Ryan Blaney Getty Martin Truex NASCAR Cup Series
Getty Images

Two weeks ago, Kevin Harvick was on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Now? He's locked down a spot with a top-5 final playoff ranking well within striking distance.

That's how fast things change in the NASCAR Next Gen era, with Harvick leading the way at Richmond Raceway on Sunday to post back-to-back Cup Series wins at age 46. It's the most successful stretch for a driver this age since a 50-year-old Mark Martin won five races and finished second in the 2009 championship chase.

"My wife is going to kill you if you talk about racing into my 50s," Harvick joked. "I don't know about that."

What we do know is Richmond's four top contenders weren't close to sniffing championship talk earlier this summer. Joey Logano, who led a race-high 222 laps, has just one top-5 finish in his last nine races. Second-place finisher Christopher Bell was winless this season, on the verge of dropping out of the playoff picture until winning New Hampshire in July.

And Harvick's main rival for the win down the stretch, Chris Buescher? His third place run on Sunday was the best of his career on a short track and tied for his best oval finish since a weather-assisted upset victory at Pocono back in 2016.

"It took us a few months," Buescher said, "But we've had three or maybe four months now of really solid runs, really good speed… we've been really close."

Harvick was saying the same and now, all of a sudden, he's rocketed into an excellent playoff position -- and perhaps title contention on these two wins alone. 

In the standings, Chase Elliott has a bit of an edge in playoff points, with 25 and the regular season championship (a 15-point bonus) nearly in hand. The rest of the postseason field is clustered within 10 points of one another, parity leaving the door wide open for a driver like Harvick to get hot. And with 15 winners, there's still room for an underdog like Buescher to snag the final spot on the playoff grid with a win.

NASCAR executives have to be thrilled with the sport's new Next Gen chassis delivering on its promise to even out the competition. There's a realistic chance neither Ryan Blaney (second in the standings) nor Martin Truex Jr. (fourth) will earn a postseason berth --with neither having won a race yet this season.

How can those drivers avoid the ultimate embarrassment of missing during such a successful year?

"You try and win yourself," Blaney said Sunday after expanding his gap over Truex to 26 in their battle to get to the Cup Series playoffs.

And who's to say Blaney can't get hot? He won last year's regular season finale at Daytona and could waltz into the postseason with a victory, suddenly joining Harvick as Ford's best hope to reach the Championship 4.

That's just one of about a thousand scenarios that could unfold over the next two weeks. Harvick's recent hot streak has taught us this postseason is all-but-guaranteed to be one wild ride.

Traffic Report

Green: Chase Elliott. Elliott was initially unhappy with a qualifying effort that left him 23rd. He should be thrilled after ending the day in fifth, his sixth top-5 finish in the last eight races during a season where consistency has proven almost impossible for any driver. A 116-point lead with two races left is one of the largest margins we've seen during NASCAR's elimination-style playoff era.

Yellow: Denny Hamlin. A fourth-place finish gave Hamlin back-to-back top 5s for just the second time all year. But a sluggish stop on pit road – again – left him unable to capitalize on what could have been a second victory over the past month (Remember that Pocono DQ?) It's hard to see Hamlin advancing in the postseason unless the rest of his team picks up the pace.

Red: Kyle Larson. What is up with Larson lately? A pole run raised expectations for a weekend that ended with a disappointing 14th-place finish. After a 10-win season last year, the reigning NASCAR champ has won only once, riding a 21-race winless streak and made an embarrassing mistake at Indianapolis two weeks ago that wiped out Ty Dillon. The big red flag though is how he and crew chief Cliff Daniels are struggling to adjust over the course of full races with the Next Gen chassis. Larson's position differential over the last 10 races? -54.

Speeding Ticket: Chase Briscoe. Briscoe had a potential top-5 finish going until a fire broke out inside the No. 14 car during the final stage.

The belief was rubber buildup inside the rocker box (think the side skirt of the race car) led to a fire on the No. 14. But it's not the first scary fire we've seen the past few weeks. Chris Buescher also had one that nearly ruined his day at Indianapolis. Both led to smoke inside the cockpit, threatening the driver's safety in the car.

Let's hope NASCAR takes a closer look at an issue that's happened two times too many.

Oops!

We should just give Ross Chastain a permanent place in this section. Once again, the Trackhouse Racing Team driver was under fire after contact with Kyle Busch sparked the most serious wreck of the day shortly after the start of the final stage.

This one felt like more of a "racing deal" as both drivers didn't realize the other was there. The problem for Chastain is his reputation produces a reaction of guilty before proven innocent.

"We got Chastain'd this week," Busch said afterwards as Chastain added to his long list of enemies this season. Just take a look at his track record with Joe Gibbs Racing alone.