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Four races, four faces: Cup Series’ early mix of winners could have playoffs impact

Talk surrounding the postseason bubble in March usually refers to college basketball. That madness is spreading, though, to the NASCAR Cup Series this season and the rush of unique winners that threaten to crowd the playoff field.

Kyle Larson added his name to the list with his victory Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, joining Daytona 500 champ Michael McDowell, Daytona road course winner Christopher Bell and Homestead-Miami victor William Byron. That’s four different winners in four races, and four virtual lock-ins to the 16-driver postseason grid.

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In the last two years, the rise of a “Big 3” trio that corners the market on regular-season wins has left a healthy handful of spots available to playoff qualifiers on the basis of points. A swath of 22 regular-season races remain for regular repeat winners to take hold, but the long-shot scenario of “win and you’re (not necessarily) in” is inching just a bit closer.

“I think definitely we’ve seen over the last four weeks different teams in different places than I think preseason predictions would have said,” said Brad Keselowski, Sunday’s Vegas runner-up. “Still early. Got a lot of running left to do. But very interesting and a provocative year.”

A historical aside: Talladega Superspeedway’s existence opened with a baker’s dozen of unique winners in its ‘fall’ race, then called the Talladega 500. The track cashed in on the unpredictability, eventually marketing the event as “13 races, 13 faces” and wondering aloud who might be able to win it twice. Darrell Waltrip broke the streak as the 500-miler’s first repeater in 1982, then showed up the next year for a press conference wearing a shirt that read: “14 races, 13 faces. Sorry about that.”

While this season isn’t near double digits on the races/faces toteboard just yet, there’s still some intrigue in the early trends and jockeying for position in the Cup Series standings. With the acknowledgment that plenty of regular-season racing remains, here’s another of our periodic way-too-early assessments of the field and its playoff implications.

• Clinched: Just the four so far — McDowell, Bell, Byron and Larson. A favorite atop the sportsbooks board has yet to win this season, and Larson — the sixth choice Sunday at 10-1 odds — is the closest the series has come to a true top-horse bet. Time remains for the playoff grid to more closely resemble last season’s, but already three of this year’s four winners were not postseason qualifiers in 2020.

Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images
Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images

• High perch in points: Five drivers among the top seven in Cup Series standings have yet to win this year, but all of them recorded multiple victories last season and are accustomed to this placement atop the stack. Denny Hamlin remains the Cup Series points leader, with Brad Keselowski, Larson and defending champ Chase Elliott right behind him. Bell and McDowell have managed to keep some of their early-season momentum rolling with positions among the top 10.

• Mild mid-pack surprises: Considering the topic of momentum, Ryan Preece’s solid if not flashy performance has kept him among the contenders early on. His No. 37 JTG-Daugherty Racing Chevrolet ranks as the top non-chartered team at 13th in the points. Chris Buescher also remains in the conversation, finishing 14th at Las Vegas after an impressive outing early at Homestead-Miami. He’s 16th, just one spot ahead of JTG’s other driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

• Rally-cap time: Tyler Reddick made gains with his runner-up finish at Homestead, but he still has regular-season work to do, sitting in a tie with Erik Jones for 23rd. The rear-most portions of the top 30 are dotted with more names hungry for a turnaround — Aric Almirola and Matt DiBenedetto prime among them. Almirola has clinched a playoff berth in three consecutive seasons, all with Stewart-Haas Racing, but three finishes of 30th or worse to start the year have him among the group in catch-up mode.