By Jerry Bonkowski
When I first sat down to write this week’s Out of The Groove/Trading Paint column, I had two specific ideas in mind.
First, how Michigan International Speedway, which hosts this weekend’s Cup race, has devolved from one of the most popular race tracks, typically with two Cup sellouts every year, to just a once-yearly host of the Cup Series.
Second, I was going to go back in time and kind of reflect back on how the Cup race in 2007 was postponed Sunday and Monday due to torrential rains and slight flooding in the area, and just barely finally got the event in on Tuesday, one of the longest delays in NASCAR history. It was something I’ll never forget. We all wondered if the rain would ever stop and if we’d ever get the race in. We were half-joking and half-serious about maybe even building an ark.
But no, today’s column is not about MIS in particular, a deviation from what I usually do every week, looking ahead to that particular weekend’s race.
No, I’m going to talk about teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing today. I’m also going to talk about hair pulling and fingernail biting.
And that’s not even coming from the fans.
Rather, with each passing race – and there are now only four races left in the so-called “regular season” – teams that have yet to win a race in 2022 and are either on the top 16 driver bubble or outside it when it comes to making the upcoming 10-race NASCAR Cup playoffs are in full panic mode.
They may not seem to be, they may not be acting that way, but trust me, I’ve been covering NASCAR for well over 25 years and motorsports in general for over 35 years.
Those boys down there in Charlotte are scared, petrified and full of angst.
Guys like Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski – all three being former Cup champions, I might add – have no clue if they’ll see the light of day in the playoffs. They are in a win at all costs situation in the next four races.
But they’re not the only ones. Ryan Blaney is currently third in the Cup point standings, due primarily to incredible consistency during much of the season’s first 22 races. But he, too, may miss the playoffs if he doesn’t win at least once in the next four weeks … or hope to God that if there’s still one spot open after the 26th race and he makes the playoffs on points alone.
And don’t forget that to date, there have been 14 winners this season, which means even with four races, there are only two playoff-eligible spots open for drivers who have yet to win thus far this season.
Sure, I have plenty of stories to tell about my travels to MIS over the years, but right now, Michigan is only a means to an end for the 12 or so drivers who are still mathematically eligible to make the playoffs – provided they win at least in two of the four remaining races.
With each passing race – Michigan, Richmond, Watkins Glen and the final regular season event at Daytona – do you honestly think that guys who have already won races and are already locked into the playoffs, are going to cut the no-win-guys a break and let them win easily?
If anything, guys who’ve already won races this year like Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, the Busch brothers and more, are going to be all the more intent on winning again in the next four races because of the extra playoff points that are on the line for them to earn – and potentially elevate their placement in the playoff grid.
Face it, if you are, say, 12th in the standings right now but could boost yourself up to maybe seventh or eighth in the next four races, wouldn’t you go all-out to try and win once again?
Tyler Reddick did himself and Richard Childress Racing a HUGE favor by winning this past Sunday at Indianapolis because he was actually at risk of being one of the first guys potentially eliminated if drivers who have yet to win thus far in 2022 ultimately win in at least three of the next four races, if not all four of the remaining pre-playoff races. That means potentially one or two drivers who would make the playoffs would ultimately be eliminated based upon the amount of points they have after the 26th race.
Remember, we were in unchartered waters this season. NASCAR has never had a season where there were more than 16 drivers who won during the first 26 “regular season” events. Anything over and above 16 drivers in those 26 races meant NASCAR would have to eliminate those drivers – most likely those who had just one win and who had the fewest overall points – for the first time in playoff history.
And there would go NASCAR’s famous tagline of “Win and You’re In.”
Nope, that was not going to potentially be the case in 2022.
Well, we still have four races to see if that happens or not. And while I hope we have a great race in Michigan on Sunday, pray and hope that the winner is someone who has already won a race this year.
Then keep hoping and praying like that for the last three weeks of the regular season.
But at the same time, and I know this sounds contradictory, but you may also want to pray and hope for guys and teams still not in the playoffs, that at least two more may still make it, so as to keep the chewed up fingernails, the pulled-out hair, the gnashed teeth and the hand wringing until the skin is raw to a minimum.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski