The NASCAR Cup Series regular season was honestly anything but “regular” in 2020, with the lingering fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic – and the nine-week hiatus that came along with it — having its effect on drivers and teams in the three months between the return to racing at Darlington Raceway and the conclusion of the regular season at Daytona.
Most of the events this season have looked much different than ever before, with NASCAR’s decision to eliminate all practice and qualifying sessions, making it difficult for drivers to get comfortable on the track before the green flag.
New tracks, new procedures (i.e choose rule), random draws, doubleheaders and incredibly short turnarounds were just some of the adverse conditions that NASCAR National Series competitors had to adapt to, all while continuing to obey the restrictions of the sanctioning body and the surrounding county/state mandates.
With a total of 22 NASCAR Cup Series events being contested over 104 days (just shy of 15 weeks), the series’ final 10 races will take place in a more familiar setting for drivers and teams, as no doubleheader weekends, no mid-week races and no new race tracks have been implemented in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs at this time.
For the 16 drivers that have earned the opportunity to win a championship at NASCAR’s top-level, the final ten races of the season will be crucial, as putting together a string of strong runs will be mandatory to even have the chance to beat championship favorites Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, who show very few signs of slowing down in the post-season.
However, by earning a “Darlington Stripe” at Darlington, being involved in “The Big One” at Talladega, missing the “Tums Heartburn Turn” at the Charlotte ROVAL, or even being on the receiving end of a last-lap “Bump & Run” at Bristol, Richmond or Martinsville, a competitor could be watching their chance to hoist the championship trophy slip through their fingers.
KEVIN HARVICK – NO. 4 STEWART-HAAS RACING | SEEDED 1ST | 7 WINS | 17 T5’s | 21 T10’s | 6.6 AVG FIN | 57 PLAYOFF POINTS
14TH NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE (7TH FOR STEWART-HAAS RACING)
As the NASCAR Cup Series enters the Playoffs, it’s nearly unanimous that Kevin Harvick and the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 team are the favorites for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Championship, leading the series in every measurable statistic.
The 44-year-old enters the 10-race post-season as the winningest driver in the series this season, scoring seven victories at Darlington, Atlanta, Pocono, Indianapolis, Michigan (x2) and Dover, with only one of those six venues hosting a Playoff race.
For a team that has shown an immense amount of speed like the No. 4, it seems like there are only two ways that Harvick could head to the season-finale at Phoenix without a chance to win the championship: a bizarre amount of bad luck, or the team and/or driver beating themselves.
While the latter seems unlikely considering Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team haven’t incurred a pit penalty in 29 races, it’s possible wild card races set up in each round could end up being a detriment to Harvick and his bid for a second championship at NASCAR’s top-level.
With Harvick’s 53 point gap on the cutoff, the regular season champion should be in a secure enough place to comfortably advance into the next round, while trying to pick up more race wins and playoff points.
DENNY HAMLIN – NO. 11 JOE GIBBS RACING | SEEDED 2ND | 6 WINS | 15 T5s | 17 T10s | 8.9 AVG FIN | 47 PLAYOFF POINTS
14TH NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE
Over his 16-year NASCAR Cup Series career, Denny Hamlin has been brutally close to hoisting the championship trophy on multiple occasions, scoring top-five point finishes in 2006, 2009, 2010, 2014 and 2019, but never once taking home the championship trophy.
In 2020, Hamlin has been top-three consistently in terms of raw pace and execution all season long, scoring six victories at Daytona, Darlington, Homestead, Pocono, Kansas and Dover, with two of the six tracks he’s won on this season hosting events in the final 10 races of the season.
However, the biggest obstacle Hamlin and the No. 11 team will have to overcome in order to take home the series title, is Kevin Harvick, who – despite Hamlin easily having a championship-caliber season in 2020 — statistically has had an even better season than Hamlin.
If the Chesterfield, Virginia-native wants to edge out Harvick for the title, both Hamlin and the No. 11 team will have to be nearly perfect, as Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing team have shown that they don’t make mistakes often, especially not in high-pressure situations.
