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There was a general feeling that the 2019 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series had been too predictable.
It wasn’t too far off the mark, as this year’s championship has lacked in variety.
Last season had 11 different race winners over the course of the year.
Until Chicago, 2019 had featured only six winners.
The unpredictability factor had disappeared, as no drivers outside the top 7 in points had won races.
Chicago and Daytona, however, provided the shakeup this season needed.
Alex Bowman scored his first career victory at Chicago.
The following weekend at Daytona, Justin Haley produced an absolute shocker.
The Xfinity Series regular won the red-flagged round in only his second-ever Cup Series start.
Since Haley doesn’t even score points for the Cup Series championship, he naturally won’t be eligible for the playoffs.
His win, however, made the message quite clear for the top 16 in the points standings.
The threat of an underdog is always around.
At any moment, one of the drivers in the bubble could get bumped out by an unexpected winner.
Where: New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, NH
When: Sunday, July 21st at 3:00 PM EST
How: NBC Sports (TV) | Performance Racing Network (Web radio) | NBC Sports App
NASCAR introduced the playoff format in 2014, replacing the previous Chase.
That year, two drivers first-time winners provided upsets and made their way into the postseason.
Neither made it past the first round, with Almirola finishing last among the playoff contenders in 16th.
That year saw a record number of four drivers outside the top 16 make their way into the postseason.
The following year was marked by an interesting storyline.
Kyle Busch suffered a broken leg while racing in the Xfinity Series opener at Daytona.
The Joe Gibbs driver was then forced to sit out the first 11 races.
Busch won in his fourth start after coming back but had to race into the top 30 to qualify.
He ultimately achieved the feat, bumping Almirola out of the top 16.
While far from being an underdog, Busch would make good use of the new format.
With the playing field getting reset during the postseason, he advanced through all three rounds.
Then, in one of the most controversial episodes in recent NASCAR history, the Joe Gibbs driver won the 2015 championship.
In other words, Busch took the trophy despite missing nearly a third of the schedule.
In 2016, two drivers outside the top 16 advanced to the postseason by winning races.
One of them was Tony Stewart, the three-time champion missing eight races at the start of that season.
Stewart went on to score what turned out to be his final career victory at Sonoma, securing his spot.
The other driver was a proper underdog, as Chris Buescher scored what remains as his only Cup Series win.
The reigning Xfinity Series champion back then, Buescher won a dramatic race at Pocono.
He had stayed out as rain began to fall but nearly ran out of fuel as NASCAR delayed the red flag.
Buescher hung on to win, and then fought his way into the top 30 to advance.
That year, Hendrick’s Kasey Kahne turned out to be the big name bumped out of the field.
In 2017, it was Team Penske’s Joey Logano who found himself outside the top 16.
Logano had scored a win at Richmond but failed the post-race inspection.
The Team Penske driver did not manage to score a second victory and ultimately got bumped out by two-time winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
While Haley’s win does not present an immediate threat, it better turn on the warning sign for drivers sitting just inside the bubble.
|Truex Jr. Martin
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