Saturday's motors: NASCAR’s ‘unique’ winners already altering playoff landscape

Mark Long
Associated Press

Homestead, Fla. — NASCAR’s postseason landscape has been altered after just two Cup Series races.

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

Jeffrey Earnhardt's crew watches during the NASCAR Xfinity Series race.
 Saturday, Fb. 27, 2021, in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The fallout? Other teams are feeling the pinch in late February — six months before the 16-driver playoff field is set — and with 24 races remaining.

“Probably not for the teams that we all expect to win, but for some of those fringe cars it will,” said Bell’s crew chief, Adam Stevens. “The number of unique winners is really going to change how many cars get in on points, right? It’s pretty obvious.”

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

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“Some of that next batch of cars is really needing to be thinking about if they’re swinging for the fence or if they’re racing for points,” Stevens said. “Maybe one more winner that somebody didn’t expect pretty early in the season could really change the complexion.”

Every year since NASCAR’s current playoff system began in 2014, at least three postseason berths have been awarded to drivers based on points. The past three years, as Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott have won a bigger share of races, more drivers have made the playoffs on points.

But Bell and McDowell already grabbed two of the spots, something many would have considered an unlikely possibility entering the year.

“The dynamic has changed dramatically right now,” 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski said. “We’re very early in the season, and it’s now turned into a points race for those last few spots. Hopefully it doesn’t matter for us.

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

The Daytona 500 has a tendency to be a crapshoot, often delivering an odd top-10 and occasionally ending up with a long-shot winner like McDowell. He had been winless in 357 Cup starts before his breakthrough.

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

“Two of the tracks we’ve went to are definitely tracks that create opportunities for guys that you wouldn’t necessarily just give them a spot or think that they’re going to point themselves in,” said Richard Childress Racing driver Austin Dillon, who has made the playoffs four times in the last five years. “But I think as the season goes on, there will be some opportunities for points.

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

Xfinity

Myatt Snider won the Xfinity Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday, taking the checkered flag in overtime after Noah Gragson slammed into a lapped car with two laps remaining.

The 26-year-old Snider celebrated his first victory in 36 starts with a reverse lap around the 1 1/2-mile track.

Snider spun his tires on the first of two restarts in overtime, but got a second chance thanks to another late caution. He didn’t make the same mistake twice, driving by Tyler Reddick and turning the final two laps without much of a test.

The biggest challenge for the first-time winner was finding victory lane. Snider missed the turn before having to back up and try again.

Reddick was second, followed by Brandon Jones, Daniel Hemric, Jeb Burton and pole-sitter Austin Cindric.

Gragson was as much the story as Snider. He was cruising toward his first win since the 2020 season opener at Daytona when he slammed into another car. Gragson was just about to pass David Starr with two laps to go when Starr blew a right-front tire and turned into the outside wall – and right in front of Gragson.

Gragson had nowhere to go and no time to stop. He climbed out of his crumpled car, shook his head and fists in disgust. He took off his helmet and gloves and waved to the crowd before stepping into a waiting ambulance for a mandatory ride to the infield care center.

“What are you going to do?” Gragson said. “You’ve got (idiots) in the way every single week.”

It was his third straight disappointing finish at Homestead. Gragson had the dominant car in both races at Homestead last year, but failed to win either.

“Definitely a bummer,” Gragson said. “They know who won this race based on speed the last three times we’ve been here. … There’s only one thing we know how to do and that’s rebound.”

Reddick took advantage and put Richard Childress Racing in victory lane for the first time in 2021.