Throughout the regular season, Hamlin incurred four pit penalties, all of which were self-inflicted, a costly mistake that can’t happen over the final 10 races if he wants to advance to Phoenix Raceway with a chance to take down the No. 4 team.
Entering the first Playoff race at Darlington, Hamlin sits 43 points above the cutline, meaning unless Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 has multiple disastrous races in the first round, they should be safe to advance to the next round.
BRAD KESELOWSKI – NO. 2 TEAM PENSKE | SEEDED 3RD | 3 WINS | 9 T5s | 19 T10s | 9.7 AVG FIN | 29 PLAYOFF POINTS
9TH NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE
Brad Keselowski has sneakily had one of his best seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series, despite currently being seeded third with three victories. However, if Keselowski is able to keep up the same pace in the final 10 races of the season that he has in the first 26, then the 36-year-old could find himself with a sub-10.0 average finish for the first time in his career.
If Keselowski is able to keep up his quiet, consistent performances this season, the Rochester Hills, Michigan-native could easily find himself with a legitimate shot to be hoisting the championship trophy at Phoenix.
In fact, Keselowski is the only driver this season to earn multiple victories in races that have utilized the 750hp aero package, the same configuration that will be used in the championship race at Phoenix, the same track where Team Penske teammate Joey Logano won in March.
Keselowski’s 19 top-tens this season is ranked second among all drivers this season, which if he can keep it up, will help Keselowski move through the rounds and into the Championship 4, so he can be within striking distance of championship favorites Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick in the closing laps at Phoenix.
JOEY LOGANO – NO. 22 TEAM PENSKE | SEEDED 4TH | 2 WINS | 6 T5s | 14 T10s | 13.5 AVG FIN | 22 PLAYOFF POINTS
7TH NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE
Since the NASCAR Cup Series returned to racing in mid-May, Joey Logano and the No. 22 team have been trying to return to the race-winning form they were in prior to the nine-week hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both of Logano’s victories this year have come on tracks that will host races in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, at Las Vegas and Phoenix, but it has been evident over the course of the 22 races that have happened since returning to racing, that Logano and the No. 22 team are not in the same form as they were earlier in the season.
Winning at Phoenix Raceway earlier this year may be the biggest advantage that could exist for any driver or team in the field, but if Logano and Team Penske can’t pick up their performance in the final 10 races of the season, they may not even make it to Phoenix with a chance at the championship.
Logano and crew chief Paul Wolfe will need to find their winning ways again, and soon if they hope to advance to Phoenix with a chance at Team Penske’s third NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
CHASE ELLIOTT – NO. 9 HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS | SEEDED 5TH | 2 WINS | 10 T5s | 15 T10s | 12.8 AVG FIN | 20 PLAYOFF POINTS
5TH NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE
Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, has been labeled by many as one of the drivers that could interrupt the dominance of Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, while potentially finding himself hoisting the championship trophy at Phoenix Raceway in November.
Like usual, Elliott’s season has been one of immense consistency, but hasn’t necessarily been the breakout season that many expected for the Hendrick Motorsports driver for 2020, scoring two victories at Charlotte and Daytona’s Road Course, neither of which will host an event in the Playoffs this season.
In order for Elliott to be a championship contender this year, the Dawsonville, Georgia-native will need to capitalize on the gains that Hendrick Motorsports has made in recent weeks, while also finding a way to maximize points in each event.
MARTIN TRUEX, JR. – NO. 19 JOE GIBBS RACING | SEEDED 6TH | 1 WIN | 11 T5s | 17 T10s | 11.4 AVG FIN | 14 PLAYOFF POINTS
8TH NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE (2ND FOR JOE GIBBS RACING)
Martin Truex, Jr. enters the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff-opener at Darlington Raceway on quite possibly the hottest streak of his career, and it could launch him to his second championship at NASCAR’s top-level.
