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Surprise 2024 Cup winners creating 'make or break it point' for drivers near playoff bubble

SONOMA, Calif. — Nine different winners through 15 races so far in the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season appear to be on par with trends from previous seasons.

But this year has thrown quite a curveball as to who those winners are and who is still awaiting their home-run trot to Victory Lane.

Entering Sunday’s event at Sonoma Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), there are already four new winners in 2024 that didn’t find pay dirt last season, the most shocking of those being Austin Cindric, who capitalized on his teammate Ryan Blaney’s fuel pressure sputtering on the final lap at World Wide Technology Raceway and claimed his second career victory at the Cup level.

Blaney, who now has three consecutive finishes of 20th or worse following last weekend’s misfortunes, has moved on from the heartbreak but is paying attention to his points situation.

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“Having three pretty rough points finishes in a row from wrecking at Darlington and wrecking at Charlotte, got good stage points last week but finished terrible,” Blaney said. “We should be like plus-100 to the good rather than where we’re at, so I think in our spot, you have to be mindful of it just because you can’t just keep you can’t give up some gobs of points. Some of it you can’t control, but yeah, we’re definitely thinking about that.”

Joey Logano, Blaney’s Team Penske teammate, currently sits on the wrong side of the playoff bubble, ranking 18th and chasing 14 points to Chris Buescher, who provisionally holds the final playoff spot.

A two-time champion at the Cup level, Logano has had seasons where he’s rallied in the latter stages of a season but hasn’t faced a situation like this since missing the playoffs in 2017.

“That’s not gonna be easy, for sure,” Logano said. “We still got some time before that final race, but getting a win would be much easier. But if we can’t do that, we just got to maximize points every weekend, which, last week, was pretty decent for that. So we just got to keep doing that.”

Scoring his first top five since Richmond last weekend at Gateway may just have been what the doctor ordered for the No. 22 stable as Logano won his third Busch Light Pole Award of 2024 Saturday at Sonoma, which should help him continue to maximize points with track position coming at a premium at road courses.

Joey Logano signs the Busch Light Pole Award banner at Sonoma Raceway.
Joey Logano signs the Busch Light Pole Award banner at Sonoma Raceway.

With Cindric’s victory, Logano’s margin of error continues to narrow as the regular-season finale at Darlington Raceway rapidly approaches, but the lead veteran at the Penske organization has no ill feelings, even with his climb back into the top 16 getting more difficult.

“I don’t know if I’d call it bittersweet. I mean, it’s good to see a Penske car up front,” Logano said. “Seeing Blaney up there leading that probably hurt the most of you are him. Then Austin capitalizing, I’m glad one of our cars were able to capitalize on that. Those wins are so important for the whole team. I don’t think I’d be selfish about it and say that it was hurting my chances of getting in. I mean, the bottom line is we need to go out there and do it, too.”

Among a group of winless drivers that includes the likes of Martin Truex Jr., Ross Chastain and Kyle Busch, Chase Briscoe is probably the most overlooked of those that could point their way into the postseason.

As it stands, Briscoe sits just 10 points below Buescher for that final spot but admitted that Cindric’s victory creates an even bigger obstacle for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver to crack the playoff field.

“Last week definitely was a kick in the gut for us,” Briscoe said. “Happy for Austin obviously, being a really good friend of mine. But for us in our situation, it definitely didn’t help, so yeah, we just have to be on it every week. For us to even be in the position that we’re in right now with how bad we’ve truthfully ran the last four, five weeks is encouraging, to be ahead of two Cup champions and be right there in the mix with guys that have been battling for the wins.

“This is really the make-or-break-it point. These next five, six weeks are going to determine kind of where we end up in the playoffs.”

Eleven races left in the regular season still offer plenty of time for new winners in 2024 and that could occur in Sunday’s race with a handful of Cup veterans being better at the discipline than their competitors.

One driver who’s continued to improve on his road-course prowess is Bubba Wallace. Sitting 15th on the playoff grid and 13 points to the good, Sonoma could play a key role in setting the tone for the rest of Wallace’s regular-season run.

But a qualifying run of 18th for the No. 23 Toyota team left the 30-year-old driver drenched in sweat and aggravated with himself knowing that Sunday could set him back in his quest to return to the postseason if he can’t work his way through the field.

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“If you just do your job, you don’t have to worry about anybody else,” Wallace said. “So that’s all we’re focused on. Putting in a lot of effort to get better at road-course racing, and I’m definitely better. But still, I have higher expectations for myself and for our team. That’s where the frustration kicks in.”