Friday 5: Cup teams scramble for playoff points halfway through regular season

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With 11 different winners in the first 13 races, this Cup season is starting to look unlike most years. 

Already this season, three drivers have collected their first career Cup victory — Austin Cindric (Daytona 500), Chase Briscoe (Phoenix) and Ross Chastain (Circuit of the Americas).

Even with all the different winners, three former champions — Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — remain winless this season. 

But there’s something else to be mindful of as the series reaches the halfway point of the regular season: The playoffs this year could be tighter.

William Byron has a series-high 13 playoff points. That’s the lowest total for the series leader at the halfway mark of the Cup regular season since playoff points were added to the NASCAR scoring system in 2017.

In another sign of the parity this season, nine drivers are within seven playoff points of Byron. There has never been more than three drivers within seven playoff points of the leader at this point in the season since 2017.

With five playoff points for a win and one playoff point for each stage win, seven playoff points is the maximum for a race — except the Coca-Cola 600, which has an extra stage, giving it a maximum of eight playoff points. 

What this all means is that the second half of the season could see more intense racing for stage wins and race wins.

Playoff points have proved key in previous seasons.

Truex was the final driver to advance from the second round last year. He finished 25 points ahead of Harvick for the last transfer spot to the third round. The difference was playoff points. Truex had 27 more playoff points (29-2) than Harvick.

Truex also was the last of the four drivers to advance to the title race a year ago, beating teammate Kyle Busch by three points. Playoff points again were a factor. Truex had six more playoff points than Busch.

In 2019, Busch was the only driver to advance via points to the championship race. He beat Joey Logano by seven points for the final transfer spot. Busch had 16 more playoff points than Logano. Busch went on to win his second Cup title that year.

After a 21st-place finish for Denny Hamlin at Darlington earlier this month, crew chief Chris Gabehart said his message to his team was clear: Playoff points. 

“It’s no longer a season that is defined by 36 races, it’s not,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “It’s defined as getting hot at the right time and dominating when it’s time to dominate, and this team has the ability to do that. That’s the message. The message is try to gain some more playoff points and get hot when it’s time.”

Hamlin could use those. He’s ranked lowest in points among the 11 winners this season. The top 10 drivers in points at the end of the regular season receive between one and 15 additional playoff points. Hamlin is too far from the top 10 to have a realistic chance of scoring any of those playoff points. He’ll have to score his during races.

Keep an eye on the end of the stages the rest of the regular season because the intensity is likely to increase for many drivers.

2. 16 different winners?

It’s a common debate when there is a string of different winners early in the season. Will every driver making the playoffs need a win? Will someone win in the regular season and not make the playoffs?

Five more different winners in the next 13 races will make it 16 for the season. 

While a driver or two often gets hot in the second half of the regular season and keeps others from scoring wins, could this season be the year that doesn’t happen?

There’s a lack of consistency throughout the garage with this car. 

Eight times this season, a driver won a Cup race the week after finishing 18th or worse in the previous event. No driver showed how much things can change in a week than Joey Logano and his Team Penske group. He placed 29th at Dover, finishing four laps off the lead. Logano then won the following weekend at Darlington.

Kurt Busch, who won last weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway, said it took him the first part of the season before he changed his mindset. Busch wanted to make certain changes to the car but with teams limited by NASCAR on what they could change, Busch’s requests couldn’t be completed.

“I knew the rules, I knew it was an impound (race with limited adjustments allowed), but I kept focusing on the wrong things,” Busch told NBC Sports. “I think we’re finding a better rhythm. We’re seeing patterns as well, between Bubba (Wallace) and myself as far as driving styles.”

How did Busch break his habit?

He laughs.

“At Darlington, I said I’m going to keep it simple, it’s either going to be tight or it’s either going to be loose, and I’m going to tell you and I’m going to walk away,” he said. “The keep-it-simple-stupid approach is the easiest way to describe it for us these last few weeks.”

Many other drivers are still challenged by the car and will continue to be throughout the season.  

“I think there are going to be surprises there as long as you’re going to places you haven’t been,” Alex Bowman told NBC Sports. “It definitely feels more normal than where we started the season.

“But as long as you’re going to new racetracks you haven’t been with it, there are always going to be things that catch you by surprise.”

The second half of the regular season features several challenges for drivers. 

There are four road courses among the next 13 races. The Cup Series races for the first time at World Wide Technology Raceway, a 1.25-mile track near St. Louis. The series returns to Nashville Superspeedway, a 1.33-mile concrete track, for only the second Cup event there. There’s a race at Pocono Raceway, a 2.5-mile triangle that is unlike any other track. 

Such a schedule and a new car could lead to a situation where there are more different winners and the possibility that all 16 playoff drivers will need a win to qualify.

3. Working toward a deal with Kyle Busch

Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota continue to finalize a deal to keep Kyle Busch in the No. 18 car after this season. This is the final season in Busch’s contract. 

Busch was cryptic about this future with JGR last month at Talladega. David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said then he was a “little disappointed” in Busch’s comments.

