From February to fall, every NASCAR driver preaches reaching the playoffs and giving themselves a chance to win the championship trophy come November. They run a gauntlet of 26 races, darting all over the country in the process – and then only 16 drivers make the cut.
After this weekend’s race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, that number drops to 12.
For all the buildup to the playoffs, they can bring an unceremonious end to the season. A loose battery here (hello, Kyle Larson in 2016), a collision there (Kurt Busch, you’re in trouble now), and someone who once challenged for the top of the leaderboard can find themselves eliminated in three short weekends.
Some drivers, barring absolute catastrophe, are locks to advance. Martin Truex Jr., for example, has dominated all season, leading all racers with five victories. He nearly crashed last weekend at New Hampshire, but only sustained damage to the left rear of his car and finished fifth. It would be the shock of the season if he somehow failed to advance.
Same for Kyle Larson, who has won four races, as well as Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin, who have two victories each. Kyle Busch, third in the standings, won at New Hampshire to seal his place in the next round.
While that top tier of drivers should have no problem advancing, there are a handful near the bottom of the playoff standings who have every right to be concerned.
Kurt Busch, for example, is in a tough spot. He has a victory and 13 top-10 finishes this season, but a wreck on Sunday at New Hampshire left him unable to finish. He slammed into Kevin Harvick, ending both their afternoons near the end of Stage 2 and dropping Busch to 15th in the standings. He’ll have to win at Dover to avoid elimination.
Busch isn’t the only driver in danger, though. Which others are in trouble, and which will squeak into the second round of the playoffs?
Other than Busch, the driver least likely to advance is Kasey Kahne. He won at Indianapolis in July to clinch his playoff berth, but he hasn’t been a real threat since. His four top-10 finishes are tied with Austin Dillon for the fewest among playoff drivers, and his 35th-place finish at New Hampshire was the worst of any driver who didn’t crash.
The two other drivers currently slotted for elimination are Dillon and Ryan Newman. While Kahne and Busch have more ground to make up, there’s still a reasonable chance either Dillon or Newman could advance. A strong finish by either could push them past Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Jamie McMurray and into the next round.
A final projection: Kahne and Busch don’t make the cut. Dillon has a strong finish and leapfrogs Stenhouse Jr., who misses out along with Newman.
But lucky for all those near the bottom, there’s still another race to be run.