The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs have seen a bit of turnover in the elimination era. Four of the past five seasons have seen at least four drivers reach the postseason after not making the playoffs in the previous year. The exception to that trend? The 2019 season where just two drivers – William Byron and Ryan Newman – hopped into the 16-driver field after not being a part of it the year before.
With a host of drivers in new places and one of the most competitive rookie battles on tap, the field is ripe for some turnover.
Which two drivers are most likely to reach the playoffs in 2020 after not reaching the postseason in 2019? NASCAR.com’s RJ Kraft and Jonathan Merryman each offer their main candidate to join the field.
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MERRYMAN: It’s the preseason, and I’m not in the mood for a safe bet. I’m going to take a risk on Chris Buescher making a huge step in his young career and say he is the most likely driver to make the playoffs in 2020 after missing out in 2019.
Buescher has a few things going for him in the No. 17 Ford Mustang — the first of which is familiarity. He’s comfortable in house at Roush Fenway Racing. Buescher won the NASCAR Xfinity Series title for Jack Roush in 2015, but circumstances kept him out of one of Jack’s Cup cars back then.
His second advantage is his teammate, Ryan Newman. The addition of Newman helped the performance of the No. 6 team last year at RFR, and Buescher should study Newman closely. We know Buescher can finish races, and if he wants to finish off the season in the playoffs, following Newman’s 2019 model of keeping the car out of trouble to nab top 10s, 12s and 15s may be the key to his success.
KRAFT: Like you, Jonathan, I’m going to take a driver in a new place as my pick to most likely surge into the playoffs. That pick would be Matt DiBenedetto. The move to Wood Brothers Racing is yet another step up for the 28-year-old.
Being armed with the Penske power — Team Penske has an alliance with Wood Brothers — should make a noticeable difference for Matty D at superspeedways and intermediates and help lead to better finishes and more consistency. Consistency is the key point with DiBenedetto. In his first 15 starts with Leavine Family Racing in 2019, he had just one top-15 finish. In the final 11 regular-season races, he had six top 10s, including a memorable runner-up finish in the Bristol Night Race. I expect his 2020 results to closer mirror that stretch of races.
A win at Pocono Raceway in 2017 helped Ryan Blaney reach the playoffs in the iconic No. 21. The organization’s next win will be its 100th at the NASCAR Cup Series level, and I would not be surprised if DiBenedetto nabs it to secure his place in the playoffs — although, I expect him to be able to point his way in if necessary.