issues, such as Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, and ended the day outside of the top 20. Others had self-inflicted pain caused by mistakes on pit road.
Martin Truex Jr. missed out on an opportunity to take the lead by speeding on pit road. He also had a loose wheel, as did Kevin Harvick. Though both rebounded during the final segment and locked up top-five finishes to keep themselves in contention for the Round of 12.
Aric Almirola, Tyler Reddick, and Christopher Bell dealt with issues of their own throughout the playoff race at Darlington but avoided major crashes or heading to the garage early. They all finished inside the top 20 and remained above the cut line.
Three others — Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Kurt Busch — quietly turned in strong performances to keep themselves well above the cut line. The two Team Penske drivers did not have the best cars, but they kept pushing and avoided mistakes en route to top-10 finishes. Kurt, on the other hand, had one of the best cars all night long, but he lost some ground after minor damage in the final segment.