Key Cup drivers still searching for playoff spots as summer arrives

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Many NASCAR Cup drivers are wandering the globe this week, enjoying some vacation time in the only off week of the long and winding season.

When the schedule resumes June 26 at Nashville Superspeedway on NBC, the first race of a long, hot summer, some key drivers face a considerable workload. The Nashville race is the first of a 10-event run to the end of the regular season, and numerous top drivers, including Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski, remain in precarious situations relative to playoff qualifying.

The season to date has seen 12 different winners, and those drivers are virtually guaranteed to be in the playoffs. That list includes four first-time winners (Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez), and the victory lane success of those drivers has made life more complicated for others generally considered playoff regulars.

If the regular-season victory list contains less than 16 drivers, points will be used to determine those who join seasonal winners in the search for the Cup championship, but winning a race remains the smoothest way to the playoffs.

The next 10 races include action on road courses, superspeedways and one short track. Here’s a look at 10 of the season’s winless drivers and what could be their best routes to joining the playoff group:

Kevin Harvick — Harvick has had a frustrating season with no wins and only 13 laps led, but his record at tracks hosting the final 10 races of the regular season is excellent. He has won at seven of the 10 speedways and has five victories at Michigan, four at New Hampshire and three each at Atlanta and Richmond. But Harvick needs better cars and more consistent pit road performance.

Martin Truex Jr. — The final race of the regular season is Aug. 27 at Daytona International Speedway. As the last chance to qualify for the playoffs, that race is likely to be even wilder than the typical zany affair at Daytona. Truex might be advised not to count on that last chance. He is 0-for-34 in his career at Daytona. The former champion’s best shots at winning are at Richmond (three wins) and Pocono (two).

Ryan Blaney — The Team Penske driver won three times last season but hasn’t been able to cash in this year despite scoring five top-five runs and leading more than 100 laps at Phoenix and Richmond. His career victory list includes wins at these upcoming tracks: Atlanta, Pocono, Michigan and Daytona. Blaney currently is the top non-winner on the playoff leaderboard, followed by Truex, Christopher Bell and Aric Almirola.

Brad Keselowski — Keselowski has found the first season of both owning race cars and driving them a challenge. He has only two top-10 finishes and has led laps in only three of the season’s 16 races. He’ll need better cars to return to the playoffs, but his career record includes wins at Atlanta, Daytona, New Hampshire, Pocono and Richmond, so he knows the right paths.

Christopher BellBell’s only career win came on the Daytona road course, but he has had good runs at several of the upcoming tracks. Richmond might be his best bet for a playoff-producing victory, as he has two top fives there. In his brief career, Bell also has top-five runs at Road America, New Hampshire and Pocono.

Bubba Wallace — Wallace’s season has been bumpier than most, with bad runs and bad luck clouding the schedule’s first half. His best shot at making the playoffs clearly will be the final regular-season race at Daytona, where he has four top fives and where he almost won the Daytona 500 in 2018. Wallace’s only career win came at Talladega, Daytona’s sister track.

Aric Almirola — Almirola has wins at Daytona and New Hampshire but also has run well at other remaining tracks. He has two top fives at Pocono and Richmond. In what Almirola says will be his final full-time season in Cup, he’ll be pushing to close out his career in playoff competition.

Austin DillonDaytona, where Dillon won the 500 in 2018, might be his best shot to roll into the playoffs. He has two other top fives there. Michigan and Richmond also have been good tracks for the Richard Childress Racing driver.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse’s only two career victories came at Daytona and Talladega, so it’s easy to pick the regular-season finale at Daytona as Stenhouse’s best bet. He has a second top five there. Richmond could give him an earlier chance at victory.

Erik Jones — Jones’ career is sprinkled with top-five runs at remaining tracks, including a win at Daytona in the 2018 summer race. Pocono has been good to Jones, with five top-five runs. He also has top fives at New Hampshire, Michigan and Watkins Glen.

Remaining regular-season races:

June 26 — Nashville (5 p.m. ET, NBC)

July 3 — Road America (3 p.m. ET, USA)

July 10 — Atlanta (3 p.m. ET, USA)

July 17 — New Hampshire (3 p.m. ET, USA)

July 24 — Pocono (3 p.m. ET, USA)

July 31 — Indianapolis road course (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

Aug. 7 — Michigan (3 p.m. ET, USA)

Aug. 14 — Richmond (3 p.m. ET, USA)

Aug. 21 — Watkins Glen (3 p.m. ET, USA)

Aug. 27 — Daytona (7 p.m. ET, NBC)