Ahead of Sunday’s Cookout Southern 500 at Darlington (6 p.m. ET; TV: NBCSN, Radio: MRN), we are profiling the seven teams that make up the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoff field. In this article, we are profiling Stewart-Haas Racing and their playoff drivers Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Cole Custer.
No. 4 Kevin Harvick (1st in the standings, +53 ahead of 13th place Clint Bowyer)
Few drivers get better with age, but Kevin Harvick is one of them. Where many of Harvick’s contemporaries, such as Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart, have fallen off from their former glories or even retired (and come back in the case of Kenseth), Harvick is set to have his best season in terms of wins (currently 7), top 5s (currently 17) and average finish (currently 6.6) if he continues on his current pace, all at age 44. For context, Jeff Gordon was 44 in 2015 when he retired to results that were solid but not near Harvick’s performance. Jimmie Johnson is currently 44 as he moves through his swansong season with good results but poor luck that has knocked him out of the playoffs.
Harvick has put it all together this season, being the points leader both finishing the regular season and now starting the playoffs, both by substantial margins. Harvick finished the regular season with a 115-point lead over second-place Denny Hamlin and now starts the playoffs ten points ahead of Hamlin while being 37 points ahead of fifth-place Chase Elliott.
These stats, combined with his consistently strong performance, makes him almost a lock for the championship race at Phoenix. Although anything can happen in the championship race, but given that Harvick has finished outside of the top 10 at Phoenix just three times since 2010 and had a point where he won six of eight races at the track, he will be hard to beat for whoever challenges him there.
No. 10 Aric Almirola (Tied for 10th in the standings, +1 ahead of 13th place Clint Bowyer)
Stewart-Haas Racing has improved this season and it’s none-more apparent than with Aric Almirola. Almirola is on-pace to have his best season in terms of average finish (12.7), laps led (287), top 10s (14 currently) and top 5s (5), likely thanks to strong performance in the summertime. Almirola did not finish outside of the top 10 from June 14 until August 8, which added up to almost two months straight without a finish outside of the top 10. Almirola solidly locked himself into the playoffs by finishing eighth in the regular season standings, even besting 2019 regular season champion Kyle Busch.
Almirola enters the playoffs with strong finishes but few stage points, having the sixth-least amount of stage points of any driver in the playoffs. Almirola will need to pick up the pace throughout the race if he’s going to make it to the next round, given his 12th-place points position and one-point advantage to advance to the second round and the fact that his worst track (Bristol) lies at the end of the round. As we saw with Ryan Newman last year, when he finished tenth in the Las Vegas playoff opener and fifth in the following race at Richmond but 32nd in the Charlotte Roval cutoff race, you have to be good every race in order to advance and Almirola will need to do the same. Given Almirola’s improvement this season, it’s likely that he’ll be able to advance to the Round of 12 and possibly onward, but the first round will be an obstacle given Almirola’s previous statistics.
No. 41 Cole Custer (T-10th in the standings, +1 ahead of 13th place Clint Bowyer)
In one daring move at Kentucky, Cole Custer turned an otherwise-mediocre rookie season into one that has vaulted him ahead of his fellow rookie of the year contenders. Custer has locked up rookie of the year honors for this season with his playoff berth, making this season memorable even if the statistics haven’t backed it up. Outside of Kentucky, Custer has yet to lead a lap this season and has only scored one other top 5 and five other top 10s. However, his performance has improved since his win, with Custer scoring three top 10 finishes in the last nine races, compared with just two top 10s in the first 16 races.
If Custer can continue his recent uptick in performance, he may be a contender to move on to the Round of 12, but it is unlikely. Other drivers are likely to turn up their performance who may have cooled down in the summertime and those who have cooled down may utilize past experience to elevate themselves when they need it, while Custer only has limited experience with that at the top level of NASCAR. If Custer makes it beyond the first round, it will be a great story, but it is already a great story to see rookies like Custer having success in the Cup Series.
No. 14 Clint Bowyer (13th in the standings, -1 behind Aric Almirola, the first driver currently locked into the Round of 12 on points)
One of the quietest drivers of the 2020 season, in terms of on-track performance, has ironically been one of the rowdiest drivers off-track in Kansas native Clint Bowyer. Bowyer made the playoffs by 51 points, easily being a virtual lock-in heading into the cutoff race at Daytona, but only doing so with two top 5s and seven top 10s on the season.
Bowyer has been aided by his performances in the second Darlington race, the Atlanta race and the second Michigan race where, despite finishing outside of the top 10, Bowyer led at least 43 laps and scored at least 10 stage points in each race. Bowyer earned 20 stage points at Darlington, ten at Atlanta and 16 at Michigan, which helped soften the blow of finishing 22nd at Darlington, 20th at Atlanta and 14th at Michigan.
Bowyer has not been stellar but he has been consistent, but he has salvaged a spot in the playoffs by only scoring 22 top 20 finishes, the fourth-most of any driver, and only one sub-30th-place finish this season.
Now that he’s in, he’s in luck: the first round is highly driver-centric, with Darlington, Richmond and Bristol making up the round. Bowyer has recently been good at all three tracks and his only top five finishes this season have come at driver-centric tracks; Phoenix and Bristol. Bowyer may have that as a saving grace for advancing out of the first round but from there it may become trickier for him to move farther forward.