Living, And Racing, Outside NASCAR’s Playoff Bubble

As a major league sport in America, NASCAR is an outlier when it comes to its season ending Playoffs. Unlike other leagues where the teams not in the playoffs are eliminated and go home, all of NASCAR’s teams and drivers compete in the same final 10 races. While only 16 drivers are eligible to win the season championship, they are racing with others who are not competing for the crown.

That leaves some 20 odd drivers living outside the Playoff bubble. They don’t have the same media attention the Playoff drivers do; don’t face elimination after a Playoff round and are still eligible for a victory in one of the final 10 races; those drivers just can’t win the NASCAR Cup series driver championship.

Driver Erik Jones is a perfect example of this. The Legacy Motor Club driver didn’t make the NASCAR Playoffs last season, yet he did win the opening race of the Playoffs at Darlington Raceway. Jones has been a Playoff driver before. During his seven-year NASCAR Cup career, Jones made the Playoffs in 2018 and 2019 while driving for powerhouse team Joe Gibbs Racing.

With Legacy Motor Club, a two-car team co-owned by former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, Jones has struggled. Not surprising given the resources the newish team has. But that means that this year, like last, Jones is outside the Playoff bubble. It’s sort of a strange place to be this time of year.

“It’s a lot different,” Jones said at the site of his last win, Darlington, Saturday. “When you’re in the playoffs, obviously there’s a lot of pressure there. Three races to try to get into the next round is always intense, and when you’re in it, it’s way more intense week-to-week than in the regular season.

“When you’re out of it, nothing really changes this time of the year. You have the same approach that you’ve had through the rest of the season going week-to-week.

Jones adds that racing Playoff drivers isn’t easy nor is it straightforward. It takes awareness and acknowledgment.

“You can’t go out there and push the issue with guys sometimes,” he said. “They’re racing for a championship, and you have to respect that. They’ve earned that right and earned that respect. Some may look at that differently, but that’s kind of a thing that I see with the Playoffs this time of the year and being out of it.”

Chris Buescher also has previous Playoff experience. He made the field with a win in a rain shortened race at Pocono Raceway in 2016. That win came with Front Row Motorsports, an underfunded team.

“That was so much fun to do that and to have that upset but sitting here at that moment in 2016 we knew we were in a pretty big underdog situation and were just happy to be there,” he said.

This year Buescher is not only in the Playoffs but is leading a resurgent Roush-Fenway Keselowski team. He enters the Playoffs as one of the favorites on the strength of his career best three wins this season.

“It’s a little bit different this time around because we’re competitors,” he said. “We have a really good shot to do big things here and we don’t feel like we’re in an underdog situation. It’s certainly a pretty big departure from what the feeling was back then.

“I’m supposed to know more now. That was seven years ago. I’m supposed to be better at this by this point and in a better place to make a run at this thing.”

One of the biggest differences for Buescher from years past came before the Playoff field was set at the final regular season race at Daytona. A win in NASCAR’s regular season grants a driver entry into the Playoffs. For those who remain winless the Daytona race represents one final chance; something Buescher himself had to face last year, but not this season.

“The biggest change being in the playoffs and being locked in the playoffs this year was honestly Daytona,” he said. “Going into a superspeedway race that you know can be so wild and not having the stresses of that race being your last shot. That Hail Mary of trying to get in. That made that race a whole lot more enjoyable, which enabled us to go about it a little differently, which made the end result a whole lot more enjoyable as well.”

One driver who went into the final regular season race at Daytona needing a Hail Mary was Chase Elliott. In his seven-year career as a fulltime Cup driver Elliott has never missed the Playoffs and won the series championship in 2020. But after missing seven races, six due to injury and one due to suspension, Elliott missed the Playoffs, but remains in a unique position.

While Elliott the driver did miss races, his car, the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, still raced albeit with different drivers. So while Elliott isn’t in the Playoffs as a driver, his car, and team are still very much in the midst of a points battle for the Owners Championship. For him there is no reset on the season, no letting it all hang out just to try and win races.

“There’s a really fine line because, you know, getting the car through these rounds is a big deal,” Elliott said. “… I’m still trying to figure out that balance as we go.

“I’m really still treating it like we’re in the deal because the car is, and you have to go and bring your best every week to advance it through the round. So yeah. We’ll, we’ll see. Every week, you know, I want to, whether I was in it or not, I’d want to come and try to be better and do better. So, we’ll just, we’ll see. It’s a tough balance.”

One thing Elliott wants to work on in the final 10 races is himself. Not being in the Playoffs for the first time in his Cup career means most of the attention won’t be on him. That will allow him to do what he needs to do to ensure he isn’t outside the Playoff bubble next season.

“I want to be better; I want to prepare better for next year,” he said. “And use some of these races to make myself better.

“But it’s not just a throwaway at this point,” he added with a chuckle. “We’re still racing for something. So you got to do that stuff in moderation and still try to perform well.”

After throwing a Hail Mary as Daytona and coming up short, finishing fourth, Elliott resigned himself to being out the Playoffs for the first time, and he seems to have made peace with it.

“One thing I’ve learned through this process is life goes on,” he said, “And there are there are much bigger things than cars going around in circles every weekend.”

He’s now ready to win races, help his team win the owners title, and perhaps just as important work on himself so he will never again be one of the drivers living on the outside of NASCAR’s Playoff bubble.

“You know, look, it’s part of life,” Elliott said. “Not everything’s going to go your way. And I get it. But I want to be better, and I want to improve. There’s just areas that I don’t feel like I’m doing a great job in and I want to make that better. That’s it. That’s all I care about.”

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