Back to News

June 3, 2024

Analysis: Austin Cindric’s upset win adds another jolt to playoff picture

Editor’s note: This story has been updated after NASCAR reinstated Kyle Larson’s playoff eligibility.

Heading into Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at World Wide Technology Raceway, Team Penske’s Austin Cindric ranked 20th in the regular-season points. Even then, Racing Insights projected the 2022 Daytona 500 champion to have just a 5.66% chance of advancing to this year’s playoffs.

Bracket busted?

Related Story
Ryan Blaney after Gateway heartbreak: ‘It wasn’t meant to be’ Ryan Blaney after Gateway heartbreak: ‘It wasn’t meant to be’

Cindric stormed into Victory Lane on Sunday afternoon at Gateway, snapping an 85-race winless drought after teammate Ryan Blaney ran out of gas one lap too early. With that snagged checkered flag comes a berth in the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs field, propelling the No. 2 Ford firmly into the postseason.

MORE: Recap Cindric’s last-gasp win

Some familiar faces have already won their way in: Denny Hamlin, William Byron, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski (who snapped a 110-race drought by winning at Darlington).

Meanwhile, NASCAR granted Kyle Larson a waiver to remain eligible for the playoffs after he missed the Coca-Cola 600 on May 26 to make his inaugural Indianapolis 500 appearance. Larson has two wins this season and left Gateway second in the regular-season standings, 21 points back of points leader Denny Hamlin. Whoever claims the Regular Season Championship will earn 15 playoff points toward their postseason efforts, while the runner-up receives 10.

But more curious for the time being are those on the outside looking in.

Farther back without a guaranteed spot in the playoffs sits Kyle Busch, a two-time champion who currently resides in 17th place in the regular-season standings — three spots outside the provisional points bracket by 20 points. Busch needed a solid points day at Gateway — the site of his most recent win — and was on pace for such running inside the top 10. But contact with Larson on the final lap of Stage 2 sent Busch into the SAFER barrier instead, and he took the No. 8 Chevrolet to the garage for his first DNF of 2024.

RELATED: Busch: ‘We can’t afford days like that’

Busch left the St. Louis area with just two points earned, continuing a stretch of races that’s left him 15th or worse in the final race rundowns in four of the past six events.

Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney race at Gateway.
Sean Gardner | Getty Images

Joey Logano is starting to round into form — and it’s about time for the No. 22 Team Penske Ford. Another two-time Cup champ, Logano won the exhibition NASCAR All-Star Race on May 19 and turned in a fifth-place finish Sunday at Gateway, only his second top five of 2024 and first since a runner-up effort in March at Richmond Raceway.

On Saturday, he said, “We don’t have any mulligans left at this point,” which is quite true: Logano sits 16th in points but two spots outside the provisional playoff standings, 14 points behind RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher for the final available playoff spot.

MORE: Provisional 2024 playoff field

That brings us back to the potential surprises that are provisionally safe — namely, drivers like Cindric and Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suárez, both locked in thanks to respective victories at Gateway and Atlanta Motor Speedway. Through a combined 30 starts this year (15 for each), the duo has a combined four top fives — two each, which serve as their only top 10s of the year as well. But their wins absolve any issues in consistency, propelling them into the postseason.

Those currently in on points but still sitting winless are Martin Truex Jr. (+132 points to the elimination line per Racing Insights), Ty Gibbs (+107), Alex Bowman (+59), Ross Chastain (+59), Blaney (+47), Bubba Wallace (+13), and Buescher (+10). Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe is currently the first driver on the outside looking in, 10 points shy of Buescher.

With nearly a full race’s worth of points ahead of the separation line (and 11 races away from the postseason), Blaney should be safe. But if the next handful of weeks go awry, the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion could find himself cursing the Gateway outcome even more than he already is.

Plenty can change over the next three months as the playoffs loom. But positions to compete for the 2024 title are already dwindling.

And for those on the tail end of that elimination line? An Austin Cindric win may have been your worst nightmare come true.