Who Was the Last Driver to Win His Way Into the Cup Series Playoffs in the Regular-Season Finale?

Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. go to the starting grid Saturday at Daytona International Speedway knowing they can win their way into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. They also hold an ace in the hole; either or both could otherwise qualify based on points.

Meanwhile, 13 other prospective playoff participants possess less leeway. They’re facing a win-or-else proposition. That could lead to desperation in the final laps that will make the end of the Xfinity Series race in Saturday’s wee hours look like a final outing on the karts track at the local amusement park.

Will Saturday on the superspeedway deliver the third driver in the playoff era to win his way into the title hunt by winning what amounts to the last-chance qualifier?

Recapping the NASCAR Cup Series scenario for Saturday at Daytona

Jimmie Johnson and  William Byron talk during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 6, 2018. | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Jimmie Johnson and William Byron talk during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 6, 2018. | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Up until mid-week, all but one of the 16 NASCAR Cup Series playoff spots were spoken for by means of victories in one of the first 25 races. That changed when Kurt Busch, still recovering following a wreck in qualifying at Pocono, gave up the exemption that would have kept him playoff-eligible even if he missed races beyond Daytona.

Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., who stand third and sixth, respectively, in points, will both qualify for the playoffs if a driver who has already made the field wins Saturday. The same is true if someone ineligible for the playoffs (Noah Gragson, for instance) or too far down the points list to make the top 30 (Corey LaJoie) should triumph.

If a playoff-eligible non-winner like Michael McDowell or Bubba Wallace takes the checkered flag, they make the field beginning Sept. 4 at Darlington. The final berth then goes to Blaney or Truex based on points, and Blaney starts the evening 25 points ahead.

Who was the last driver to win his way into the Cup Series playoffs in the regular-season finale?

NASCAR decided Cup Series championships via season-long point totals until 2004, which is when it initiated a playoff format. Executives from NASCAR and the networks previously wrestled with one or two late-season races becoming anti-climactic because of a driver building an insurmountable points advantage.

The proverbial final straw came in 2003 when Matt Kenseth secured the championship despite winning only one race, at Las Vegas in the third week. The rest of his stat line included a modest three runner-up finishes and three third-place showings.

That launched the playoff era. Though the format has changed, the premise hasn’t: A limited number of drivers earn the right to compete for the title based on their regular-season performance.

Qualifying in the 18 years of playoffs has sometimes required clutch work at the very end of the regular season, and seven drivers have snared their playoff berth via their performance in the final race.

Of those, only two have shown the true flare for the dramatic by winning their way in: Jeremy Mayfield in 2004 and William Byron in 2020.

William Byron was already in until two-thirds of the way through the race

The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season also ended at Daytona, and 10 drivers arrived locked in by means of victories. Byron was the sixth and final driver positioned to squeeze in on points, but he started the regular-season finale just four points ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time champion who already had announced his impending retirement.

However, Johnson finished fifth in each of the first two stages to pick up 12 points to four for Byron. That left Byron, winless in 97 career starts, needing to finish far enough ahead of Johnson to make up the difference.

Byron did better than that. He took the lead to start the second overtime and went on to hold off teammate Chase Elliott for the victory and the automatic berth, leaving Johnson outside the playoffs.

By the way, the five others who worked their way into the playoffs in the final race, according to NASCAR:

  • Ryan Newman (2005), who bumped Jamie McMurray.
  • Kasey Kahne (2006), who knocked out Tony Stewart.
  • Brian Vickers (2009), who displaced Matt Kenseth.
  • Jeff Gordon (2012), who cost Kyle Bush the final spot.
  • Newman (2019), who began the day tied with Daniel Suarez.

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