Cindric’s WWTR win brings massive shakeup to Cup playoffs

The NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture has its first major shakeup.

Heading into Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300, the Cup Series season had mostly followed season-long trends. The only driver outside of the current top 16 in points to win a race was Daniel Suarez, and he did so in the second race of the year, so the win’s been something teams could account for from early on.

All other wins had come from drivers sitting 11th or better in the standings. With only two drivers within 80 points of the playoff cutline, there were also few drivers worth tracking in the points. The bubble seemed well-defined and few drivers beyond the top 16 had shown any likelihood of winning.


Enter Austin Cindric.

It took engine woes for Christopher Bell and Ryan Blaney running out of fuel to make happen, but Cindric surged to lead when it counted and scored his second Cup win. The win was well-earned, following a front-row qualifying run and a consistent race. In the scope of the season, though, it seemingly came from nowhere. Cindric entered the weekend 20th in the standings, well beyond the cutline on points.

Now he’s locked into the playoff field, which means there’s one fewer spot available on points. The drivers vying for those final positions also saw their situations change.

One thing affecting all of them is uncertainty over just how many positions they’re competing for. NASCAR has yet to decide on the playoff eligibility waiver request sent in for Kyle Larson after he skipped the start of Coca-Cola 600 to contest the Indianapolis 500.

Should NASCAR elect to award Larson the waiver, the Californian’s two wins and strong points position will make him a playoff lock. If the sanctioning body deems him ineligible, then Larson’s exit will allow another driver a chance to compete for a title this fall. The tour’s latest points report listed Larson second in the standings, but without any playoff points.

The biggest loser at Gateway was last year’s big winner, Kyle Busch. A year removed from his win at the track, the Richard Childress Racing star was knocked out of Sunday’s race at the end of Stage 2 when he crashed with – who else — Larson.

Busch was battling with Larson in the final lap of Stage 2 when the pair came together heading into Turn 1. After repeated side-by-side contact down the front straight, Larson was racing to Busch’s inside for 10th and snapped loose, sliding into Busch and sending the two-time champion up into the outside wall in Turn 2.

“It looked like [Larson] got loose, I guess, down the front straightaway into Turn 1,” Busch said afterward. “He was on older tires and trying to get us for a spot. Not sure what that single point was really gonna mean for him, but certainly hurt us a lot because [it] took that point away as well as the others that we’d get for the stage, and then also the rest of the day. Very frustrating.”

The incident brought Busch’s day to a halt, leaving him 35th when the checkered flag flew. It was a disappointing end to a day that had started with promise after Busch led 15 laps early on.

“We can’t afford days like that,” Busch said. “The Rebel Camaro wasn’t what it was last year, but it was a top-10 car and we were gonna finish there. [Now] we’re not going to finish at all.”

The best finisher of the bubble drivers was Joey Logano in fifth, the 2022 winner benefitting from the same strategy play that took Cindric to victory lane. Chris Buescher made the most of a quiet day in 14th, with Chase Briscoe finishing three spots back in 17th. Bubba Wallace fell to 21st at race’s end. Blaney went from a winner to a 24th-place finisher after he ran out of fuel on the final lap.

With Suarez and Cindric locked into the playoffs with wins, the final spot on points sits in either 14th or 15th pending the waiver decision for Larson. Should Larson be granted the waiver, then Blaney (+47), Wallace (+13) and Buescher (+10) will be the drivers above the cutline. Briscoe (-10) would be the first one out, with Logano (-14) and Busch (-20) both within reach.

If Larson’s denied a waiver, Briscoe will jump above the cutline with Logano and Busch in pursuit.

The good news for all involved is that there’s plenty of time left to improve their position. Eleven races remain in the regular season, including a road course (Sonoma Raceway), a street course (Chicago), a new track (Iowa Speedway) and a wildcard superspeedway (Daytona International Speedway).

Story originally appeared on Racer