Playoff bubble takes center stage for Cup Series heading into Atlanta

It’s crunch time for the NASCAR Playoffs as the Cup Series heads to a free-for-all at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the form of Sunday’s Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart (7 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App).

Eleven drivers are all but assured of qualifying for the postseason based on victories in the first 18 races of the regular season.

Kevin Harvick (151 points above the playoff elimination line), Chris Buescher (+104) and Brad Keselowski (+91) – currently 12th, 13th and 14th, respectively in the playoff standings – all seem comfortably situated, barring a spate of new winners in the next eight races.

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Beyond that, however, the field is tightly packed. Bubba Wallace is 15 points to the good in 15th, and Ty Gibbs is six points above the cut line in 16th, the last playoff-eligible position. Gibbs gained 16 points and moved up two spots on the playoff grid with his ninth-place finish in the inaugural Chicago Street Race last Sunday.

Drivers in the 17th through 25th positions all are within striking distance, with 24th-place Chase Elliott 55 points out of a playoff spot and 25th-place Ryan Preece 66 points in arrears.

Given the superspeedway competition package in use for Sunday’s race on recently repaved Atlanta Motor Speedway, the universe of potential winners – and hence, potential playoff qualifiers – is expanded, at least according to conventional wisdom.

Wallace, for example, expressed confidence in his No. 23 team, despite four straight finishes of 15th or worse following his fourth-place run in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May.

“These last few races haven’t gone really well, and it wasn’t because we were looking at points,” said Wallace, who has three career second-place finishes at Daytona to his credit. “We just haven’t executed. We know the situation that we’re in, and we know we’re right there on the cusp of our first win of the season.

“We’ve just got to put it all together… We’ve just got to regroup. Our team can do it. I believe one thousand percent in this group, and it’s just a matter of time. We’ll be there.”

Elliott is the defending winner of the summer Atlanta race, but the 2020 Cup Series champion didn’t compete at Atlanta in March because of a broken leg suffered in a snowboarding accident.

The first 18 races of the season have highlighted the importance of stage racing. Harvick is 151 points above the playoff cut line in part because he has accumulated 106 stage points, most among currently winless drivers. AJ Allmendinger, on the other hand is 24 points below the line in 19th place in part because he has scored a mere 33 stage points in the first half of the season.

One interesting aspect of the Quaker State 400 is a first for NASCAR – a variable pit-road speed. Under green, drivers will be able to run up to 90 mph in the first two sectors of pit road, entering from Turn 3. From the third sector on, pit road speed drops to 45 mph.

MORE: Details on Atlanta’s pit-road procedures

Under caution, pit-road speed is a constant 45 mph. In addition, one minute will be added to the Damaged Vehicle Policy clock for both the Cup and Xfinity Series. Cup teams will now have eight minutes to effect repairs. Xfinity teams will have seven minutes.