Atlanta shake-up: Kurt Busch victory jostles Cup Series playoff picture

Kurt Busch’s victory Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway had multiple ripple effects on the evolving NASCAR Cup Series postseason picture. Five races remain in the regular season, and the window for solidifying playoff status is closing.

RELATED: Official results | Cup Series standings

Here’s how Sunday’s 400-miler shook up the outlook for several drivers on opposite sides of the playoff bubble:

Looking out for No. 1: Kurt Busch virtually wrapped up his ninth consecutive playoff berth, marking his eighth straight season with at least one win. The announced sale of his Chip Ganassi Racing team just 11 days earlier threw his status for next season into further uncertainty, but now he has the elements of a solid send-off for CGR and potential leverage for a 2022 ride.

“Our win last year at Vegas was a long time ago,” Busch said, “and so to update that and to make ourselves playoff eligible, it’s a huge feather in the cap for everybody that’s part of that organization to keep pushing and to give our best all the way to Phoenix.”

Busch entered Atlanta as the last competitor provisionally in the 16-driver playoff field and a 33-1 shot to win in the Vegas sportsbooks. He now ranks among the 12 regular-season winners, taking the upper hand on those still trying to qualify on the basis of points.

MORE: NASCAR Playoff Watch 2021

Four on the floor: With a dozen playoff berths snapped up by regular-season winners, just four open spots remain. Right now, those slots are provisionally filled by top points earners (in order) Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick.

Four up-for-grabs positions in five races — a schedule that includes two road courses and an unpredictable Daytona finale — leaves the tantalizing doomsday scenario of more than 16 regular-season winners as a remote possibility. Highly unlikely given the strength of 2021’s winners thus far, but still …

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Reddick braving the bubble: The No. 8 Richard Childress Racing crew seemed to sense that Sunday’s outcome could have a negative effect on Tyler Reddick’s playoff prospects, telling their driver before the final stage: “We’re going to need the 1 (Busch) to slow down here. We don’t need him winning.” Busch did, and the result dropped Reddick into the precarious 16th berth.

Reddick has finished among the top 10 in three consecutive races, but a first-time winner in the final five races could spell trouble for him. “I know we can make the playoffs,” he said post-race. “We just have to continue to push.”

Points of order: Before Atlanta, Busch’s hold on the final playoff spot was just 25 points above Chris Buescher, the first driver provisionally out. After Atlanta, with Reddick the new last man in, the cut line is now a 96-point separation between 16th and 17th in the playoff standings.

Barring a monumental collapse by non-winners above the cut, the avenue for a driver to race his way into a playoff spot on the basis of points is extremely slim. Breaking through for a win will remain the best bet for the current postseason outsiders.

Regular-season title twists: After Denny Hamlin was knocked back in the running order by a Lap 163 pit-road speeding penalty, Kyle Larson stood poised to take over the series points lead that Hamlin had held continuously since the second race of the season. Just 48 laps later, Larson’s own speeding violation thwarted that opportunity, keeping Hamlin atop the standings for another week. Hamlin finished 13th at Atlanta, with Larson 18th.

Hamlin’s lead grew from a scant three points to just 10 after Atlanta as the pursuit of the regular-season championship nears its end. The title carries with it a 15-point playoff bonus, a tidy incentive for the winner.