Precarious nature of Cup Series Playoffs bubble ratchets up for Chicago

The Cup Series’ playoff picture makes a shift into Chicago Street Race Weekend, and residents on the bubble are increasingly uneasy.

CHICAGO — With seven weeks remaining in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season, there are plenty of uneasy feelings to go around for drivers residing on the playoff bubble. That’s true for those currently on the ever-shifting plus and minus sides of elimination without a victory in the 2024 campaign.

An opportunity exists to shift the postseason complexion again in Sunday’s Grant Park 165 (4:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App), the main event of Chicago Street Race Weekend. For two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch in particular, those opportunities have been fleeting this season — either on the performance side or the ability to capitalize when they’ve arisen.

“I’ve stopped keeping track, it’s been so dismal and so heartbreaking that I have a hard time dealing with enough stuff in my life that, every Sunday to keep adding to it is getting harder and harder to deal with,” said Busch, 104 points below the provisional line as his Richard Childress Racing team tries to regroup. “But just got to keep going on into next week and keep fighting on and fight the good fight to try to score a win hopefully before the playoffs, and if not before the playoffs, then at least in the playoffs.”

Joey Logano’s first victory of the season last weekend after five overtimes at Nashville Superspeedway put an 11th winner into what will be a 16-driver playoff grid once the regular season wraps Sept. 1 at Darlington Raceway. Logano’s clinching win removed him from the bubble conversation, opening up the gap between elimination from 13 points before Nashville to a 51-point margin afterward.

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On the plus-51 side is Alex Bowman, who has slipped five positions in the Cup Series standings in the last five races. That drop comes after a steady run of five consecutive top-10 finishes during the springtime months, which had the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports driver up to eighth in points after the Coca-Cola 600.

“I think we were in a really good spot a month ago,” said Bowman, who starts eighth Sunday aspiring for his first top five since mid-April. “We’ve had a lot of things happen outside of our control in the last month that we need to get our stuff turned around a little bit. Definitely frustrating to give away as many points as we have. But at the same time, we’re still the same race team that was running really well prior to that, and there’s no reason we can’t get back to that.”

The other side of the elimination coin belongs to Bubba Wallace, who has been both the last driver in and the first driver out in recent weeks as the bubble line has fluctuated. Wallace reached the postseason for the first time last year on the basis of points, and his two Cup Series victories have come during the playoffs in years when he was not postseason-eligible. A first regular-season win would soothe his current situation.

“I’ll be honest with you, I’m quite tired of having to do it on points, you know?” said Wallace, starting sixth Sunday in a bid for his first top-five result since Martinsville Speedway on April 7. “Always seem to find ourselves right around the bubble, and it gets stressful. Every race that goes by and you don’t win, it gets more and more stressful. So we know we can do it on points, for sure. We did last year, but damn, it’d be nice just to win, and then you can start doing crazy stuff just to try something in the regular season. Right now, we have to play the game, and hopefully, we’re in the right spot at the right time to win it.

“I know we’re all hyper-focused on that, but we can’t lose sight of we just need to go out and do the best that we can do and run good, which I believe 100% in this team. It’s just a matter of doing it.”

MORE: Chicago weekend schedule | Cup Series standings

Logano’s win also shifted up the points outlook for Chase Briscoe, who leads the charge standings-wise for Stewart-Haas Racing in its farewell season. Briscoe entered Nashville off his best finish of the season — second at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the No. 14 Ford — but his position relative to the provisional elimination line shifted from minus-25 to 78 points off the cutoff as he rolls into Chicago’s streets.

Briscoe’s standings situation has also switched up his approach.

“I was 100% in points mode up until last week when Joey won. That kind of changed a lot of things,” Briscoe says. “… In the big scheme of things, we could point our way in, but it’s going to be really, really hard to do that, probably. So especially if another guy wins, and you’re absolutely in must-win. So I think we’ve got to start throwing Hail Marys at it now. In the past, we’ve not wanted to do that just because we’re still in the points, so it makes it hard to sometimes take those risk versus reward moves, but definitely, now I think we’re to the point where we’re going to have to start getting pretty aggressive.”

Chris Buescher has also shrugged at the standings, and he’s on the plus side by 56 points. That mantra stems from a long-held philosophy that values wins above all else.

The driver of RFK Racing’s No. 17 Ford has had several close brushes with a Victory Lane appearance this year, none closer than his loss by 0.001 seconds to points leader Kyle Larson at Kansas Speedway on May 5. His late-race scrap with Tyler Reddick, which led to defeat after a strong day one week later at Darlington, also stands out. The strength of his performances has given him a slight cushion in the team’s pursuit of the postseason, but he’s not harping on the exact number.

“I haven’t looked at them, and kind of just whenever they pop up or someone mentions it, that’s how I get my updates because I’m not a points racer. I don’t want to get caught in that,” said Buescher, who has finished fifth the last two weekends. “It is a big part of our sport, but I’m just a little more old school in the way that I think about going to the race track, and if you figure out how to win every week, points come with that, and that’s been my mindset. What we’re trying to do on the 17 side is figure out how to go each race track and make this one our win. So regardless of the points side of things, we’re coming here to figure out how to set up for that last stage to win a race.”