Stubbs: Heat is on NASCAR drivers on playoff bubble

If you’re looking for the song that aptly describes the next six races of the NASCAR Cup Series, look no further than the 1981 hit “Under Pressure.”

Twelve drivers have won over the first 20 races of 2024, leaving open only four playoff spots with six regular-season races left. There are 22 other drivers vying for those berths, so there isn’t a lap left that won’t have some impact on who makes the postseason field.

Let’s take a peek at the drivers on the playoff bubble and examine which four have the best chances to join their peers and fight for a championship.

Current playoff bubble (top 16 make the postseason):

13. Martin Truex Jr, +125

14. Ty Gibbs, +84

15. Ross Chastain, +53

16. Chris Buescher, +45

17. Bubba Wallace, -45

18. Chase Briscoe, -88

19. Kyle Busch, -98

20. Todd Gilliland, -121

The current playoff bubble may not seem too intriguing, but one win by a driver below 16th would make the points battle incredibly exciting down the stretch.

Truex might be the least stressed about his situation, as 125 points may seem like a solid buffer. If three first-time winners for 2024 were to emerge, a winless Truex would be the last man in. Four or more new drivers in Victory Lanes over the next six weeks, and Truex suddenly would be out of the playoff picture.

The season is shaping up in a similar fashion to 2022 for Truex, where he was a top-five driver in the regular-season standings but missed the postseason by being winless. In a system where winning trumps all, consistency is rarely rewarded on the big stage. If Truex isn’t able to pick up a victory over the next six races, he again could be staring elimination in the face.

Just below Truex is Ty Gibbs, his 21-year-old teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing. After a hot start, Gibbs has cooled down considerably over the summer. A third-place finish at Chicago was a much-needed result for the No. 54 Toyota team, which has speed but lacks the “big game” experience needed in pressure-packed situations.

Just below Gibbs is Ross Chastain, who suddenly declared himself a championship contender when he signed with Trackhouse Racing in 2022. After four wins in two seasons, including a Championship Four appearance in 2022, Chastain has fallen on hard times in 2024. On the rare occasion that he’s had winning speed, late-race incidents have relegated him to the back of the pack. It may take some more magic — see Martinsville 2022 — for Chastain to hang on to a playoff spot.

If you wondered why Chris Buescher was so upset after losing at Kansas and Darlington earlier in the season, this is why. After winning three times in 2023, Buescher already could be locked into the playoffs if either of those races went his way. Instead, he finds himself just 45 points to the good with a hungry field trying to chase him down.

So, of the drivers already in on points, who has the best chance to make the 16-driver field? Most seem to think Truex has the edge, as the veteran not only has the biggest points advantage but also experience under pressure when a big performance is needed. So, too, does Chastain, who is looking to make another late title run. Gibbs and Buescher certainly are capable of making the field, and have good chances, considering a win is likely needed for any driver below 16th place in the playoff picture. However, there could be plenty of fingernail biting going on in the No. 17 and No. 54 camps.

As for the drivers that sit below the cut line, Wallace is likely the only driver with a realistic shot to point his way in. The good news? Wallace was able to point his way into the playoffs in 2023, even advancing to the second round.

The bad news? Wallace did so from above the cut line, and he has had terrible luck when presented with opportunities for huge points days in 2024. Finishes of seventh and 13th over the last two races are a good sign, but 45 points is a steep climb for a No. 23 team that consistently falls short.

The other 17 drivers eligible for the postseason will all need a win, barring a miraculous string of races where they consistently garner upwards of 50 points. Don’t look past drivers such as Busch, Briscoe, or Michael McDowell to snag a win in the final six races, and don’t be surprised if a massive underdog — such as Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Daniel Hemric or Zane Smith — were to win at Daytona.

However, with the playoff bubble more strung out than usual, it would be surprising to see more than one driver from below the cut line vault into the 16-driver field.

This is certain: The pressure is on for the next six races. Teams that can handle the intensity of going for a playoff spot will be afforded the chance to fight for a championship, while those that wither in the heat will be remembered in an unflattering light.

–Samuel Stubbs, Field Level Media