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November 7, 2018

Analysis: How penalty to No. 4 team reshapes playoff picture

The No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team was docked 40 driver and 40 owner points as part of an L1-level penalty following Kevin Harvick’s win Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. As a result, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs picture got a bit of a makeover.

To recap: As part of the penalty to the No. 4 team, Harvick was docked 40 points and his win at Texas cannot be used to clinch his spot in the Championship 4. As NBC’s Rick Allen might say — this … changes … everything.

The only playoff driver not impacted by the penalty is Joey Logano. The Team Penske wheelman won his way into the Championship 4 at Martinsville, and his status does not change. He’ll race for the title in Miami.

The other seven playoff drivers all feel the impact, though — some more than others.

RELATED: More on No. 4 penalty

Here’s a look at how the standings shook out, and what it means for the seven drivers all trying to clinch one of the three remaining Championship 4 spots this weekend at ISM Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

2. Kyle Busch (Previously: 3)

Points above cutline: +28
Previous points above: + 28
Note: The biggest gain for Busch isn’t necessarily in points, but security. He remains 28 points above the cutoff (because the points total for the first driver below the cutline didn’t change), but now he has Kevin Harvick 25 points behind him instead of locked into the Championship 4. Busch should feel far more comfortable heading into Phoenix.

3. Martin Truex Jr. (Previously: 4)

Points above cutline: +25
Previous points above: + 25
Note: Similarly to Busch, Truex Jr. can breathe easier considering he’s not the last driver above the cutline. His points cushion doesn’t change, but with Harvick 22 points below him, his Miami chances have spiked upward — especially when you consider that if a driver below the cutline wins, it now is more likely to impact Harvick rather than Truex Jr.

RELATED: Updated playoff standings

4. Kevin Harvick (Previously: 1)

Points above cutline: +3
Previous points above: CLINCHED
Note: Obviously, Wednesday’s penalty is a massive blow to the No. 4 team. In the top spot in the standings with a Championship 4 berth locked in after winning at Texas, the team’s 40-point infraction erases that and puts Harvick in a dangerous spot. Yes, ISM Raceway at Phoenix is Harvick’s best track, but his margin over Kurt Busch is razor thin — just three points. Beyond that, if someone below the cutoff line wins, he’s in real trouble. Then there’s the mental aspect. Yesterday, the No. 4 team had its feet metaphorically kicked up, plotting for Homestead-Miami Speedway. Now they are back in the pressure cooker, and without crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Robert Smith for the next two races.

5. Kurt Busch (Previously: 5)

Points below cutline: -3
Previous points below: -25
Note: The biggest “winner” of this points penalty is Harvick’s teammate Kurt Busch. Prior to Wednesday’s news, the Stewart-Haas Racing veteran faced an uphill climb to Miami that in all likelihood necessitated a win at Phoenix. His margin to the cutoff line is down to three, and Busch has plenty of room to wiggle – and the cushion to pounce if a driver above him in the standings has an issue.

6. Chase Elliott (Previously: 6)

Points below cutline: -17
Previous points below: -39
Note: Wednesday’s penalty was plenty impactful for Chase Elliott as well. A strong finish in Stage 1 and Stage 2 would help Elliott cut into the 17-point gap much more easily than the 39-point gulf he had previously faced.

7. Aric Almirola (Previously: 7)

Points below cutline: -35
Previous points below: -57
Note: No change here. Almirola must win Sunday to advance.

8. Clint Bowyer (Previously: 8)

Points below cutline: -51
Previous points below: -73
Note: No change here. Bowyer must win Sunday to advance.