NASCAR’s ‘unique’ winners already altering playoff landscape

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) – The landscape of the NASCAR playoffs has changed after just two Cup Series races.

With Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell winning at Daytona International Speedway, the first of the Daytona 500 and second on the road course, two playoff spots were blocked by guys who weren’t generally considered locks.

The consequences? Other teams are feeling the pinch at the end of February – six months before the start of the 16-driver playoff squad – and with 24 races to go.

“Probably not for the teams we all expect to win, but for some of these fringe cars it will,” said Bell team chief Adam Stevens. “The number of unique winners is really going to change the number of cars that score points, isn’t it? It’s pretty obvious.

The simplest way to look at it: If the heavyweights in the series perform as expected for the rest of the time, there won’t be many playoff spots left for anyone else. It’s already a somewhat bleak prospect for several teams and could force them to adjust their approach starting Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Some of these upcoming cars really have to be wondering if they are swinging for the fence or if they are racing for the points,” Stevens said. “Maybe a more a winner that nobody expected early enough in the season could make a real difference in skin tone. “

Each year since NASCAR’s current playoff system began in 2014, at least three playoff spots have been awarded to drivers based on points. Over the past three years, as Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott have won more races, more the pilots made the playoffs on points.

But Bell and McDowell have already won two of the spots, which many would have seen as an unlikely possibility earlier this year.

“The dynamics have changed dramatically right now,” said 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski. “We’re very early in the season, and it’s now become a points race for those last places. Hope it doesn’t matter to us.

“But if you don’t win, you’re in a lot of trouble right now because it doesn’t look like you’re going to be able to make the playoffs now without a win.”

The Daytona 500 tends to be a crapshoot game, often delivering an odd top-10 and sometimes ending up with a far winner like McDowell. He had been winless in 357 Cup starts before his breakthrough.

Although Bell drives for the mighty Joe Gibbs Racing, he was a rookie for this top-tier team and in his second full season in the Cup series.

“Two of the tracks that we’ve been on are definitely tracks that create opportunities for guys that you wouldn’t necessarily give them a spot or you don’t think they’re going to go on,” said Austin Dillon, pilot. Richard Childress Racing. who has made the playoffs four times in the past five years. “But I think over the course of the season there will be opportunities to score points.

“It always comes down to one or two positions, I feel, when it comes to points.”

THE HOUSE OF HAMLIN

No one in the field has been better at Homestead than Hamlin. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has three wins (2009, ’13, ’20) on the track and 11 top 10 finishes in 16 starts. He led 137 of 267 laps last June en route to his final victory.

He is tied with Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle for most Cup wins on the site of 1 1/2 mile. These intermediate tracks are the ones Hamlin and Harvick predominantly dominated last year.

“We’re about to get into a part of the season where you’re going to start seeing some of your normal winners in the range,” Hamlin said.

THREE WEEKS, THREE TRACKS

NASCAR …

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