Pressure Mounts As Playoff Spots Decline

Carson Hocevar & Martin Truex, Jr.

Alex Bowman’s victory on the Chicago Street Course Sunday marks the second consecutive week the driver on the Playoff points position cutoff line has won a race to secure his chance to race for the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Last week, Team Penske’s Joey Logano won at Nashville Speedway vaulting from a tenuous place in the standings to a sure-bet opportunity to race for a third title too.

Those new winners bring the season-total to 12 race winners, leaving only four points positions to transfer into championship contention – as of now. There are still six races remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field starting with Sunday’s Great American Getaway 400 Presented by VISITPA at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

NASCAR Cup Series driver standings leader Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, William Byron, Christopher Bell, Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Bowman, Logano, Daniel Suarez and Austin Cindric have all hoisted trophies to receive their Playoff berths.

Martin Truex Jr., Ty Gibbs, Ross Chastain and Chris Buescher round out the top 16 in the points standings. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver Truex holds a 125-point advantage over 17th-place Bubba Wallace. Buescher, holds a much slimmer 45-point edge over Wallace, whose 13th place effort at Chicago significantly helped his bid to return to the Playoffs this season.

Just behind the 23XI Racing’s Wallace in the standings are Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe (-88 points) and two-time series champion, Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch (-98 points).

Securing his Playoff opportunity – which now puts all four Hendrick Motorsports cars in the championship run – was an emotionally-charged achievement for Bowman on Sunday. It not only punched his ticket to contend for a title, but it ended an 80-start winless streak for the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet. And he conceded, his struggles to win in that time and to be a part of this season’s Playoff picture have weighed on him.

“Obviously we have all the tools we need to win and our teammates have been really good throughout that time,” Bowman said, “But we just couldn’t put it together.

“It has certainly been a large mental test to go through everything that has happened in the last two years and try to continue to overcome that each and every week, especially when things aren’t going your way,” Bowman said of missing races due to injury in both 2022 and 2023.

“Honestly, the last month has been super frustrating for us. We’ve had a lot of things outside of our control cost us a lot of points and it’s been really frustrating. There’s a lot of emotions that go with this because of how hard that has been.”

Hendrick Motorsports executive Jeff Gordon – a NASCAR Hall of Famer and four-time series champion – was candid about what the win meant in such a competitive season.

“I think today was a huge day for both of these guys and the whole team,” Gordon said of Bowman and his crew chief Blake Harris, whose win Sunday was his first ever in that role.

“I couldn’t be more proud or happy for the whole group because I know what kind of pressure they’ve been feeling and it’s amazing for all of us now to have all four cars in the Playoffs. … I’m sure for both of them, it’s nice to have this one off their back and then just start focusing forward on getting where they need to be in the Playoffs.”

It speaks to the competitive tune-up and increasing pressures that competitors are feeling heading into a two-week summer break – after next week’s Brickyard 400 – and the final four-race regular season push.

Three drivers still racing for that first win – Truex, Buescher and Busch – have won previously at Pocono. Busch has four trophies, the last coming in 2021. Truex has won twice, the last time in 2018. Buescher claimed his first career NASCAR Cup Series win there in 2016.

NASCAR Cup Series practice at Pocono is Saturday at noon ET followed immediately by Busch Light Pole Qualifying at 12:45 p.m. ET. Both will be televised on USA Network and carried live on MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.


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