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Are These Drivers Already In Must-Win Territory?

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Joshua Lipowski

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What’s Happening?

We are now 7 races into the NASCAR Cup Series season, meaning we have now completed a quarter of the 2024 regular season. As early in the season as it is, Playoff narratives are beginning to form, and we decided to see if any drivers need to turn their focus to winning races instead of points racing. Which drivers are already in must-win territory?

  • For this list, we will take a look at recent years in the Playoff era. How far have drivers come back to point their way into the Playoffs?
  • From there, we will look at which drivers are outside of the area where others have come back from at this point in the season to make the Playoffs on points. Even though any driver can technically make up the points gap they currently have between the final Playoff spot and themselves.
  • The Playoffs become one of the hottest topics in the sport as the summer rolls on. Qualifying for the Playoffs can make or break a season for drivers.

Recent History

The current “Win and You’re In” Playoff era began in 2014, so, we compiled these statistics from 2014 onwards. This is where the lowest driver who eventually qualified for the Playoffs on points found themselves in the points standings after 7 races of the season.

YearDriverPoints PositionPoints Back
2014Greg Biffle15th0
2015Ryan Newman20th-13
2016Chase Elliott14th0
2017Matt Kenseth22nd-24
2018Jimmie Johnson20th-22
2019Ryan Newman19th-21
2020Clint Bowyer14th0
2021Tyler Reddick25th-60
2022Ryan Blaney1st0
2023Bubba Wallace22nd-56

This list showcases that making a comeback to qualify for the Playoffs is not easy. Only 6 times in the Playoff era (10 years) has a driver gone from outside of the Playoffs after 7 races to qualifying solely based on points. There’s even the outlier year of 2022 where Ryan Blaney was the only driver in on points, and he was the points leader after 7 races in 2022

Of the drivers who qualified for the Playoffs, no driver has overcome more than a 60-point deficit, which is coincidentally the maximum amount of points someone can earn in one race. No one has made the Playoffs after being worse than 25th in points after 7 races. That creates our baseline for drivers who, based on past history, are in must-win territory.

Drivers in Must-Win Territory

As of this writing, everyone from 25th on back in points is more than 60 points out of the Playoffs, so we will include everyone in that position as being in theoretical, “Must-Win Territory”. These are all of the drivers in must-win territory, and whether or not they can or will win a race.

Zane Smith: 35th (-102)

Zane Smith has had an abysmal start to the 2024 season. Frankly, making the Playoffs was never the expectation for him this season, but, being the lowest-ranked full-time driver in points 7 races into the season wasn’t either. It’s unlikely that he will get a win.

Harrison Burton: 34th (-95)

Harrison Burton continues to underwhelm in his third season with The Wood Brothers. Even if a win is not expected, he probably needs one to secure his ride for 2024. The Wood Brothers have not won a race in almost 7 years.

Justin Haley: 32nd (-85)

Justin Haley and Rick Ware Racing making the Playoffs was never an expectation from the fans this season. The 21 points penalty for being disqualified at COTA did hurt, but, they’d still be on this list regardless. While Haley and RWR will be interesting to watch, it seems like a stretch for them to win a race.

Ryan Preece: 31st (-79)

Ryan Preece wishes he had his 35 points back from the penalty at Atlanta. Without that penalty, he would be 23rd in points, only 44 points back. While still a large hill to climb, it’s far from insurmountable. Preece needs to take advantage of every short track race he can if he wants to win and make the Playoffs.

Noah Gragson: 30th (-79)

Noah Gragson is in exactly the same situation as Ryan Preece. Still, Gragson has two top-10 finishes, showing that he has some speed. He is a dark horse threat to win a race, but it’s not exceptionally likely.

Daniel Hemric: 29th (-77)

Daniel Hemric and Kaulig Racing continue to be….just…kind of there. They’re not doing as bad as other teams, but, they’re not setting the world on fire either. It’s tough to imagine the #31 car in the Playoffs.

Austin Dillon: 28th (-73)

Austin Dillon dealt with awful luck in the first few races of the season. We are all left to wonder where he would end up had none of those untimely crashes happened. RCR equipment definitely can win a race, but, teammate Kyle Busch has struggled at times this year as well.

Corey LaJoie: 27th (-63)

Corey LaJoie and Spire Motorsports have been a disappointment to start 2023. He had a good run going at Las Vegas, but, he spun out late. Aside from that, Spire just is not showing much speed right now, but, LaJoie is always a threat on superspeedways. Watch out for him at Talladega and Daytona in the regular season.

Todd Gilliland: 26th (-61)

Todd Gilliland has shown flashes, but, the results have left a lot to be desired. He has 88 laps led this season, and he is definitely a threat on superspeedways. His top-5 qualifying run at Richmond means that he could be a threat on short tracks as well.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: 25th (-61)

The 2023 Daytona 500 winner hasn’t repeated the same success in 2024. However, his 3 superspeedway wins mean he is always a threat on those tracks. Talladega and Daytona should be big races for Stenhouse Jr.

Will any of these drivers break from trends and overcome the points gap to make the Playoffs? We will find out as the 2024 season goes on.

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Picture of Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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