Truex rides a wave of eight consecutive top-five finishes, after only scoring three in the first 18 races of the season. If the No. 19 team can keep up this pace throughout the playoffs, there is no doubt that the 40-year-old will be a threat to make the Championship 4, and more than likely a threat for the championship when they get to Phoenix.
With only 14 playoff points to their credit, it will be crucial for Truex, Jr. and crew chief James Small to maximize all points-paying opportunities, in order to keep themselves in contention to advance to the Championship 4. If the first-year pairing can continue to hit their stride in the final 10 races of the season, then Truex could be in a prime position to claim his second NASCAR Cup Series Championship in 2020.
RYAN BLANEY – NO. 12 TEAM PENSKE | SEEDED 7TH | 1 WIN | 8 T5s | 11 T10s | 14.8 AVG FIN | 13 PLAYOFF POINTS
4TH NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE (3RD FOR TEAM PENSKE)
Ryan Blaney enters the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs as an underdog in many people’s minds, which seems bizarre, considering the immense speed that the No. 12 team has shown throughout the regular season. However, the 26-year-old feels confident that the seventh-place seeding in Playoff standings, isn’t indicative of where the team has been running this year.
The High Point, North Carolina-native enters the Playoffs only nine points above the cutoff, meaning that the No.12 team can’t afford to have any major mistakes in the first round, a round which features two tracks that Blaney has never scored a top-10 finish it.
It will be crucial, if not mandatory for Blaney to earn multiple top-10 finishes in the opening round, if he truly hopes to go toe-to-toe with Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin for the championship at Phoenix.
ALEX BOWMAN – NO. 88 HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS | SEEDED 8TH | 1 WIN | 3 T5s | 8 T10s | 17.0 AVG FIN | 9 PLAYOFF POINTS
3RD NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE
When the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season started, Alex Bowman looked ready to have a breakout campaign in 2020, showing incredible speed throughout the first four races of the season, just before the nine-week interruption triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, when the series returned to competition in mid-May, things seemed to have regressed for Bowman and Hendrick Motorsports, as after scoring a top-five finish at Darlington in the first race back, the No. 88 team went 20 races without another top-five finish.
The Tucson, Arizona-native struggled immensely throughout the majority of the regular season, only scoring a total of eight top-tens, while finishing off the lead lap in 10 of the 26 regular season races (38.46%), while failing to finish four races.
Bowman enters Darlington in an uncomfortable position, sitting only five points above the cutoff to advance to round two, and without the assistance of positive momentum on his side. This could prove to be an issue for the Hendrick Motorsports driver in round one of the Playoffs, as there are numerous drivers and teams around him in standings that have outperformed the No. 88 in recent months.
WILLIAM BYRON – NO. 24 HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS | SEEDED 9TH | 1 WIN | 2 T5s | 9 T10s | 16.1 AVG FIN | 7 PLAYOFF POINTS
2ND NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE
William Byron and Chad Knaus enter the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with a monumental amount of momentum, after scoring back-to-back top-five finishes at Dover and Daytona, with the No. 24 returning to victory lane at Daytona International Speedway.
It’s enough momentum to catch the eyes of a few Playoff competitors, in large part due to crew chief Chad Knaus, who has led seven-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson to championships under multiple formats, including a similar elimination-style format in 2016.
Up to this point, Byron’s season has been mostly average, but the Playoffs carry some tracks that have been good to Byron in the past, with the No. 24 showing speed at Darlington earlier this season, as well as at Bristol, scoring a top-10 finish.
However, the main hindrance for Byron will be mistakes, as making one early in the playoffs with very few playoff points, could be a kiss of death for the No. 24’s championship aspirations.
AUSTIN DILLON – NO. 3 RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING | SEEDED 10TH | 1 WIN | 2 T5s | 7 T10s | 16.9 AVG FIN | 5 PLAYOFF POINTS
4TH NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE
Austin Dillon’s 2020 season has easily been the most chaotic of the 16 drivers competing in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, as the 30-year old has had to face numerous trials and tribulations throughout the season, most of which resulted in a lack of sleep on his part.
