Coca-Cola 600 Takeaways: Pressure builds on those outside playoff spot
CONCORD, N.C. — With more points available in the Coca-Cola 600 than any other race this season, Sunday’s event was a chance for those outside a playoff spot to close the gap to the cutoff line.
Now, drivers outside a playoff spot either need to win or hope those holding a playoff position via points falter in the coming weeks.
There have been 11 winners this season, leaving five potential playoff spots based on points. Among those who have yet to win are points leader Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, who is ninth in the season standings. Add those to the list of playoff drivers and that would leave three spots available. Eleven races remain in the regular season.
The Coca-Cola 600 awarded the most points of any race because it has an additional stage. That didn’t help most of the drivers outside a playoff spot.
Here’s a look at how the standings looked before and after the Coca-Cola 600 among those outside the top 16 to earn a playoff spot (points out of the final playoff spot is in parenthesis):
The most points a driver can score in any of the remaining races is 60, so all but Matt DiBenedetto are at least one full race behind Chris Buescher, who holds the final playoff spot, heading to this weekend’s race at Sonoma Raceway (4 p.m. ET on FS1).
This is how Sunday’s race went bad for many of those outside a playoff spot:
A pit call and a caution-free first stage hurt DiBenedetto, who lost 17 points to the cutoff Sunday with his 18th-place finish.
DiBenedetto was the next-to-last driver to pit during the green-flag pit cycle in the opening stage. He pitted 10 laps after eventual winner Kyle Larson. New tires were faster. DiBenedetto lost time as he stayed out on older tires in hopes of a caution that never came. When he returned from pit road, he was a lap down. DiBenedetto didn’t get back on the lead lap until a caution at Lap 174, using the wave-around. He eventually fell back a lap and missed a top-15 finish.
“Our Menards/Masterforce Tools Mustang was lacking speed and handling,” DiBenedetto said. “It was very edgy to drive. ... We were just struggling all night.”
Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain each suffered mechanical issues that led to Busch finishing last in the 38-car field and Chastain placing 37th. Both earned one point in a race that had a season-high 70 points available with the extra stage. It was the worst time to have the worst finish of the season for both.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished 12th but still lost seven points to the playoff cutoff spot. He fell from the No. 2 starting spot to finish the first stage ninth and scored two stage points. He was 14th at the end of the third stage and gained two positions in the final stage to score 27 points. It was the second-most points he’s scored in a race this year, yet he still lost ground to the cutoff line.
“We got trapped by a lap car at the end when I think we were definitely catching cars for position at the end,” Stenhouse said, “but 12th is still really strong for us and a step back in the right direction after a few rough weeks.”
Ryan Newman cut a tire shortly before the end of stage 3 and hit the wall. He was running 12th before the incident and finished 27th. Newman scored 10 points, marking the third race in a row he’s scored less than 15 points.
“Unfortunately, you can’t control when a tire will go down and ours put us behind the 8-ball,” Newman said, “and we just didn’t have enough laps to recover.”
Tyler Reddick’s ninth-place finish marked his seventh top-10 result in the last nine races and third overall.
Just as important is he scored points in all three stages Sunday, collecting 14 additional points. Only Kyle Larson (30 stage points), Chase Elliott (25), William Byron (25) and Kyle Busch (20) scored more stage points than the Richard Childress Racing driver Sunday night.
Reddick has scored points in nine of the last 11 stages. Hescored points in only two of the first 21 stages this season.
“We had a really good points night and earned valuable stage points in every stage (Sunday), which will be a huge help to keeping us moving up in the standings,” Reddick said.
Reddick passed Chris Buescher for 15th on the playoff grid. Reddick leads Buescher by six points. It’s a big turnaround in the last few weeks. Buescher led Reddick by 26 points after the May 2 Kansas race.