NASCAR's 'unique' winners already altering playoff landscape

Full Screen
1 / 6

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Christopher Bell celebrates at the finish line after winning the NASCAR Cup Series road course auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – NASCAR’s postseason landscape has been altered after just two Cup Series races.

With Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell winning at Daytona International Speedway, the first in the Daytona 500 and the second on the road course, two playoff spots were locked up by guys who weren’t generally considered locks.

The fallout? Other teams are feeling the pinch in late February – six months before the 16-driver playoff field is set – and with 24 races remaining.

“Probably not for the teams that we all expect to win, but for some of those fringe cars it will,” said Bell’s crew chief, Adam Stevens. “The number of unique winners is really going to change how many cars get in on points, right? It’s pretty obvious.”

The simplest way to look at it: If the series heavyweights perform as expected the rest of the way, there won’t be many playoff spots left for anyone else. It’s a somewhat bleak outlook for several teams already and could force them to adjust their approach beginning Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Some of that next batch of cars is really needing to be thinking about if they’re swinging for the fence or if they’re racing for points,” Stevens said. “Maybe one more winner that somebody didn’t expect pretty early in the season could really change the complexion.”

Every year since NASCAR’s current playoff system began in 2014, at least three postseason berths have been awarded to drivers based on points. The past three years, as Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott have won a bigger share of races, more drivers have made the playoffs on points.

But Bell and McDowell already grabbed two of the spots, something many would have considered an unlikely possibility entering the year.