It’s one thing when a driver already near the top of the NASCAR Cup Series standings wins his first race of the season to definitely lock himself into the NASCAR Playoffs but it’s quite another thing for a driver who entered a race 25th in the standings to assure himself of an invitation to the championship-deciding stretch run with a victory.
On Sunday afternoon in the Quaker State 400 at the Kentucky Speedway, rookie racer Cole Custer did exactly that when he made a four-wide pass as the cars took the white flag then beat the competition back to the finish line to win his first NASCAR Cup Series race. In doing so, the 22-year-old Stewart-Haas Racing upstart earned a place in the upcoming NASCAR All-Star Race at the Bristol Motor Speedway, and more importantly, a spot in the playoffs.
With only ten races remaining until the cutoff for the playoffs prior to Sunday’s event, Custer stood little chance of making it as one of the sixteen drivers who would have a chance to win the title without a race victory. All drivers who win a race are locked into the NASCAR Playoffs provided they have declared themselves to run for NASCAR Cup Series points and remain in the top-30 of the standings. Entering the Kentucky event ranking 25th in the series standings, it simply wasn’t likely he could make up enough ground to grab one of those spots.
With his triumph in Kentucky, the California native became the ninth championship-eligible driver to score a win in 2020 which means there are currently seven places open to those who have not yet won a race. Obviously, any other win-less drivers who score victories would even further reduce the number of “at-large” spots available.
The way this writer sees it, that’s all the better.
The fewer positions open the more pressure that is applied to those not locked into the playoff. Let’s see how these guys near the cut line react as the tension starts to mount. And with fewer spaces left open, the greater the tension.
After all, who wants to watch the guys placed between 12th and 18th in the standings try to slip into the playoffs by running 15th every week?
It’s far better to watch drivers and teams taking risks, playing out unorthodox strategies, and driving with near reckless abandon as the desperation becomes more apparent. Not only are those scenarios more entertaining but they are more of what sports are supposed to be about. Winning should always be valued over playing it safe.
So, kudos to Cole Custer for not only winning his first NASCAR Cup Series race but also for knocking someone who was going to eke his way into the playoffs solely on points out and increasing the pressure on those who have not yet won a race this season. The run to the NASCAR Playoffs just got that much more interesting and it could get even more so if a driver further back in the standings such as Bubba Wallace, Christopher Bell or Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. could pull off a similar feat.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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