NASCAR: Cole Custer’s win gives playoff picture a huge shake-up

Cole Custer’s maiden NASCAR Cup Series victory at Kentucky Speedway shook up the playoff picture, as he was only in 25th place in the championship standings and well out of the mix.

Stewart-Haas Racing rookie Cole Custer entered last Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a top finish of ninth place and an average result of 21.73 through 15 races in 2020. He sat in 26th in the championship standings, 100 points below the playoff cut line.

But the 22-year-old Ladera Ranch, California native secured the first top five finish of his career with a fifth place effort. Even still, he only moved up to 25th place in the standings, still 87 points below the playoff cut line.

Then at Kentucky Speedway, Custer found himself in victory lane following a last-lap four-wide move on the outside of Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, teammate Kevin Harvick and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr.

He only moved up to a 20th place tie in the championship standings, 67 points below where the playoff cut line would have been had he not won.

But in doing so, he became the ninth driver to lock himself into this year’s playoffs and shook up the playoff picture.

Because Custer sits outside of the top 16 in the championship standings yet is locked into the postseason, 16th place in points is no longer above the playoff cut line. Instead, the 15th place driver is the 16th and final driver above the cut line.

Take a look at the playoff picture with nine races remaining in the 26-race regular season.

NOTE: For the nine winning drivers, “PP” means playoff points. Only full-time drivers are included.

Rank – Driver, Car, Team, Manufacturer: Points (Behind)
1st – Denny Hamlin, #11, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota: 4 WINS (23 PP (-))
2nd – Kevin Harvick, #4, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford: 4 WINS (22 PP (-1))
3rd – Joey Logano, #22, Team Penske, Ford: 2 WINS (14 PP (-9))
4th – Brad Keselowski, #2, Team Penske, Ford: 2 WINS (14 PP (-9))
5th – Chase Elliott, #9, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet: 1 WIN (10 PP (-13))
6th – Alex Bowman, #88, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet: 1 WIN (9 PP (-14))
7th – Martin Truex Jr., #19, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota: 1 WIN (7 PP (-16))
8th – Ryan Blaney, #12, Team Penske, Ford: 1 WIN (6 PP (-17))
9th – Cole Custer, #41, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford: 1 WIN (5 PP (-18))
10th – Aric Almirola, #10, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford: 504 (+116)
11th – Kurt Busch, #1, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet: 492 (+104)
12th – Kyle Busch, #18, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota: 477 (+89)
13th – Matt DiBenedetto, #21, Wood Brothers Racing, Ford: 456 (+68)
14th – Clint Bowyer, #14, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford: 435 (+47)
15th – William Byron, #24, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet: 418 (+30)
16th – Jimmie Johnson, #48, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet: 412 (+24)
————————–PLAYOFF CUT LINE————————–
17th – Austin Dillon, #3, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet: 388 (-24)
18th – Tyler Reddick, #8, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet: 371 (-41)
19th – Erik Jones, #20, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota: 370 (-42)
20th – Bubba Wallace, #43, Richard Petty Motorsports, Chevrolet: 328 (-84)
21st – Chris Buescher, #17, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford: 321 (-91)
22nd – Ricky Stenhouse Jr., #47, JTG Daugherty Racing, Chevrolet: 320 (-92)
23rd – Christopher Bell, #95, Leavine Family Racing, Toyota: 309 (-103)
24th – Michael McDowell, #34, Front Row Motorsports, Ford: 298 (-114)
25th – John Hunter Nemechek, #38, Front Row Motorsports, Ford: 292 (-120)
26th – Ryan Newman, #6, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford: 276 (-136)
27th – Ty Dillon, #13, Germain Racing, Chevrolet: 253 (-159)
28th – Matt Kenseth, #42, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet: 234 (-178)
29th – Corey LaJoie, #32, Go Fas Racing, Ford: 222 (-190)
30th – Ryan Preece, #37, JTG Daugherty Racing, Chevrolet: 189 (-223)
31st – Daniel Suarez, #96, Gaunt Brothers Racing, Toyota: 170 (-242)
32nd – Brennan Poole, #15, Premium Motorsports, Chevrolet: 119 (-293)
33rd – Quin Houff, #00, StarCom Racing, Chevrolet: 85 (-327)

Had Custer not won this race, the playoff cut line would be between Richard Childress Racing teammates Austin Dillon and rookie Tyler Reddick, who rank 16th and 17th in points.

As the 16th place driver, Dillon suffered the biggest blow here. He would be 17 points ahead of the playoff cut line. Instead, he is 24 points behind Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson, who is 15th in points but 16th in the playoff picture.

That’s a 41-point swing, which is more points than a race win is worth — at which point points wouldn’t really matter anyway in terms of playoff eligibility under the current win-and-in system.

Every driver behind Dillon is now 24 additional points behind the playoff cut line as well. Additionally, the seven drivers above the playoff cut line who have not yet won this season would be 17 points further ahead of it had Custer not won, since they would need to stay ahead of Reddick, not both Reddick and Dillon.

Another upset winner would have a similar effect, as outlined in our mathematical analysis following Aric Almirola’s statement at the end of June that his goal is to make the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway “not matter”, whether he enters it as a 2020 winner or not.

The next points-paying race on the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series schedule is the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, which is scheduled to take place on Sunday, July 19 at Texas Motor Speedway. This race is set to be broadcast live on NBC Sports Network beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET.