This is the second part of a four-part NASCAR Cup Series Playoff preview series. Jonathan Fjeld and Adam Coon preview the playoff drivers seeded 12th through 9th in this part:
12. No. 34 Michael McDowell (2005 points, tied with Almirola and Bell) by Jonathan Fjeld
Although Michael McDowell’s performance evened out since scoring three consecutive Top 10 finishes to start the season, he has had a banner year for his Front Row Motorsports team that no one can take from, playoff performance notwithstanding. McDowell’s best finish in the last ten races is 16th at Nashville, which came during a streak of three consecutive Top 20 finishes there and at the two Pocono races. In the following seven races, McDowell only scored one Top 20 finish – a 20th-place finish at Michigan.
Certainly, McDowell will not be anyone to light the world on fire, in terms of advancing to the Round of 12, but the No. 34 has surprised everyone before this season. Nonetheless, his surprising entry into the playoffs is enough for him and his team to be proud of and could serve as a launching pad to bigger and better runs in future seasons.
11. No. 1 Kurt Busch (2008 points, three ahead of McDowell, Almirola and Bell) by Adam Coon
The elder Busch brother finds himself entering his fifteenth Playoff appearance with eight Playoff points. Kurt, in his final season with the shuttering Chip Ganassi Racing, won at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a one-on-one fight against younger brother Kyle.
The win at Atlanta was utilizing the 550 HP package, which will not be used at any of the three tracks to open the Playoffs. At Darlington and Richmond early in the season, Busch only managed 35th and 13th place finishes. However, Busch has six victories to his name at Bristol and has scored a win at Richmond in the past.
If Busch is able to get past the opening round, one place to look for him to shine next would be the Charlotte ROVAL elimination race. Busch has four Top 10 finishes in six of the road races so far this season, only missing out after nearly crashing in the rain drenched Circuit of the Americas and a 13th at Watkins Glen.
Busch represents Ganassi’s historic team in the Playoffs, seeking his first NASCAR championship in his final season of the sport. Can the 2004 Cup Champion breakthrough for the man whose dominated IndyCar and sports car racing championships?
10. No. 2 Brad Keselowski (2008 points, three points ahead of 12th) by Adam Coon
Keselowski’s Playoff appearance is a lame-duck situation for the 2012 series champion. Keselowski, who’s leaving his home of Team Penske after 12 years at the season’s end, only finds himself 10th on the Playoff grid.
The driver of the historic No. 2 has just a single win this year, taking the checkered flag at Talladega. Since then, he’s been able to score three third-place finishes (Kansas, Pocono 2, New Hampshire), but three rough races in the last four could off-set his momentum.
Keselowski will move to Roush Fenway Racing next year taking a new ownership strategy at the team, so will the tenured Penske driver be given all of the information as his teammates? Last season, Keselowski won at Richmond and was one of the cars to beat in the finale at Phoenix, only losing his shot due to a poor pit stop.
Earlier this year, his Phoenix speed carried to a fourth-place run. If Keselowski is able to sneak through all of the rounds, will he be able to get vengeance and take a second Cup in his farewell season to the Captain?
9. No. 22 Joey Logano (2013 points, eight ahead of 12th) by Jonathan Fjeld
Logano has earned a reputation for being one of the best active NASCAR Cup Series drivers through consistently running at the front of the field in a quiet but effective manner that feels almost ironic, given his reputation among fans and drivers alike. This season has been especially quiet as Logano has only scored eight Top 5 finishes, 13 Top 10s and a 13.5 average finish that is on track to be the worst for Logano since 2017.
However, Logano entered the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs in a similar spot as he is in now. He earned six Top 5 finishes and 14 Top 10s in the regular season last season and made it all the way to the Championship Four after a win at Kansas. This season, Logano is starting the playoffs with nine fewer playoff points than last season which puts him at more of a disadvantage. No less, two wins over the next two rounds could get him back into contention.
On the other hand, Logano will need to reverse a recent trend of poor finishes. He finished 22nd or worse in the final four regular-season races and had only one Top 10 finish in the final seven regular-season races. That one Top 10, however, was at New Hampshire, a track using the higher HP package that all three of the Round of 16 races will be run with.
Logano is a shoo-in to advance out of the Round of 16, possibly with a win given his performance at Richmond in April and his track record at Bristol. However, with how competitive the playoff field is this season, Logano advancing to the Round of 8 and beyond is going to be harder for him than usual.
Logano has five finishes of 15th or worse at intermediate track races this season. A mediocre finish at Las Vegas in the Round of 12 without any wins to compensate at the Charlotte Roval or Talladega, or especially mediocre finishes at Texas and Kansas in the Round of 8, could sink Logano’s chances of advancing to score another surprise Championship Four berth.
Unless you are Ryan Blaney in the lead-up to the playoffs, this season has been one of transition for all of Team Penske, not necessarily new heights. Logano’s playoff run will likely reflect a similar trajectory that is respectable yet not particularly noteworthy in the end.