The NASCAR Cup Series kicks off their 2020 playoffs at the same place they restarted their regular season: Darlington Raceway. This time, however, the drivers will face off under the lights. We saw a wild finish in the regular season closer under the lights at Daytona last week where William Byron secured his spot in the playoffs with his first career win.
For those who are unfamiliar with how the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs work:
16 drivers enter as playoff eligible based on wins or points collected, but the entire field, including non-playoff drivers will race. The playoffs consist of 10 races broken up into 4 rounds. Rounds 1-3 will contain three races a piece with the last round containing the final championship race. At the end of the third race in each of the first three rounds, the bottom four playoff drivers will be eliminated and will no longer be championship eligible. These drivers will still be racing in the subsequent races, but will not be eligible to win the title. A non-playoff driver can win in the playoffs, but that does not make them championship eligible. A driver can advance to the next round automatically with a win or with the accumulation of points. Once the following round begins, drivers will either have to win again or continue to collect points so they can avoid elimination. The final four drivers remaining at the end of the third round are the championship four. These four will be the only ones eligible to win the title. All drivers will race in the championship race. The championship driver who finishes the highest among the final four is the series champion. This means that this driver doesn’t have to win, but if they finish higher than the other three they win the title.
The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoff lineup looks like this:
Standings are determined by playoff points gathered, which come with stage and race wins. Drivers earn one playoff point (10 regular points) for a stage win and 5 playoff points (40 regular points) for a race win. These regular points are used to determine the regular-season champion. The driver with the most points at the end of the regular season is named the regular-season champion and receives 15 additional playoff points as a reward. The following nine drivers receive additional playoff points as well. Second place receives 10 playoff points, third place receives 9 playoff points, and this pattern follows all the way down to tenth place receiving 1 playoff point. The playoffs will begin with every driver starting at 2,000 points with their playoff points being added on top. So for example, regular-season champion Kevin Harvick has 57 playoff points, so he will start the playoffs with 2,057 points. At the end of each round, these points are reset with all playoff points added back on. So this means that at the end of the first round, points will reset to 3,000 + playoff points, 4,000 + playoff points at the end of the second round, and 5,000 points even for the final four drivers at the end of the third round. Playoff points will help carry drivers through each round because the more points they have, the higher in the standings they go as they move further away from the cut line.
So, with all of that explanation, let’s get into some of the important storylines. Reigning Cup Series Champion Kyle Busch enters the playoffs in the 14th spot with no regular-season wins. This deficit places Kyle below the cut line for round two, meaning he will have to work his way up to at least 12th in the standings at the end of the first three races to advance to the second round. The regular season returned at Darlington Raceway back in March, with one race on Sunday, May 17th, and with one race on Wednesday, May 20th. The Sunday race was a mid-afternoon race won by Kevin Harvick and the Wednesday race was a night race won by Denny Hamlin. These two drivers are the clear favorites to battle it out for the series championship and they will definitely be ones to watch on Sunday night.
The top five drivers in the standings have multiple wins this season, and 6th through 12th have one win so far this season. Four drivers in the top six are previous Cup Series Champions (Elliott and Hamlin being the only two without.) William Byron and Cole Custer (rookie) are in the Cup Series Playoffs for the first time in their careers, each earning their first career wins this season. Matt DiBenedetto is also a playoff newbie, and he sits 16th in the standings with no race or stage wins so far this season. Expect all drivers to be aggressive once the green flag drops. The bottom four will be fighting for position to advance, while also making sure they don’t wreck and dig themselves into a big point deficit. Eighth through twelfth will be fighting to not lose any spots in the standings to avoid elimination. Seventh on up will be fighting to get a win to carry themselves into the next round, so they will be using plenty of strategy.
Here is the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff schedule:
Now here are my predictions:
Round of 16: Almirola, Bowyer, Kurt Busch and DiBenedetto eliminated. I think Kyle Busch will be aggressive enough to dig his way into the top 12 and avoid a first round elimination. However, the same can’t be said for these other four. Personally, I feel like they haven’t shown enough consistency to be able to push themselves to advance. Kyle Busch’s insane talent and playoff expertise will separate him from these four.
Round of 12: Custer, Bowman, Byron, Dillon: This is a bold pick. I think Kyle Busch finds a win somewhere in this round to advance to the round of 8. Dillon and Bowman’s inconsistency factored in here for me. I personally don’t think these two will have immense struggles in this round, I just simply think they will be out-raced. I picked Custer and Byron for their lack of playoff experience. Their playoff point cushion from their first wins will carry them out of the first round, but that will quickly run out in the second round.
Round of 8: Blaney, Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Logano: This was without a doubt the toughest round to think about. I picked these four by separating their strengths from the remaining four. Harvick and Hamlin were clear and easy choices to advance to the final four. Truex Jr. is phenomenal in the playoffs and is sure to win multiple races in the playoffs this year. I chose Elliott to have this last spot because of how consistent of a driver he is and with how there are tracks in each round where he has either won or has performed extremely well at. I think Blaney and Logano will be close to advancing, but will barely miss the cut. Keselowski has had a fairly quiet season and just doesn’t seem to be a real championship threat. I think Kyle will miss the final four just because of how down his season has been in comparison to the final four drivers.
4th place: Truex Jr., 3rd: Chase Elliot, 2nd: Denny Hamlin, Champion: Kevin Harvick: This wasn’t as difficult to decide as the last round. I chose Truex Jr. for fourth for the sole reason that he is the only driver in this final four without multiple wins this season. I put Elliott in third because he has been one of the best drivers in this sport all season, but Hamlin and Harvick are just so much stronger. I believe that this championship can go either Hamlin or Harvick’s way. My main reasoning behind picking Harvick was that he is the regular season champion for this year and ever since this format was introduced, the regular season champion has gone on to win the Series Championship two out of three times.