Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – BROOKLYN, MI – For those drivers who haven’t yet qualified for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, time is growing short.
There are four races left in the regular season, and 14 different drivers presumably are going to race in the postseason on the basis of victories in the first 22 events.
Realistically, that leaves two Playoff berths still available, and those spots currently are held by Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. on points, as the series heads to Michigan International Speedway for Sunday’s Firekeepers Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
But that could change if the next four events produce one, two or even three unique winners. Blaney and Truex are two of the marquee drivers who haven’t been to Victory Lane this year.
That group also includes Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Michael McDowell, Aric Almirola and Bubba Wallace, all of whom are below the Playoff cut line. With the lone exception of Harvick, all drivers in that group won races last year but have failed to scratch in 2022.
Harvick currently is 96 points behind Truex in the race for the final Playoff spot, but the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has an excellent record at Michigan.
Harvick is a five-time winner at the track, and four of those victories have come after a repaving in 2012. Before last year’s race, when he finished 14th, Harvick had won three straight races (and four of five) at the 2-mile speedway.
The “X” factor, however, is NASCAR’s Next Gen car, which will race at Michigan for the first time. Harvick doesn’t know whether the notes he and crew chief Rodney Childers have accumulated over the last few years will maintain significant relevance.
“You can have a baseline interpretation,” Harvick said, “but it seems to have migrated in a number of different directions at different race tracks and different scenarios this year, just because of the different characteristics that come with the car.
“Places that we haven’t been, you just don’t really know where it’s going to go. You go to some of these places, I think Darlington is a good example, where California, Darlington—places that have been super rough—have been really difficult to navigate in traffic, and even by yourself sometimes, because of the way that the cars bounce around.”
Note: Austin Hill, a two-time winner in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year, will make his Cup Series debut at Michigan in the No. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
Unlike Cup Series, NASCAR Xfinity Playoff spots are wide open
In the NASCAR Xfinity Series this season, race victories belonging to full-time competitors are concentrated in the hands of a few.
Seven Xfinity regulars have won races this season, and six of those are multiple winners, headed by Ty Gibbs with four victories.
That leaves five of the 12 Playoff spots wide open for any currently winless driver who can claim a victory in one of the next six races, starting with Saturday’s New Holland 250 at Michigan International Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
That’s an opportunity for Sheldon Creed, who in a star-crossed season currently is 50 points below the Playoff cut line. The Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender has suffered six DNFs (did not finish) in 20 races this season, four for crashes and two for engine failures.
But before last Saturday’s unlucky 23rd-place finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Creed had recorded two straight fifth-place finishes, his first two top fives of the season. Creed hasn’t raced at Michigan in the Xfinity Series, but in two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts at the track, the former series champion has a runner-up finish to his credit.
At the other end of the spectrum is JR Motorsports’ Josh Berry, who already has locked up a Playoff spot with two victories this season. In his only start at Michigan—in a relief role for injured Michael Annett last season—Berry led 24 laps and finished fourth in a race he feels he should have won.
“Michigan is the one that really got away from us last year,” Berry said. We had a fast car and were able to race up into the lead with the speed we had, but a late caution got us.
“We’re going back with the same team, and I know we are going to have a fast Harrison’s USA Chevrolet this weekend. Hopefully, we can go out and have that same speed and get it done this year.”