Wednesday, February 1 2023

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kurt Busch has withdrawn from the NASCAR playoffs as he continues to recover from the brain injury that has kept him out of the final six races of the regular season.

Busch hoped to return for the playoffs, which start next week at Darlington Raceway. But after it was decided that he wouldn’t be cleared to race, he opted not to continue asking for a waiver to miss races. He has not competed since a crash July 23 in qualifying at Pocono Raceway.

Busch’s decision revises the NASCAR playoff picture because he is no longer eligible; a driver must compete every race weekend or have a waiver to miss a race. Because he doesn’t have a waiver for the regular-season finale Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, the 2004 Cup champion is now ineligible for the 16-driver playoff field.

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“As much as I wanted and hoped to be able to get back in the No. 45 car to make a playoff run with our team, it’s still not the right time for me,” Busch said in a statement. “In addition to not being cleared to return to racing, I know that I am not ready to be back in the car.

“I respect the sport of NASCAR, my fellow drivers and the fans too much to take up a playoff spot if I know I can’t compete for a championship this season.”

The playoff field consists of the regular-season champion and 15 other drivers ranked by number of wins, with ties broken by points.

With Busch, who won in May at Kansas, out, the number of winners this year has decreased from 15 (including regular-season champion Chase Elliott) to 14, leaving at least one spot available to a winless driver based on points. If there is a repeat winner on Saturday, that would leave two spots available on points.

Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are the two winless drivers with the most points, and they would both get into the postseason if there is a repeat winner. If either of them wins, the other gets in on points.

But if a different driver gets his first win of 2022 at Daytona, that driver would make the playoffs along with only one of Blaney and Truex. Blaney enters Daytona with a 25-point lead on Truex and would clinch with 31 points (sixth place if no stage points), no matter where Truex finishes. Blaney also could clinch by the end of the second stage if he earns 11 more stage points than Truex.

If they are tied in points and there’s only one spot available, the tiebreaker would be best finish in the regular season. Truex would win if he finishes second on Saturday; he would lose the tiebreaker to Blaney in all other scenarios.

So what does this all mean? It means Blaney and Truex both have much better shots at making the playoffs than they did before Busch withdrew. And even though they haven’t yet won this year, with Blaney third in the overall point standings and Truex sixth, they’re both viable championship contenders.

With Busch out, Toyota loses a playoff spot and so, naturally, will hope Truex gets in. But if there’s a new winner and Blaney gets in instead, that means one of Ford’s top drivers makes the playoffs.

If Busch hadn’t withdrawn, he would’ve finished at least 16th in the standings, and even if he missed the first round of the postseason, he could’ve moved up a few spots if he returned over the final seven races. As it stands, Busch is 22nd, and while he could finish as high as 17th, he’ll likely finish much lower as he continues to miss races. (Drivers are often paid bonuses depending on where they finish in the points.)

“The decision was not an easy one, but I know it is the right thing to do,” he said. “I will continue to take time to heal and strengthen as I prepare to be back in the car and will do all I can to help 23XI continue the success we have had this season.”

The 23XI Racing No. 45 team, with Ty Gibbs as substitute driver, will earn “owner points” and still be eligible for the owners (team) championship, which follows the same playoff elimination format as the drivers championship.

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!

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