The chaos began at Martinsville, when an early incident knocked the crush panels out of the No. 3 Chevrolet. Dillon would go on to run 399 of 500 laps before having to retire from the event. Three days later, Austin and wife Whitney welcomed their first child, Ace Dillon into the world. The following day, Dillon went to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the track’s annual 400-mile event, finishing seventh.
Just over a month after the birth of his son, Dillon went on to win a strategy-driven top-two sweep for Richard Childress Racing, the first for the long-time NASCAR Cup Series team in nearly a decade. In August, Dillon tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the Lewisville, North Carolina-native to sit out for Daytona’s first ever Road Course event.
Heading into the Playoff-opener at Darlington Raceway, Dillon sits 10th-place in standings, only one point above the cutoff line, meaning that Dillon will have to post some good results, if he is hoping to keep himself in the conversation to advance to round two.
Lucky for Dillon, Darlington has proved to be one of his best tracks, notching a 13.25 average finish in eight starts at the track, including a top-five finish and only one finish outside the top-20.
COLE CUSTER – NO. 41 STEWART-HAAS RACING | SEEDED 11TH | 1 WIN | 2 T5s | 6 T10s | 19.9 AVG FIN | 5 PLAYOFF POINTS
1ST NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE
Cole Custer is the biggest surprise – by far — in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, after the 22-year old made an incredibly gutsy four-wide pass around the outside at Kentucky Speedway to capture his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory, and the first for a rookie since Chris Buescher in 2016.
In addition to an automatic berth into the playoffs, the win ultimately awarded Custer Rookie of The Year honors for the 2020 season, as fellow rookies Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, John Hunter Nemechek, Brennan Poole and Quin Houff were unable to make it into the NASCAR Cup Series’ ten-race post-season.
The race win also gave Custer five playoff points, which puts him one point to the good on the playoff grid entering Darlington Raceway, a track that the Ladera Ranch, California-native has visited twice before this season, with finishes of 22nd and 31st.
While the goal for Custer isn’t necessarily to win the championship, it will be crucial for the 22-year-old to put together some solid runs in the first three races of the playoffs, if he hopes to advance into the later rounds of the post-season.
Overall, for Custer, just the learning experience of being involved in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, as well as the added pressure and media obligations that are associated with it.
ARIC ALMIROLA – NO. 10 STEWART-HAAS RACING | SEEDED 12TH | 0 WINS | 5 T5s | 14 T10s | 12.7 AVG FIN | 5 PLAYOFF POINTS
4TH NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE (3RD FOR STEWART-HAAS RACING)
Aric Almirola and the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 team have turned their season around throughout the summer months of the season, and are looking like they could make a substantial run in the Playoffs, and potentially even pull an upset and win the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
The Tampa, Florida-native will need the remaining 10 races of the season to go perfect, as Almirola doesn’t have the playoff points to fall back on if something goes wrong, like teammate Kevin Harvick does. One small mistake on pit road, or one incident in the closing laps of a race could derail any hopes the team has of moving to Phoenix with a shot at the championship.
It’s been a career season for Almirola in many respects, highlighted by an incredible nine-race stretch of consecutive top-10 finishes over the summer months, which ended at Michigan International Speedway after a dismal showing in the first leg of a doubleheader weekend.
In order for Almirola and the No. 10 team to move through the rounds in the Playoffs, Almirola and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz are going to have to be aggressive in as many ways as possible, in order to gain every single point possible in the final races, as over the years we have seen that eliminations can often come down to a tiebreaker or a one-point margin.
