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NASCAR’s Brad Keselowski Reveals How Missing the Playoffs Hurts Star Drivers
The crushing pressure to advance into the postseason is intrinsically part of NASCAR, but not all drivers are fully prepared to weather the storm.
After Michael McDowell’s dominant first-place finish at the Brickyard in Indianapolis, one he secured after thwarting perhaps Chase Elliott’s last best hope of punching his playoff ticket, the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series is racing into the final two remaining events of the regular season. Comprised of Watkins Glen in New York and Daytona Beach in Florida, this stretch of the year naturally revs up a gear but, with multiple big names like Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Bubba Wallace all on the cusp of potential failure as they claw tooth-and-nail to secure a much-needed playoff spot, this year’s tension on the track is more than just palpable – it’s downright explosive.
With so much on the line, that pressure, though fully baked into the Cup Series’ DNA, can be devastatingly destructive on the morale of a driver, according to Keselowski, hurting veteran superstars just as easily as it impacts newcomers.
“It stinks for you, but the sport moves on… Like you weren’t even there,” noted Keselowski who missed the playoffs last year and in 2013. “It’s a very humbling moment when you miss the playoffs when you’ve had a lot of years of success, so I have a lot of empathy whether it be Chase [Elliott] or some of those other guys that are on the outside.”
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Implemented in 2004 after Matt Kenseth won the title the year prior, according to Beyond the Flag, this season marks the 20th consecutive year a postseason structure will crown a champion. In 2014, the system saw a dramatic overhaul that was initially criticized by purists who believed it didn’t need to fit the same mold as leagues such as the NFL and NBA do. In that same overhaul, the playoff field was expanded to include 16 drivers while creating a four-round system of 10 races that ended with a winner-take-all championship showdown between the final four drivers.
By design, the system is naturally dynamic, stirring up a lot of excitement for both fans and drivers alike, but sometimes it’s also the very essence of heartbreak. Also joining Keselowski on the sideline during last year’s playoffs was another former Cup Series champ, Martin Truex Jr. Now he’s the leader in the standings.
Alex Bowman, Chase Briscoe, Austin Dillon and Daniel Suarez all cruised into the playoffs last year, yet their ability to advance this season all hinges on must-win scenarios. Despite being perennially crowned the most popular driver in the league, 2020 Cup Series champ Elliott has never found the right gear after suffering a broken leg during a snowboarding incident earlier in the year that kept him off the track for six weeks. As it stands, he currently sits in 19th place with only 480 points.
Still, he’s not the only one who’s previously savored success only to now flirt with failure. Former Cup Series victor Kevin Harvick, who’s set to ride off into the sunset following the culmination of the 2023 season, could be knocked out of the playoffs because, as it stands right now, he and Keselowski are only in a position to advance based on points alone. With no wins and just two races left, should two new race winners emerge, one of the vets will be sadly kicked to the curb.
As disheartening as it is for previously successful drivers like Keselowski and Harvick to miss out on the electrifying action of postseason competition, in the eyes of RFK Racing’s driver and co-owner who sympathizes with Elliott and other stars on the brink of disappointment, it’s a sign that system is functioning specifically as it was intended.
“The reality is that’s the moments the system was meant to create, and sometimes it can create those moments whether the sport wants them or the fanbase wants them or not,” added Keselowski. "That’s just part of our sport right now.”
The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs – what a fickle beast.