NASCAR’s opening fortnight in Daytona produced a pair of fresh faces in Victory Lane in the short term, but also created intrigue and impact for the longer haul. Two first-time Cup Series winners also means two first-time playoff entrants, with Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell and road-course tamer Christopher Bell securing early tickets for the 16-driver postseason field.
To be crystal clear, it’s extremely early. The NASCAR Playoffs are 24 races away, and the regular season offers plenty of opportunity for the usual suspects to go the win-and-in route to further their championship pursuits. But with two long shots (Bell was a 50-1 dark horse Sunday; McDowell went off at 66-1 odds for the 500) already clinched, going the points path for one of the 14 remaining berths has become a more delicate road for potential playoff tweeners.
RELATED: Cup Series points standings
“The dynamic has changed dramatically right now,” says Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski, who rallied for a fifth-place finish Sunday and sits 10th in points. “We’re very early in the season and it’s now turned into a points race for those last few spots. Hopefully it doesn’t matter for us. I think that we’ll be able to go to Richmond and Martinsville and some of those tracks and contend for the win and hopefully bring home wins, but if you don’t win, you’re in a lot of trouble right now because it’s not looking like you’re gonna be able to get in the playoffs right now without a win.”
Reinforcing the point that the 2021 season still has that new car smell, it’s early, but never quite too early to see where the Cup Series field stacks up within the playoff construct. Allowing for the small sample size, here’s an overview of who stands where, two races in:
• Clinched: Just the two — McDowell and then Bell. McDowell’s Daytona 500 victory virtually sealed Front Row Motorsports’ second-ever playoff berth, joining Chris Buescher’s 2016 run to the playoffs in the portfolio for car owner Bob Jenkins. Bell’s qualification might be more expected as part of the powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing operation, but it still ranks as a first for the organization’s least-experienced driver.
“I mean, absolutely. I think the 34 (McDowell) certainly is a surprise,” said JGR’s Denny Hamlin. “He’s going to be in the playoffs. Ninety percent of the people that know anything about the sport, 95% really would put the 20 car (Bell) in the Playoffs one way, shape or form anyway. I don’t think that that’s really taking up a spot that wasn’t already probably pegged.”
• High perch in points: Bell and McDowell aside, the rest of the top six spots are not surprisingly occupied by perennial heavyweights — points leader Hamlin, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and defending series champion Chase Elliott. Right behind them is the series’ biggest overachiever so far — Ryan Preece, who starts the season with finishes of sixth and ninth in JTG-Daugherty Racing’s non-chartered No. 37 team. The Modified Tour standout ranks an impressive seventh in points, quite the early jump after a 29th-place result in last year’s final standings.
• Mild mid-pack surprises: Martin Truex Jr. sits 14th after two races, and his versatility and speed should bring him back into the points standings’ upper reaches. Behind him, positions 15 through 25 are an interesting lot, separated by just 13 points. Corey LaJoie’s Spire No. 7 leads that pack, ahead of a scramble that includes Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Alex Bowman, Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez just waiting to sort itself out.
• Rally-cap time: Time remains for playoff hopefuls with little to show for their sluggish two-race start, but it’s still stark to see certain names outside the Cup Series’ top 25. Among the comeback-minded: Erik Jones (26th), rookie Chase Briscoe (27th), William Byron (29th), Tyler Reddick (33rd) and Matt DiBenedetto (37th). Opening with finishes of 33rd and 37th has been particularly detrimental to the Wood Brothers’ DiBenedetto, who has just five points total — last among full-time drivers. Plenty of races remain for him to replicate his playoff positioning of a year ago.