Ty Gibbs, a rookie, occupied the last position, 16th place, in the Cup race in Indianapolis. He had a narrow lead of three points over McDowell and a five-point advantage over Daniel Suarez.
Bubba Wallace entered the weekend above Gibbs and 58 points to the good.
If there had been a winner who won again, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick, former champions of the Cup, would have felt relieved as their point differences would probably have been sufficient to ensure their safety in the upcoming weeks.
However, that scenario did not occur. Instead, McDowell emerged victorious, causing a sudden shift in the situation. Interestingly, the top three racers at IMS had not won any races this year, highlighting the intense competition in the Cup Series currently. Chase Elliott secured second place, while Suarez came in third. They will have another chance to disrupt the standings at Watkins Glen this upcoming weekend.
Suarez had a commendable performance and secured third place, but unfortunately, he dropped from being only five points behind to a significant 28 points behind. McDowell’s victory propelled him ahead of Gibbs, Wallace, Keselowski, and Harvick.
Gibbs, who secured a 12th place finish without earning any stage points, transitioned from being on the verge of making the playoffs to now having to face a situation where winning is highly necessary, with a deficit of 49 points.
On the hot seat
Wallace placed 18th in the race and did not earn any stage points. He fell 30 points behind the cut-line and is now in a precarious position. If there is another new winner in the next two weeks, his point difference to Suarez will become irrelevant. In that case, he will be eliminated and will not make it to the playoffs for the sixth year in a row.
Currently, Harvick holds the sixth position in regular season points, while Keselowski is in eighth place, with both of them having a lead of over 140 points compared to Suarez. However, if a driver who is not part of the playoffs manages to win at The Glen, either Harvick or Keselowski will face intense pressure as they approach the highly chaotic and unpredictable race at Daytona.
Last year, there was a scenario involving Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. where they encountered a comparable dilemma. Despite their consistent performance throughout the season, both drivers had high rankings in regular season points but lacked any victories. When they entered Daytona, they were aware that one of them could potentially be eliminated.
Austin Dillon won the race that day, while Truex, who is currently on track to secure the 2023 regular season championship, was eliminated from 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. Allmendinger, Austin Cindric, Justin Haley, Corey LaJoie, Todd Gilliland, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Harrison Burton, Ty Dillon.
The stakes are high, as we have a road course followed by a superspeedway to conclude the regular season, leaving room for unpredictable outcomes.