Wilson said this week he is “optimistic” that Busch will remain with JGR and Toyota. Wilson noted that Busch has accounted for 36% of Toyota’s wins across NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.

“So any scenario that doesn’t have Kyle Busch retiring from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota would be a monstrous disappointment for us and for Coach Gibbs and the family,” Wilson said. 

“Yes, Kyle has been a little outspoken. You have to be somewhat emphatic or try to be and put yourself in his shoes. He’s on the out year of his contract. This is so rare.  What the team, what we try to do is get well ahead of us, particularly with a tier-one driver like Kyle Busch. The circumstances unfortunately have made that challenging 

“We’re working on it. It’s a conversation I have with Joe (Gibbs) every week. I’m optimistic. Kyle, he doesn’t want to go anywhere else. 

“He had been very candid. He can’t wait for the day that his little boy, Brexton, races a Toyota Tundra out of the Kyle Busch Motorsports stable. He has that in his sights and that’s not going to be for another 10-plus years, which means that we’ve got to make sure that we’re still together, long after Kyle is out of the driver’s seat full-time.”

Asked how things got to this point with Busch not having a contract extension entering this year, Wilson said:

“It did simply because of Mars’ decision to leave the sport (after this season) and that catching all of us a little bit by surprise. Mars is one of a handful of Fortune 500 companies that were probably at the highest level of sprsnroshiop and the reality is that Joe Gibbs Racing can’t afford to pay Kyle Busch. That comes from corporate sponsorship. 

“Every driver’s salary comes from whatever is on that racing car on Sundays. It’s circumstantial and yet we remain optimistic. It’s a prized property in the end and has a lot of potential, and we’re working on a solution, a number of different solutions, harder than we ever have before.”

4. Pit road highs and lows

Bubba Wallace’s frustration with his pit crew after last weekend’s race at Kansas was felt by others, including the president of Toyota Racing Development. 

23XI Racing gets its pit crews for Wallace and Kurt Busch from Joe Gibbs Racing. 

Wallace’s crew was penalized twice at Kansas, causing Wallace to rally from the back multiple times before finishing 10th. Asked if he could feel good about placing in the top 10, Wallace told NBC Sports: “Nope. Pit crew sucks.”

The pit crews from Joe Gibbs Racing are posting some of the fastest times in the sport’s history but not everything has been smooth all the time. 

Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, and two pit crew members will begin serving a four-race suspension after this weekend for a tire coming off Hamlin’s car at Dover. The team lost its appeal this past week.

At Kansas, Hamlin’s team had two penalties for equipment interference and Wallace’s crew was penalized for a tire violation and a crew member going over the pit wall too soon.

Kurt Busch’s car had the left rear come off in his pit stall at Darlington, but the team stopped him from taking off. It was put back on, but he lost several positions.

Kyle Busch’s team was penalized for removing equipment from the pit box at Talladega. 

Wallace and Christopher Bell each were penalized for having a crew member going over the wall too soon at Martinsville.

“We do have work to do, and the area right now where we’re focused more so than anywhere else is execution on pit lane,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said this week. 

“That has been a difference maker. What’s truly been amazing is the fact that we had six cars finish in the top 10 (at Kansas) with as many mistakes as were made on pit lane.”

Wilson noted that Wallace would have had a better result at Kansas if not for his pit road issues.

“He was going to finish top three I’m convinced, and he had to restart 18th because he had a ridiculous pit stop,” Wilson said. “In spite of all of that, he had the speed to drive back to the front. 

“We saw what Denny did heroically at Dover, in having to win that race almost twice two different ways. It’s not for lack of speed, but we all know that cliche, this is a team sport. 

“In order to win you have to execute not just behind the seat but underneath the hood. You have to execute on pit lane. It takes a team. This has been one of the absolute strengths of Joe Gibbs Racing historically. 

“For Coach (Joe) Gibbs and I to spend as much time as we have been the past few weeks talking about this is indicative of how we collectively hold ourselves accountable and we need to fix that.”

5. A different perspective

NBC Sports’ Diandra Leslie-Pelecky takes an interesting look at who is the fastest early in a run and on restarts. It’s a good precursor to Sunday night’s All-Star Race, which will feature numerous short runs on the way to awarding $1 million to the winner.

With the new car and new package, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. noted that he’s attacking restarts differently this year.

“I felt like you wanted to stay in line as long as you could (at Kansas) until you got to the corner and had a good lane to get in, because if you pulled out of line at the start/finish line when we’re allowed to, you’ve got so much drag on your car, you lost speed,” said Stenhouse, who has scored three consecutive top-10 finishes.

“I feel like you’ve got to stay in line a lot longer and then make your decision once you get into the corner and people start having to lift. You need a full lane of clear track to get your car to handle it the way you want it to.

“Any little bit behind a car, you definitely lose some downforce on your car, and it just doesn’t drive really good. Felt like our restarts were really good at Kansas, and I was able to get to some clear track and have that speed.

“Our old car, I feel like you could be half a car width out from somebody and feel the benefit. I feel this car you need a full lane. It’s trying to get that good launch, stay in line as long as possible and pick a lane.”