NASCAR: Small Nashville incident could have major long-term ramifications

Austin Cindric's late spin at Nashville Superspeedway started a domino effect that produced an 11th different winner in the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season.
Ally 400, Nashville Superspeedway, NASCAR
Ally 400, Nashville Superspeedway, NASCAR / Sean Gardner/GettyImages

With just over two laps remaining in Sunday's Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway, Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin appeared to be well on his way to a NASCAR Cup Series-leading fourth victory of the 2024 season after getting around reigning Nashville winner Ross Chastain of Trackhouse Racing Team for the race lead.

Then Team Penske's Austin Cindric spun out, extending what was originally scheduled to be a 300-lap race around the four-turn, 1.333-mile (2.145-kilometer) Lebanon, Tennessee oval into overtime.

A Cup Series record five overtimes (and 31 laps, more than 10% of the initially scheduled race distance) later, Team Penske's Joey Logano found himself with a guitar in victory lane after holding off Spire Motorsports' Zane Smith – the same Zane Smith who entered the race sitting in 34th place in the point standings, last among full-time drivers, with a top finish of 13th.

Logano became the 11th different winner during the 2024 season, and his playoff ticket is presumably punched, opening up the possibility for him to continue his trend of making it to every Championship 4 that has ever been contested during an even-numbered year. The modern playoff format was introduced in 2014.

And as a result of his teammate's surprise win, Cindric's relatively mundane single-car spin could hurt a lot worse than it looked, even though he still managed to finish the Ally 400 in 15th place.

Could a winner miss the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs?

There are still seven races remaining on the 26-race regular season schedule, meaning that there can still end up being more winners (up to 18) than playoff spots (16). Had Cindric not spun out and Hamlin won on Sunday, the 2024 season's winner tally would still be sitting at 10.

No matter how many winners there are, there are 16 playoff spots. Those spots go to the regular season champion, whether he wins any races or not, and the 15 drivers who rank next highest in wins. All drivers who win multiple races lock in, as there can be no more than 13 multi-race winners during the regular season.

This year's multi-race winners include Hamlin, teammate Christopher Bell, and Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson and William Byron.

But single-race winners may need to sweat it out. In the event that there are more playoff eligible winners than playoff spots, the tiebreaker to decide which single-race winners get in and which don't becomes points. The same tiebreaker is used among non-winners when there are not enough winners to fill the postseason field.

Right now, Cindric finds himself lowest in the point standings among the seven single-race winners in a tie for 20th place. The World Wide Technology at Raceway race winner is two spots and 16 points below the next lowest winner, Trackhouse Racing Team's Daniel Suarez.

In the event that there end up being more winners than playoff spots, there is a good chance that Cindric may be one of the drivers who still needs to clinch a playoff spot on points, even though he has already secured a win.

And a scenario in which the driver of the No. 2 Ford finds himself holding his breath at the end of the regular season is actually not all that far-fetched, even though it is not a scenario that has ever unfolded in 10 previous seasons of the modern playoff format.

More new winners?

This coming weekend's race on the Chicago Street Course could be chaotic, just as last year's inaugural race – and first ever Cup Series street race – was.

Additionally, nobody knows what the first Brickyard 400 with the Next Gen car will be like when the Cup Series returns to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval later this month.

And though it no longer hosts the regular season finale, Daytona International Speedway should produce another signature chaotic, unpredictable race, just as it usually does.

That's not to mention the fact that six full-time drivers who won a race last year have not yet won a race this year. That list includes four drivers ahead of Cindric in points.

The four other tracks remaining on this year's regular season schedule include Pocono Raceway, Richmond Raceway, Michigan International Speedway, and Darlington Raceway.

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Will a 12th different winner emerge in this coming weekend's Grant Park 165 at the Chicago Street Course, or will the maximum possible winner total drop from 18 to 17 for the 2024 regular season with a repeat winner? Tune in to NBC at 4:30 p.m. ET this Sunday, July 7 for the live broadcast. Begin a free trial of FuboTV now and don't miss any of the action from the Windy City!