Playoff scenarios set after throwback thriller in Darlington

Rusty Jarrett/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

DARLINGTON, S.C. — With the penultimate race of the regular season complete, the playoff scenarios for the regular season finale at Richmond International Raceway are set – and they remain remarkably unchanged from the scenarios found entering the weekend.

Win and You’re In

When it comes to drivers that are currently sitting outside of the playoffs, the situation is simple – win or you’re out.

Ninth-place Jamie McMurray – the final driver in the current playoff grid – sits 91 points clear of 11th-place Clint Bowyer for the position after the latter driver’s early exit at Darlington Raceway. Because the gap is greater than the maximum 60 points that a driver can gain in a single race, that means everyone currently outside of the playoff grid will need a victory to steal a postseason berth.

That invites two interesting storylines for a pair of NASCAR’s biggest names.

Bowyer’s position means that he’ll need a victory at Richmond, where the infamous ‘Spin Gate’ incident that ultimately led to Michael Waltrip Racing’s decline and the moves of Martin Truex Jr. and later Bowyer himself happened in 2013.

Despite his position, Bowyer shook off any added pressure for Richmond after Darlington.

“You come to all these race tracks with an urgency to win, just like we did at the Daytona 500,” Bowyer said. “Richmond is a good track for us.  We’ll go there and do the best we can.”

On a similar note, Joey Logano’s 18th-place struggle in the Bojangles Southern 500 mean that the Team Penske veteran will need to claim a victory at the same track where his earlier 2017 win was encumbered to avoid becoming the first active driver to miss the playoffs after qualifying for the Championship 4 in the previous year.

The story writes itself for Logano, a fact he readily admitted after enduring another difficult race.

“It’s pretty simple,” Logano said. “You could almost write an article without talking to me.”

Outside of Bowyer and Logano are a swath of drivers that will need a victory to make something happen.

Rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez have shown promise over the summer months, but each will need to tally their first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win to make the playoffs as a rookie like Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher did in 2016.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. must earn his fourth-career victory at Richmond to avoid failing to make the postseason in his final Cup Series start. Trevor Bayne and Paul Menard will need a triumph to join their teammates in the playoff pursuit.

Also currently playoff eligible and in need of a win for a miracle playoff birth are Ty Dillon, Buescher, Michael McDowell, A.J. Allmendinger, Danica Patrick and David Ragan.

The Playoff Bubble

While they currently appear safe, the drivers on the playoff bubble will arrive at Richmond in need of a strong showing in case one of the drivers searching for a win manages to pull off the improbable.

Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and McMurray leave Darlington separated by just four points. At the moment the slim gap matters only for the potential bonus playoff points that accompany each position inside of the top 10.

However, should any of the winless drivers outside of the playoff grid score an unexpected victory, then the three drivers on the bubble will be battling for just two available playoff positions on points.

The Champ

After winning in the opening two stages of Sunday’s race, Truex and Furniture Row Racing have clinched the regular season championship and the additional 15 playoff points that accompany it.

That’s great news for Truex, who takes his series-best 37 playoff points and ups the total to 52 points – just eight markers short of a full race’s advantage. For those same reasons, Truex’s success is bad news for the rest of the field. The rest of the garage area will arrive through each week of the playoff knowing they’re essentially racing for just three positions at Homestead-Miami Speedway, should Truex avoid any issue.

By clinching the regular season crown, Truex will also arrive at Richmond without any pressure. At best the New Jersey native can claim a stage or race win to add to his playoff point total. Should he fail to do either of the above, his result will ultimately be negligible.

The Fight for Playoff Points

For the rest of the top 10, Richmond revolves around one thing – playoff points.

For Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, Richmond will be all about claiming playoff points either through a stage and/or race win, or attempting to hold or improve their points position to maximize the number of playoff points they receive for finishing the regular season in the top 10 in the standings.

Drivers with wins that are outside of the top 10 in points – Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Kasey Kahne – can benefit themselves at Richmond solely by earning a stage or race win.

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