Another NASCAR playoff spot went begging on Sunday afternoon at Dover International Speedway. When Jimmie Johnson outsprinted Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. on an overtime restart to win under caution, it deprived another winless driver of a spot in the 16-driver, 10-race, four-stage, elimination-style playoff that determines this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.
The AAA 400 at the 1-mile track marked the midpoint of the 26-race regular season. The field will be locked in after Richmond on Sept. 9 and will include all “unencumbered” regular-season winners through that race. NASCAR will fill the field with the highest-ranked winless drivers needed to reach 16. With two prior victories this season, seven-time champion Johnson had already qualified for the series. Likewise, with early-season victories, Larson and Truex have also already won their way into the playoffs. Two-time winner Brad Keselowski and one-time winners Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Newman also have secured playoff spots.
Joey Logano’s “encumbered” victory at Richmond in April — his winning Ford flunked a major post-race tech inspection — counts as an official victory for his yearly and annual stats, but doesn’t get him in the playoffs. NASCAR made it clear in the off-season that any victory that normally would have earned a playoff spot would be vacated if the winner’s car failed the R&D Center’s “laser inspection” on Tuesday after the race. And that’s exactly what happened to Logano.
So Logano is thrown into the “winless pool” and still needs to earn a spot by victory or points. He’s in there with some pretty elite company: former champions Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch haven’t won this year, not have veteran winners Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Promising second-year drivers Chase Elliott and Ryan Newman have some work to do, as do outstanding rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suárez.
After Dover, the eight highest-ranked winless drivers are Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jamie McMurray at third, fourth and fifth, then Elliott, Hamlin, Bowyer, Logano, Kenseth and Blaney are 8th-13th. Jones and Suárez are 17th and 18th, and Earnhardt is in serious trouble at 22nd.
With 59 combined victories at the next 13 venues, it’s unimaginable that Hamlin, Kenseth and Kyle Busch won’t win somewhere and thus advance. Similarly, it’s seems inevitable that Harvick and maybe Bowyer can win their way in. Less certain of advancing by winning are Elliott, Earnhardt, Kahne, Blaney and McMurray. In truth, of course, they don’t have to win. As much as NASCAR crows about winning meaning everything, points are pretty important, too.
Just ask those dozen or so winless drivers trying to get one of those final eight playoff spots.