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The Most Shocking 1st Round Playoff Exits in NASCAR History

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Joshua Lipowski

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In the era of the elimination rounds in the NASCAR Playoffs, there have been a few shocking early exits. For the most part, big name drivers find their way out of the first round with relative ease, but, that is not always the case. What are some of the most shocking first round Playoff exits in NASCAR history?

2015: Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson won four races in the 2015 regular season, and he held a 27 point cushion heading into the first round cut-off race at Dover. A fifth place qualifying run further cemented that, as long as he stayed out of trouble, Johnson could cruise to the Round of 12. Well, a mechanical failure early in the race meant Johnson lost 36 laps in the garage, and this came in a race where 40 out of 43 starters finished.

As a result, Johnson fell all the way to 14th place, well outside of the Round of 12. It was a shock to many that Johnson did not make it, but he made up for it in 2016. That season, he would win his seventh Cup Series Championship.

2018: Denny Hamlin

2018 was not a great year for Denny Hamlin, but he still was inside of the top-10 in the standings for pretty much the entire season. He started the Playoffs with a third place qualifying run at Las Vegas, but an early crash meant he finished 32nd. The second race was at Richmond where Hamlin qualified second, but he finished 16th.

The final race was the Charlotte Roval, in which Hamlin was a complete non-factor. He qualified 27th, never led a lap, and finished 12th. It was a disappointing Playoff exit, which put a period on a disappointing season for Hamlin.

2020: Ryan Blaney

Ryan Blaney was in the top-5 in points for the majority of the 2020 season including a win at Talladega. However, once the Playoffs started, he struggled. He finished 24th at Darlington, 19th at Richmond, and 13th at Bristol, failing to finish on the lead lap each race.

The difficult first round was made all the more frustrating as Blaney had only one finish worse than seventh for the remainder of the season. If he made it out of the Round of 16, one can only imagine how far Blaney could have gone.

2022: Kyle Busch

The 2022 First Round of the Playoffs was a nightmare for Kyle Busch. He was leading late in the Playoff opening Southern 500 when his engine gave way under caution. The next week at Kansas, he was a complete non-factor as he finished 26th.

The final race was Bristol, one of Busch’s best race tracks. Well, another engine failure ended his race after 269 laps, and Busch was out in the first round of the Playoffs for the first time in his career.

2022: Kevin Harvick

From 2024 until 2021, Kevin Harvick made five Championship Fours, and he was never eliminated in the Round of 16. He won two races towards the end of the regular season, but the Playoffs were a complete disaster. A mechanical failure at Darlington put him behind the eight ball as he fell to 16th in points.

At Kansas, Harvick only completed 33 laps before crashing out and finishing last. That did him in as he could not make it to the Round of 12 despite a 10th place run at Bristol. Harvick sits in a position to potentially be eliminated early once again this weekend.

Will we see another surprise elimination this Saturday night? The top seed heading into the Playoffs is below the cut line, so it could happen.

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Picture of Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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