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What life is like on NASCAR’s pressure cooker playoff bubble

It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for both Michael McDowell and Bubba Wallace.

Both veteran drivers were amongst the last to qualify for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and whatever relief was found in the accomplishment has quickly been replaced by the tension and anxiety that comes with life on the bubble in the Round of 16.

“All season long, you have to win or you have to score enough points each week and there’s so much pressure on making the playoffs,” McDowell said. “Then you get that relief from the pressure, we made it, we’re in and then right away, it’s right back to the pressure of we have to advance to the next round, we have to execute and do everything perfect.”

Wallace says ‘any bubble practice is good bubble practice,’ when it comes from exchanging one pressure cooler for the other.

“I said while we were fighting for the last playoff spot, and I’ll say it now that we’re in the playoffs, that we’re better than 16th,” Wallace said. “I think we have a really good shot.”

Related: NASCAR playoffs schedule

It’s the tightest cluster of bubble drivers in the decade long history of this format and no one did enough on Sunday to pull away or fully fall out of the mix to advance. The final two races of the first round run through Kansas and Bristol at which point the lowest four winless drivers (in the round) in the standings will be eliminated.

Kyle Larson Win, Advanced
William Byron +45
Tyler Reddick +30
Chris Buescher +27
Denny Hamlin +27
Martin Truex +25
Kyle Busch +20
Brad Keselowski +18
Ryan Blaney +16
Ross Chastain +13
Joey Logano +3
Christopher Bell +1

Bubba Wallace -1
Kevin Harvick -2
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -4
Michael McDowell -19

McDowell was the worst of the bunch on Sunday, qualifying inside the top-10 but having an awful race from the drop of the green flag until he was involved in a crash not of his making during the final stage. But even then, he’s still a manageable 19 points below the cutline, which could be made up in a race or two.

“I was really frustrated and upset with how we ran and how we performed at Darlington because we did have all the ingredients to go out there and make a legitimate run at the next round,” said the Brickyard road course winner. “So as far as feeling the pressure, yeah we feel the pressure because we don’t want to go into the playoffs and get eliminated and finish 16th.

“That’s not what our goal was or what we hoped to achieve. But I’m not in that desperation do or die (mode) because I feel like we’ve seen the points fluctuate a lot. We went to Indianapolis and scored over 40 points so it’s not like we can’t do it but we’re going to need really good races to do it, but I am definitely bummed it started out the way it did.”

Wallace was running just outside the top-10 approaching the end of the first stage and remember that the top-10 each score up to 10 championship points at each stage break and tried making a move on Logano for 11th on the final lap of the segment, even though it ultimately didn’t matter.

He spun and derailed both himself and Logano from maximizing their days. Wallace finished P7 and Logano finished P12, but neither scored any stage points throughout the night, and that’s why they both left Darlington on the bubble.

These stage points are going to be hugely important for anyone on the bubble in each round because advancing often comes down to just a handful of points.

Take what happened to Hamlin on Sunday for example. Sure, he entered as the number three seed and had a built-in buffer but a loose wheel and a crash relegated him to a 25th place finish but he also won both stages, scoring 20 combined points before halfway, holistically negated the bad result even while preventing him from having an overall great night.

The reverse is true for Chastain, who overdrove his pit box and lost a lap before rallying to a fifth-place finish, scoring no stage points but offsetting it with his results. Depending on where a driver was seeded after the regular season, advancing could come down to having near perfect days just short of winning and earning as many stage points as possible.

“We put a lot of emphasis on stage points the past two months and that propelled us to the playoffs,” Wallace said. “Now, the way the weekend started at Darlington, we beat ourselves on Saturday (in qualifying) and we knew it would be a climb to get stage points so we had to grind and execute and still walked away with 30 points on the day when other playoff teams had some issues.

“So sometimes in NASCAR, your best day isn’t a win but just capitalizing on other’s mistakes and making sure you’re in position to do that.”

Chastain says those points available to the top-10 at the end of each stage, 1-to-10 in ascending order, count just the same as points paid out at each race. Consider that from seventh (Busch) on the current playoff grid to 16th (McDowell) is spread out by 40 points. That’s 20 points each direction, something that can be made up and lost before halfway on Sunday at Kansas.

“If we could have hung some up on Sunday, that would have been like improving our final position by five or so positions, so we know how valuable they are,” Chastain said. “We just want more, all the time. They matter.”

McDowell says he is right back where he was before he won at Indianapolis, inching closer to feeling like he needed to win aa race to advance, so it is a familiar place for better or worse.

“Every race, the intensity ramps up because you’re getting closer to the cutoff,” McDowell said. “You have one less or two less opportunities to score points or win so from that standpoint, the intensity ratchets up every single round in every single race.”

Related: How the modern NASCAR playoff system has forever changed the game

This is the second time McDowell has been the playoffs, following a Daytona 500 victory in 2021 that sent him to the Round of 16, but also promptly eliminated him after three races before finishing 16th. Did he learn anything from that experience?

“I guess I haven’t learned enough because I’m right back in the same exact spot,” McDowell said with a laugh. “It’s different how we got there. Different scenario but the biggest difference for us, compared to 2021 is that our car has more speed.

“Even at Darlington we saw that. We qualified in the top-10. We were second in practice. We just didn’t execute well. I had a couple of bad runs, some misfortune on pit road and before you know it, we crash at the end. Even with the crash, there wasn’t a lot I could have done to avoid it. It’s not like I put myself in a three-wide spot and forced myself into a jam up.

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“Sometimes it just doesn’t work out and sometimes you create your own destiny and at Darlington, we did a little bit of both.”

That’s just life on the pressure cooker playoff bubble, which isn’t that much different than the frying pan or the fire of the season on the whole.

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.