With eight races remaining until the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series regular season concludes, another name has been added to the Playoff picture. With a strategic move for fuel only to gain track position and through a series of late restarts, Austin Dillon earned his way into the Playoffs following an upset victory in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Of all the accomplishments that Dillon established with his victory at Texas, the biggest one of all was guaranteeing himself and the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team a spot in the Playoffs for the fourth time in his career, where he will attempt to become the first NASCAR competitor to record a championship across the sport’s three major division series.
Dillon’s win makes it 10 Cup Series competitors that are guaranteed a spot in the Playoffs by virtue of a victory, a list that include Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman and rookie Cole Custer. Dillon’s win also leaves six spots vacant with the 2020 Playoffs a month away from commencing.
For the third time in the previous four weeks, including Sunday’s race at Texas, Aric Almirola and the No. 10 Smithfield/Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang team had a potential shot in winning a race. Despite starting on pole by virtue of a random draw and leading 35 laps, an early pit road penalty for violating the blend-line rule cost Almirola track position and two laps from the leaders. He was able to race his way towards the front in the closing laps of the race before he settled in 10th for his 10th top-10 result of the season. The result has Almirola 109 points above the top-16 cutline and as the highest competitor in points with no recorded victories 18 races into the 2020 regular season.
“One of these days we’ll get everything to go our way,” Almirola said. “That was my fault on the penalty, but we had such a fast car and got it back in position to compete for a win again before that caution came out. We’re still bringing fast Smithfield Ford Mustangs every weekend and we learned a lot for when we come back here and compete for a championship.”
Behind, the Busch brothers had strong runs at the Lone Star state. Kurt and the No. 1 Monster Energy/Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team capped off a race with top-10 results in the two stages to finish eighth, a result that keeps Kurt 108 points above the cutline. Kyle, on the other hand, rallied from being involved in a midway multi-car accident that involved his teammate, Truex Jr., to battle for the lead late in the race before settling in fourth. To go along with top-10 results in both stages, Kyle is 95 points above the cutline in his quest to defend his series title. The Busch brothers also continue to pursue their first victory of this season.
“We had one of our best points days so far this season with the Monster Energy Camaro,” Kurt Busch said. “We scored stage points in the first and second stages, followed by another top-10 result. I really battled a loose handling car all day, it was really difficult on the restarts and short-runs, so I really had to work my butt off there at the end with all the cautions.”
“It was a good finish and proud of the effort for everyone on this Interstate Batteries team,” Kyle Busch said. “We came a long way today. We got a lot of damage on the frontend of the car that you can’t see with the eye. Going through the grass, it killed it. I thought early on in the first stage, second stage maybe that we had a second-place car and then as the day went, we just kept getting further and further behind. Still a lot of work to do. The car didn’t drive very good at all. Just was able to get something out of nothing there at the end. We’ll go to Kansas and see if we can get a win there.”
Behind, Matt DiBenedetto had another strong result established following his third-place result at Kentucky Speedway. His run, however, was spoiled following a late incident, where he sustained damage to his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford Mustang after being hit by rookie Quin Houff. Over the final two restarts, DiBenedetto was able to race his way back onto the lead lap, but he was unable to charge his way into the top five as he settled in 17th. Nonetheless, the result kept DiBenedetto inside the top-16 cutline by 51 points as DiBenedetto attempts to qualify for his first Cup Playoffs.
Next, Clint Bowyer rallied from starting 17th to work his way up to 11th when the checkered flag flew. The result keeps Bowyer and his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang team inside the cutline by 36 points as Bowyer attempts to make his ninth Playoff appearance approaching next week’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway, his home track.
“That was a hot, tough day, for sure,” Bowyer said. “We worked hard all race trying to get our Rush Truck Centers Ford to turn better and the guys did a great job fixing our damage from the wreck. I didn’t know if we were going to finish because our engine temperature was so hot. They got it cooled down and we made it to the end with a good finish.”
For the second consecutive week, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson had a potential run for a strong result spoiled by an on-track incident. Compared to last weekend at Kentucky, Sunday’s at Texas came early and it was one where Johnson was unable to rally back into race-winning contention. Despite making significant contact with the Turn 4 outside wall, Johnson was able to proceed multiple laps down and gain advantage of others’ misfortunes to finish in 26th. The result has Johnson and the No. 48 Ally/Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE clinging onto the final transfer spot to the Playoffs by two points.
The first competitor out of the Playoff picture and looking ahead is William Byron and the No. 24 AXALTA/Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team. With his seventh finish outside the top 15, second DNF, of this season, Byron’s disappointing season in the Cup Series continued after being involved in two incidents in the final stage of the race and despite starting strong. With his 37th-place result, Byron trails the top-16 cutline by two points as he attempts to qualify for his second consecutive Playoffs.
“Honestly, it’s going to be tough,” Byron said. “We just have to find speed first. We’re not really running good at all and we’ve got to figure that out…We’ve just got to figure it out and figure it out quick before the fall.”
With his career-best runner-up finish behind teammate Austin Dillon, rookie Tyler Reddick gained significant ground towards the Playoffs as he is 14 points below the cutline and looks to join fellow competitor and Rookie-of-the-Year rival Cole Custer into the Playoffs.
“We really couldn’t ask for much more than what we got today,” Reddick declared. “One spot better would have been great, but the recovery this No. 8 Cat Oil and Gas team made today was huge. We’re racing for the big picture of making the playoffs, so we have to race smart. Days like this will help us get there.”
Compared to Kentucky, Erik Jones had a good result at Texas, where he collected a handful of stage points following the second stage and recorded a strong sixth-place result. The Michigan native, however, trails the cutline by 24 points as he also attempts to record his first Cup win since September 2019.
“We needed a solid run and mistake free and that’s what we did,” Jones said. “I thought coming into this race if we could just go in and have no mistakes and have decent speed we could run top-five and we came real close to that. We have to keep doing that. Obviously, we need to get some points, especially with two winners the last two weeks that have been from outside the Playoff picture. That kind of changes things for us. We’ll keep rolling, but a decent day for us.”
Next, Bubba Wallace rallied from difficult results at Kentucky Speedway and the All-Star Open at Bristol Motor Speedway to record a 14th-place run after running in the top 10 late in the race. Despite the decent run, his eighth top-15 run of this season, Wallace trails the cutline by 76 points as he attempts to make his first Playoff appearance.
“A top-15 day for the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Cash App Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team at the Texas Motor Speedway – a long, hot day that’s for sure,” Wallace said. “Proud of the efforts from our team…I thought we had a chance there. If that last caution had not come out, we maybe could have held on for a top-10 finish. But all-in-all, a great effort. Good bounce back from our last two weeks and we’ll just keep pushing to get our cars better. We’ll see what we got [at Kansas Speedway].”
Behind, Chris Buescher had a strong race in the making at his home track. After finishing ninth in the first stage and having a potential top-10 run established, his run was spoiled after being involved in a multi-car wreck at the start of the final stage. When the checkered flag flew, Buescher settled in 19th, a lap behind the leaders. The result has Buescher 86 points below the cutline as he attempts to make his second career Playoffs appearance, first since 2016.
Other competitors that remain in contention of the 2020 Cup Playoff battle include rookie Christopher Bell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell, rookie John Hunter Nemechek, Ryan Newman, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Corey LaJoie and Ryan Preece.
The battle for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs continues next week at Kansas Speedway, which will air on July 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.