Playoff pressure mounts as NASCAR Cup season enters second half

The NASCAR Cup Series regular season has reached its midpoint of 13 races, and only half the 16-driver Playoff field has been filled with presumptive qualifiers—those who have won races, that is.

William Byron and Denny Hamlin have won three races each. Indianapolis 500-bound Kyle Larson has two victories to his credit. Five other drivers—Daniel Suarez, Christopher Bell, Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick and Brad Keselowski—ostensibly have punched their Playoff tickets with single wins.

That leaves eight berths available, either through victories or points, and the sense of urgency is building among drivers who are not yet part of the Playoff grid.

Particularly uncomfortable at this point are four drivers who made the Playoffs last year but are currently below the cut line in 2024: Bubba Wallace, Joey Logano (winner of last Sunday‘s exhibition NASCAR All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro), Michael McDowell and 2023-Daytona 500-winner-turned-pugilist Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

But those in the have-not category can look forward to a race that can defy predictability—the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (6 p.m. Sunday on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Last year, Ryan Blaney came from nowhere to win NASCAR‘s longest race in dominating fashion, leading 163 of the 400 laps. Ultimately, Blaney would win the NASCAR Cup Series championship with a late-season surge.

Before Blaney triumphed at Charlotte last season, Ford drivers had won just one race, a victory at Atlanta by Logano, Blaney‘s teammate at Team Penske.

This season, it has taken the Ford camp longer to break through. Brad Keselowski won the 13th race of the current campaign, at Darlington, and Logano continued the momentum with his victory in the All-Star Race, which doesn‘t count in the standings.

That‘s cause for optimism in the Memorial Day weekend race that each year honors heroes from the United States military.

“Yeah, it’s been a challenging year, no doubt, and for sure short tracks are our wheelhouse and kind of always have been,” said Logano, who currently is 18th in the Playoff standings, one spot behind Wallace. “So, you’ve got to capitalize when you’re at them. Or high fall-off tracks. (At) Darlington, we had a top-five run going until I sped on pit road the final run.

“We‘ve got speed at high fall-off and short tracks, and Charlotte is kind of an in-betweener of what that is. Obviously, Blaney had a great run there last year winning the 600, so hopefully we’re able to learn a lot from that and be able to be fast for the Coke 600.”

For Larson, one of the primary concerns is getting back to Charlotte in time for the start of the 600 after running 500 miles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The sheer mental and physical stress of racing and commuting might be enough to dim the chances of the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet, who won the 2021 Coca-Cola 600 by 10.051 seconds over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott.

Of those who have completed the Indy 500/Coke 600 double, three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart produced the best combined result in 2001, finishing sixth at Indianapolis and third at Charlotte, completing all 1,100 miles in the two races.

The antagonism between Stenhouse and Kyle Busch at North Wilkesboro is unlikely to continue as a major incident at Charlotte. After Busch turned Stenhouse‘s Chevrolet into the outside wall on Lap 2 of the All-Star Race, Stenhouse punched Busch post-race, igniting a brawl, and vowed to wreck him at Charlotte.

Though Stenhouse and Busch haven‘t spoken since the incident, Stenhouse, who drew a $75,000 fine from NASCAR, assured team owner Richard Childress in a phone call that he wouldn‘t follow through on his threat to wreck Busch‘s No. 8 Chevrolet, per FOX Sports‘ “Race Hub” show.

Variety and double-duty drivers add spice to NASCAR Xfinity race at Charlotte

The last 11 NASCAR Xfinity Series races at Charlotte Motor Speedway have produced 11 different winners, but only three drivers from that group can end that streak in Saturday‘s Bet MGM 300 at the 1.5-mile intermediate track. (1 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Kyle Busch, who has won a record nine Xfinity Series races at Charlotte, is making his fifth and final start of the season on Saturday, driving the No. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Likewise, Ty Gibbs, the 2021 winner at the track, is moonlighting from the NASCAR Cup Series this weekend.

The only Xfinity Series regular who has a victory during the 11-race stretch and is competing on Saturday is defending race winner Justin Allgaier, who already has qualified for the series Playoffs through his May 11 triumph at Darlington Raceway.

Should he win on Saturday, Allgaier would be the seventh driver to go back-to-back in Xfinity Series events at Charlotte. Austin Dillon was the last to do so in 2015.

“We have had a lot of speed here the last couple of years and were fortunate enough to get to Victory Lane here last year,” said Allgaier, who is running a special Memorial Day paint scheme commemorating the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

“So hopefully we can have that same speed once again this weekend and keep this momentum going.”

Busch and Gibbs aren‘t the only double-duty drivers trying to steal an Xfinity win this weekend. Chase Elliott is driving the No. 17 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, and Noah Gragson is making his first start in the series this season in the No. 30 Ford fielded by Rette Jones Racing.

Six Playoff spots still available in NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series

At this point in the season, “six” is the magic number in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series.

There are six spots remaining for the series Playoffs and just six regular-season races left to fill them, starting with Friday night‘s North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (8:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Corey Heim, who has won three of the last six Truck Series races, is locked into the postseason. So is two-time winner Christian Eckes. Rajah Caruth and Nick Sanchez are the only other two series regulars with victories this season.

Accordingly, the Playoff grid is still wide open to any driver who can either find Victory Lane or score enough points to qualify on that basis.

There‘s an extra incentive involving Friday night‘s race. It‘s the first event in the Triple Truck Challenge, which pays a $50,000 bonus to the winner of any of three designated races. If one driver wins two of the three, the bonus increases to $150,000.

Should a driver win all three designated races, the bonus grows to $500,000. After Charlotte, the next two races in “The Trip” are scheduled for World Wide Technology Raceway (June 1) and Nashville Superspeedway (June 28).

Defending Charlotte race winner and defending series champion Ben Rhodes is one of the drivers who has yet to clinch a Playoff berth. The driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Racing Ford is currently ninth in the standings, just four points above the current cutoff for the postseason.

Teammate Matt Crafton, a three-time series champion, is the first driver currently out of a Playoff-eligible position, two points below the cut line.

— NASCAR News Wire —

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