Any NASCAR Cup Series team will tell you that it’s never too early to start thinking about making the NASCAR Playoffs. For that matter, doing so becomes the primary focus in race shops throughout North Carolina almost immediately after the previous season ends. So this year coming out of the season-opening Daytona 500, an extra bit of pressure has been added to the mix for those teams who typically consider themselves to be in the hunt for a championship.
Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske, Richard Childress Racing, and Chip Ganassi Racing all placed at least one driver in the 2020 edition of the NASCAR Playoffs. As a result, it would stand to reason that each of those organizations, and their multi-million dollar sponsors, believes that all of its individual teams are capable of making the playoffs. The pressure on drivers, crew chiefs, pit crew members, and everyone else involved is high going into the season knowing those expectations.
There is an immediate problem that anyone who knows basic math can readily see with the issue mentioned above. If one adds up the individual drivers who are employed within those organizations, the total comes to 19. The number of drivers who will make it into the NASCAR Playoffs is only 16. Obviously then, at least three teams from NASCAR’s power organizations won’t achieve their most pressing goal for the season. That is a known quantity going in.
Provided there are fewer than 16 race winners in the first 26 events of the season, winning a single race earns that particular competitor a spot in the ten-race playoff dash as long as that driver ranks within the top-30 of the standings when the checkered flag waves to end the cutoff race.
Essentially, winning a race locks a driver into the playoffs. And at the same time, one driver locking himself in bumps another driver out.
The 2020 season provides us with a perfect example of this very scenario. Cole Custer was outside the top-16 in the standings following the August event at the Daytona International Speedway. But because he had won earlier in the year at the Kentucky Speedway, he made it to the playoffs and bumped another driver, Jimmie Johnson, from the championship-seeking field of 16.
The Daytona 500 produced what was truly a feel good story as Michael McDowell drove through the proverbial parted sea of crashing cars to win NASCAR’s most prized race. In doing so, he all but assured himself of a place in the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs as he will likely be placed inside the top-30 following the second race on Daytona’s tri-oval.
The trouble for those organizations listed above is that he drives for Front Row Motorsports. That team is not typically mentioned in the same conversation as those dominant companies when race wins and playoff contenders are discussed. But it has to be now because the No. 34 Ford has met the criteria.
A spot in the NASCAR Playoffs has been taken by someone who was not on anybody’s list of contenders prior to the Daytona 500. Now, there are fifteen spots open for the nineteen drivers who pilot the machines maintained in the elite garages around the Charlotte area.
The pressure to make the playoffs has been amped up just that much more … and it’s only the first week of the season. But remember, it’s never too early to be thinking about the playoffs.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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