There is now one less playoff spot open to drivers who haven’t won a race this season.
Tony Stewart didn’t have a particularly good performance during Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, falling a lap behind near the midway portion and finishing a nondescript 21st.
Nonetheless, the result was still good enough to secure Stewart a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs, the Chase for the Sprint Cup, with two regular season races remaining. As long as the three-time series champion attempts the next two events — Sept. 4 at Darlington Raceway and Sept. 10 at Richmond International Raceway — he’ll be one of 16 drivers who qualify.
Stewart, who won at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in June, wasn’t alone in solidifying his position on Sunday, as Pure Michigan 400 winner Kyle Larson did the same. In his 99th career start, the third-year driver for Chip Ganassi Racing earned his first victory, and as such went from being outside the cutoff to securely in.
But while Stewart and Larson can relax, the playoff fortunes of several others become even more unsettled. Larson’s win bumped the winless Ryan Newman out of the Chase, as he now trails Jamie McMurray by 15 points.
Drivers earn Chase berths by winning during the 26-race regular season and finishing ranked 30th or better in the standings. If there are less than 16 winners, the remaining playoff spots are awarded to those who rank highest in points.
Larson is the 13th different winner this season, leaving three slots open to drivers to get into the Chase via points, though this number could still decrease depending on the outcomes at Darlington and Richmond. Provisionally the drivers currently in are: Chase Elliott (+27 points ahead of Newman), Austin Dillon (+21) and McMurray (+15).
Of the 13 different winners only Chris Buescher has yet to lock himself into the Chase. The rookie is just seven points ahead of 31st ranked David Ragan, and over the next two races could conceivably fall below the top 30 threshold NASCAR requires.
If Buescher, who pulled off a shocking victory in the rain-shortened Aug. 1 Pocono Raceway, were to falter, it would open another spot for a non-winner. On Sunday, Buescher lost six points to Ragan due to a sickly engine that relegated him to a 35th-place finish.