A total of 16 drivers have qualified for the NASCAR Playoffs and are set to compete for the championship that awaits one of those racers at the end of this upcoming ten-race stretch. Along the way, there will be cuts that will eliminate four competitors after each of three segments until the field has been narrowed to the ‘Championship 4’ who will race for the title at Phoenix Raceway on November 8th.
The first segment will include races at Darlington Raceway, Richmond Raceway, and Bristol Motor Speedway. The first cut will then be made and the playoff field will be reduced to twelve.
Of those who made the initial cut, here are the four drivers who won’t survive as championship contenders beyond the first round:
Cole Custer– This is a rookie driver who parlayed a great restart late in the going at Kentucky into a playoff bid. Beyond that one moment, there is little to suggest that the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing team is made up of playoff worthy material as they managed only a 21st ranking in the standings before the re-set.
Aside from the one win, Custer compiled only two top-5 and six top-10 results in the first 26 races of the season. Furthermore, he has had twelve finishes outside the top-20. That kind of performance won’t keep this driver in the hunt beyond the first round.
Aric Almirola– During the middle stages of the 2020 season the No. 10 Stewart Racing Racing Ford had a string of five consecutive top-5 finishes which made Almirola look like a serious threat to score wins and ultimately challenge for the championship. But since that run of solid efforts, this team has posted very inconsistent results by placing inside the top-10 twice while at the same time placing outside the top-15 on four occasions.
While Almirola was fairly secure in terms of making the playoffs as the regular season entered its stretch run, this driver and team were in the process of falling off their earlier successes back into somewhat mediocre performance. Over the course of his career, Almirola has managed just average finishes of 17th, 16th and 25th at Darlington, Richmond and Bristol respectively. That won’t be good enough to make the second round.
William Byron– The Hendrick Motorsports driver comes into the playoffs with some momentum following his win in the regular season finale at Daytona. But that momentum won’t be enough to carry him through to the second round. The No. 24 Chevrolet team flirted with the cut line over the final weeks before saving themselves with a victory on one of the big super speedways. And this is a team that has scored six finishes outside the top-20 so far in 2020.
Byron’s average finish at Darlington is 25th then 17th at both Richmond and Bristol. Those numbers won’t add up when it is time for the first cut to be made.
Matt DiBenedetto– It was a popular move when Wood Brothers Racing brought DiBenedetto in after he was released at the end of last season by Leavine Family Racing. And for the first half of the year it looked as if the pairing of this driver and team was a great fit for both. However, the team squandered a big lead over the playoff bubble cut line during the closing races of the regular season and barely made the playoffs.
DiBenedeto did have a great run last year at Bristol that almost resulted in a win, but that was with his previous team. Right now, the No. 21 Ford appears to be struggling too much to advance.
Four who will barely survive:
Clint Bowyer– This driver who does not yet know what his plans will include for 2021 should be motivated to show that he is worthy of either keeping his current ride with Stewart-Haas Racing or landing in another situation. He is good enough at Darlington, Richmond, and Bristol to advance, but after that, it will be must-win time for the No. 14 Ford.
Alex Bowman– This is a driver and team that looked much stronger in the early part of the season than they are looking now. However, the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team did earn a runner-up finish at Darlington in the first race back from the coronavirus shutdown. If they can come close to replicating that along with adding in the playoff points they amassed during the regular season, they should be able to advance past the first round.
Austin Dillon– Richard Childress Racing has shown itself to be somewhat improved this season. If Dillon can avoid major pitfalls, he has been good enough at the three upcoming tracks to hang on past the first round. After that, No. 3 team will have to set up their game in order to hang around.
Kurt Busch– This veteran driver may not have had a spectacular season but he will piece together three solid enough runs to survive the first cut. However, don’t look for the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet to go much further than that.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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