CLINT BOWYER – NO. 14 STEWART-HAAS RACING | SEEDED 13TH | 0 WINS | 2 T5s | 7 T10s | 14.7 AVG FIN | 4 PLAYOFF POINTS
10TH NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE (3RD FOR STEWART-HAAS RACING)
With Clint Bowyer’s future at Stewart-Haas Racing “in limbo” for 2021, the final ten-races of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season may be some of the most important races of Bowyer’s career, if the 41-year old still has aspirations to race at NASCAR’s top-level for a championship organization beyond this season.
Like many others, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season hasn’t been terribly kind to Bowyer, as the speed in his No. 14 Ford Mustang just doesn’t seem to match that of his teammates Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola. However, Bowyer’s season has shown some glimmers of hope, with some impressive speed at Darlington, Atlanta and Michigan earlier in the season, each race in which he led more than 25 laps, but failed to finish inside the top-ten.
While all hope is not lost for Bowyer, the team will have to hustle in the first round of the playoffs, if they have hopes of advancing into the later rounds of the Playoffs.
KYLE BUSCH – NO. 18 JOE GIBBS RACING | SEEDED 14TH | 0 WINS | 11 T5s | 13 T10s | 15.2 AVG FIN | 3 PLAYOFF POINTS
13TH NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE (11TH FOR JOE GIBBS RACING)
“It’s still 2020.”
2020 has been anything but kind to Kyle Busch, as for the first time in his NASCAR Cup Series career, the two-time champion will enter the Playoffs having not yet visited victory lane.
However, despite the goose egg in the win column this season, Busch has still been performing very well, earning 11 top-fives in the 26-race regular season, tied for third place on the season with teammate Martin Truex, Jr.
Obviously, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the majority of the No. 18’s poor results this season have come from situations mostly out of his control, but with the reigning champion only having three playoff points to his credit entering Darlington, Busch is going to have to collect some stage/race wins in order to earn a sufficient number of playoff points for the later rounds in the playoffs.
KURT BUSCH – NO. 1 CHIP GANASSI RACING | SEEDED 15TH | 0 WINS | 4 T5s | 14 T10s | 13.4 AVG FIN | 1 PLAYOFF POINT
14TH NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE (2ND FOR CHIP GANASSI RACING)
Despite losing one of the best drivers in the organization’s history, Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 team has held on to some good results this season, with Kurt Busch continuing to pick up top-10 finishes through the bulk of the regular season.
With the regular season over, and the playoffs about to begin, Kurt Busch and Chip Ganassi Racing are going to have to turn it up a notch if the team has hopes of earning their second-ever top-five point finish in 2020.
With a total of 14 top-10 finishes this season (tied for sixth-best overall), Kurt Busch is looking to rely on the consistency he has established this season, in order to advance him through the rounds and potentially even into the Championship 4 at Phoenix.
A lack of playoff points earned over the regular season will hinder Busch’s efforts, as entering the first Playoff race at Darlington Raceway, Busch and the No. 1 team already sit four points below the cutoff line.
MATT DIBENEDETTO – NO. 21 WOOD BROTHERS RACING | SEEDED 16TH | 0 WINS | 2 T5s | 7 T10s | 15.0 AVG FIN | 0 PLAYOFF POINTS
1ST NASCAR CUP SERIES PLAYOFF APPEARANCE
Matt DiBendetto and Wood Brothers Racing enter the Playoffs just relieved to be in contention for the championship, considering the intense battle that the driver and team endured through the final races of the regular season.
The Grass Valley, California-native enters the 10-race post-season as the only driver not to score a playoff point during the regular season, placing him five points below the cutoff to advance to the second round of the Playoffs.
While it’s highly unlikely that DiBenedetto and the No. 21 will be in championship contention this season, it’s possible the No. 21 may be able to advance into the second round of the playoffs with three solid runs at Darlington, Bristol and Richmond.
Regardless of the odds, DiBenedetto and Wood Brothers Racing still have something to prove in the remaining 10 races this season, while still trying to pick up the 100th victory for Wood Brothers Racing.
TobyChristie.com Staff Predictions:
Toby Christie (Owner / Writer):
Joseph Srigley (Statistician / Contributer):