It would seem logical to say that the best sixteen drivers and teams are those who qualified for the NASCAR Playoffs. However, there have been two races held so far within the run for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series championship and both of those events were won by drivers who are not eligible for the title.
Could it be that there is some sort of an advantage to not making the Playoffs?
Obviously, all teams entered the season with the goal of being one of those sixteen who will be in the hunt for the championship. But in the somewhat strange system used by NASCAR, those who don’t earn their way into the Playoffs continue to race right alongside those who did make the cut contrary to what is done in most other major sports.
It certainly appears as though those who didn’t make the cut have something going for them, particularly Darlington winner Erik Jones and Kansas victor Bubba Wallace. Both defeated those with aspirations of a title while scoring their first wins of the 2022 season.
In a recent media availability made possible by Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola described his team’s approach to the final ten races on the schedule despite the fact that they know they will not be awarded the sport’s most coveted trophy after the series finale in Phoenix.
One potential advantage for non Playoff teams is that they will have an opportunity to begin working toward the next season. After attempting to rescue 2021 by stealing a late regular season win, Almirola’s team has now begun to focus on the future. If the current season is lost, working on the next year only makes sense.
“We’re working really hard on 2023,” Almirola pointed out. “The last six races before the Playoffs we were just trying to massage on things and trying to take race cars that we thought were capable of running 7th to 12th and fine tune it hoping that we would hit on that missing ingredient to get to where we needed to be to be a winning race car.”
Where teams who are in the Playoffs may not be able to take risks for fear of losing valuable points that could prove beneficial when the next cut occurs, those such as the No. 10 Ford are free to take risks with setups and race strategy. Further, they do not have to worry about obtaining stage points which allows crew chief Drew Blickensderfer to make calls designed to put his team in the best position for win.
“Now that we’re out of the Playoffs we’ve really used this opportunity as a team, the 10 team individually, to swing for the fences on stuff that is way outside of the box from anything that we’ve looked at previously,” Almirola explained. “It’s also a big learning curve for our organization. We have a lot great engineers here that have a lot of bright ideas and often times throughout the middle part of the season we would shoot them down because we were like, ‘Man, we can’t try that. We only have 15 minutes of practice and if it doesn’t work we can’t get it back out of the car.’ So we weren’t really willing to take that risk, especially in the early summer months, because we were right on the line for the cutoff for the Playoffs on points and so we were just trying to be consistent and we couldn’t take that risk.”
Finishing position in final standings this season is no longer as important as building toward next year.
“Now, not being in the Playoffs, I felt like we kind of held hands and we don’t really care about finishing 17th or 18th in points,” the 38-year-old driver said. “It doesn’t really matter to us as much as it does to us to learn as much as we can going into next year so we can go race for a championship next year.”
Driver and crew chief have worked hard to make an important point to their team. In 2017, Team Penske driver Joey Logano missed the NASCAR Playoffs but the next season he came back and not only made the Playoffs but actually won the championship. The No. 10 SHR team is using that as motivation.
“Drew and I had that conversation with our team after we missed the Playoffs at Daytona, we came back to the shop and we talked and we said, ‘Hey, I remember a handful of years ago the 22 car missed the Playoffs and came back the next year and won the championship.’ We’re not going to get too upset and hang our heads. We’re just going to look ahead and focus on getting better for next year.”
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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