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Analysis
NASCAR Cup Watkins Glen

How McDowell's Indy triumph changed the playoff picture

Michael McDowell's dominant victory at the Indy Road Course completely changed the playoff picture, locking the Front Row Motorsports driver in and moving the cut-line as a result.

Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, Horizon Hobby Ford Mustang and Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro

Entering the Cup race at Indianapolis, rookie Ty Gibbs held the 16th and final spot. He was just three points ahead of McDowell and five points clear of Daniel Suarez.

Bubba Wallace entered the weekend above Gibbs and 58 points to the good.

Had there been a repeat winner, former Cup champions Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick would have been able to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing their points margins would likely be enough to protect them in the coming weeks.

But that didn't happen. Instead, McDowell won and everything suddenly changed. In fact, the top-three finishers all entered IMS without a win this year, putting on display just how competitive the Cup Series is right now. Chase Elliott finished second and Suarez third, and they will get another opportunity to further shake things up at Watkins Glen this weekend.

Losing ground

Despite a strong showing and a third-place finish, Suarez fell from just five points below to 28pts out. McDowell's win vaulted him above Gibbs, Wallace, Keselowski, and Harvick.

Gibbs, who finished 12th and scored no stage points, went from being just inside the playoffs to facing what will likely be a must-win situation, 49pts out.

On the hot seat

Wallace finished 18th and scored no stage points as well. He lost 30pts to the cut-line and is now on the bubble himself. Should there be another new winner over the next two weeks, his points margin to Suarez will no longer matter. He will be out, missing the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year.

Harvick is currently sixth in regular season points and Keselowski eighth, both over 140 points ahead of Suarez. But should a driver outside the playoffs win at The Glen, one of them will be on the hot seat heading into what is sure to be a frantic and unpredictable race at Daytona.

We saw a situation just last year where Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. faced a similar predicament. Both ranked high in the regular season points, but were without wins. They went into Daytona knowing that one of them could be eliminated, despite their consistency throughout the season.

Austin Dillon claimed the checkered flag that day, and Truex, who is now on his way to winning the 2023 regular season title, was knocked out of the playoffs.

Win or nothing

While there remains a pathway for someone like Suarez to point their way in, other drivers are in a far dire straits. Hendrick Motorsports' Elliott and Alex Bowman, who have both missed multiple races this year, simply have to find Victory Lane. There are 12 drivers behind the HMS duo facing the same reality, including three of the four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers (Chase Briscoe, Aric Almirola, Ryan Preece). 

Others facing a must-win situation: A.J. AllmendingerAustin Cindric, Justin Haley, Corey LaJoie, Todd Gilliland, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Harrison Burton, Ty Dillon.

The pressure is on, and with another road course and then a superspeedway to end the regular season, just about anything can still happen.

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