The off week provides the perfect opportunity to assess the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series Playoffs picture with just two races remaining before the postseason begins. Sixteen drivers will have a shot at the title — the first of 10 playoff races is Sept. 16 at Las Vegas — and 12 have already qualified thanks to wins or points.
The nine drivers that have won a race this season have already secured their spot in the playoffs. While Kyle Busch, with six wins, leads the standings right now, Kevin Harvick has the most wins with seven. Only two other drivers — defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. (four) and Clint Bowyer (two) — have won multiple races this season, and the rest of win-and-they’re-in qualifiers are Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Austin Dillon.
Also clinching spots in the field courtesy of their point totals are Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson, who all rank in the top 10 despite having not won this season.
The easiest way for another driver to grab one of the final four playoff spots is to win one of the final two regular-season races: the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington on Sept. 2 or the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard in Indianapolis on Sept. 9.
Notably absent among the current qualifiers is seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, a three-time winner at Darlington and four-time winner at the Brickyard. Johnson still has the inside track at earning his way in by points, but he’s not yet guaranteed a spot.
Also in line to earn a spot is Denny Hamlin, who is currently 10th in points. Hamlin is also the defending champion at Darlington and has won there twice in his Cup career and five more times in the Xfinity Series.
Indianapolis has had seven different winners in the last eight races there, including defending race winner Kasey Kahne (currently 27th in points), Ryan Newman (2013 winner, 17th in points), Paul Menard (2011 winner, 20th in points) and Jamie McMurray (2010, 22nd in points). All five need a win at Darlington or Indianapolis to make the postseason.
Aric Almirola and Alex Bowman are both currently in playoff position but, like Johnson, could be bumped if a must-win driver (or two) earns a victory in the final two weeks. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. sits 16th in the standings — three spots ahead of Dillon, who is in the playoffs thanks to his Daytona 500 win — and 79 points behind Bowman for the last playoff spot. While he could mathematically get in without winning, it would take Bowman finishing near the back of the field and Stenhouse near the front at both Darlington and Indianapolis to get in. A win remains his best chance.
Don’t rule out a surprise victory from Daniel Suarez (three top-fives this season, including two in the last four races) or even Chris Buescher, who ran in the top five at Bristol last week and has had success in the past at bigger tracks like Daytona and Pocono, plus has a top-10 at Indianapolis on his resume.
Finally, rookie William Byron hasn’t had much success in his first full season in the Cup series, but he could make noise in the final two weeks.
Byron, a 20-year-old Charlotte native, won in his only start at Indianapolis in the Xfinity Series last year and had a top-five-finish at Darlington as well. He had back-to-back top-10s at Pocono and Watkins Glen before finishing outside the top 20 the last two weeks.