Can Kyle Larson win the NASCAR Cup Series for the second straight year? Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports
Welcome to the NASCAR Playoffs!
Helpful Tip: Don’t call it the hunt. And don’t you dare call it playoff in the singular. That’s what they do over in college football, where there’s only four teams in the college football playoff field. Here in stock car land, 16 teams are in contention for the title, but like the CFP and Bowl seasons, those 16 teams share their postseason with a number of other teams battling for wins but not the championship.
Confused? You’re not alone. But that’s why we’re here. To answer your stock car questions, whether you’ve been watching NASCAR since Richard Petty fought Bobby Allison or you don’t know the difference between Chase Elliott and Chase Briscoe.
How Does NASCAR’s Postseason Work? Who’s in? Who is out (but still out on the track)? how did we get here Where are we going? Who is most likely to be in Victory Lane in 10 weeks’ time holding up that very big Cup Series trophy? Grab a grease pencil and read on.
how did we get here
At the end of what was by far the craziest 26-race “regular season” since NASCAR’s so-called “elimination era” began in 2014, a whopping 15 of the 16 drivers who made it also won a race, and it could have been all 16 had not sidelined Kansas Speedway champion Kurt Busch in late July with an ongoing battle with concussion-like symptoms.
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The last spot open went to winless Ryan Blaney, who edged out former Cup Series champ Martin Truex Jr. by just under three points, but only because Austin Dillon was able to weave through a gargantuan Big One crash at Daytona and keep winning Racing by a full 0.128s ahead of two guys who had already won a race this season. Had they won, Truex would also be in the playoffs; or if Truex, who finished eighth, had managed to get past a few cars in front of him, he would be and Blaney would be out. It was that close.
This season marks only the third in NASCAR’s nearly 75-year history to have 16 different winners in the first 26 races of the year. The gold standard for competitive seasons in modern times is still 2001, when 19 riders won 36 races. Considering we’ve already had five first-time winners this year, Blaney and Truex are still winless, and another handful of riders had close chances but came up short (Bubba Wallace, second at the Daytona 500; Chris Buescher, second at the Sonoma; Corey Lajoie’s fight with Elliott in Atlanta, etc.) there’s still a chance of reaching, or maybe breaking, that mark.
The new reset NASCAR Playoff Ladder:
NASCAR Playoffs Ranking
|driver||wins||playoff appearances||playoff wins||championships|
|1. Pursue Elliott||4||7||6||1 (2020)|
|2.Joey Logano||2||9||10||1 (2018)|
|4.Kyle Larson||2||6||6||1 (2021)|
|6. Denny Hamlin||2||16||11||0|
|8. Tyler Reddick||2||2||0||0|
|9. Kevin Harvick||2||16||16||1 (2014)|
|11. Kyle Busch||1||fifteen||8th||2 (2015, 2019)|
|12. Pursue Briscoe||1||1||0||0|
|14. Austin Cindic||1||1||0||0|
|15. Alex Bowman||1||5||1||0|
|16. Austin Dillon||1||5||0||0|
If you score at home – and we do – that’s five former Cup Series champions, just one former multiple champion, along with four playoff rookies and a true rookie in Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric. Among car manufacturers, Chevy leads with eight entries, followed by Ford (5) and Toyota (3).
What’s happening now?
The next 10 races will eliminate four racers every three weeks. If a driver wins one of these three, he automatically advances to the next round. The remaining places are determined by the scores.
That’s 16 drivers competing in the first three races, 12 remaining in the next three, nine holding up title hopes in the next three and four drivers contesting the championship at the season finale at Phoenix Raceway on November 6th. The top finisher of these four is your NASCAR Cup Series Champion. Easy as pie, right? Unless you are one of those four.
“You think it’s going to be the same, just mind your business and race and keep going, right?” said Joey Logano, who made it into that final quartet four times. “But there’s definitely a sense that the pressure is increasing. We made it to the final feeling like the favorites and we envisioned it as the underdog. All I know is that however you did it, if the green flag comes out and there’s 300 or more laps to go for everything, for the whole season, it’s like, ‘Holy cow, that is real now!'”
The Round of 16 kicks off this weekend with NASCAR’s oldest and most grueling speedway event, the venerable Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, a race and venue that has been on the Cup Series calendar since its second season in 1950. The elimination races for each playoff round are equally challenging. The Bristol Night Race marks the end of the Round of 16, Charlotte Roval completes the Round of 16, and the flat half-mile bullring at Martinsville Speedway, the last track remaining from NASCAR’s inaugural 1949 season, will determine which four will compete for the trophy the following weekend.
round of 16
Darlington race track
Bristol Motor Speedway
round of 16
Texas Motor Speedway
Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval
round of 16
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Homestead Miami Speedway
Championship Race (Round of 4)
Denny Hamlin, left, and Chase Elliott are two of the bookie favorites to win the crown of this year’s NASCAR Cup Series. Meg Oliphant/Getty Images
Who are the favorites and who is doomed?
The good news for Dillon is that his dramatic entry into the playoffs was the stuff of movie scripts. The same goes for Cindric and his fellow first-time winners. The bad news is that since the beginning of the Elimination era in 2014, those who barely make the field usually also get eliminated early, and even if they delay elimination for a while, they don’t make it into the last four at the end of the season . In the previous eight editions of this format, the deepest driver to start the playoffs and win the title was seventh, equaled by Kevin Harvick in 2014 and Logano four years later. Meanwhile, four of the eight champions started the postseason right where they left it, at the top.
With that in mind, it’s hard to bet against Elliott, who somehow managed to turn this 2022 into something of a loss with near-historic parity and unpredictability, and the regular-season title by a 130-point lead like at Snake River Canyon to win over Logano.
The wise agree with this assessment. Heading into the playoffs, BetMGM listed Elliott 3-1 as the title favorite, right where he was when the green flag flew over the Daytona 500. It has Kyle Larson 7-1 and Denny Hamlin 8-1. Unsurprisingly, those behind the desk in the desert care about age and experience, as future Hall of Famers who have struggled through big stretches this season like Kyle Busch, Logano and Harvick, at 12-1 and all under the top 8 favorites are better.
There’s a playoff crasher that sportsbooks love now, even if they didn’t in February. Congratulations to everyone who wired Ross Chastain a paycheck in February. Back then, the Watermelon Man was listed 150-1 to hold the cup this fall. Now he’s 8-1, fourth best among those in the playoffs.
“I think experience counts, hell I know it,” explains 2021 champion Larson. “For me, the first time you find yourself in a playoff situation is like the first time you go to a circuit you’ve never been to before. You need time to orientate yourself. Once you’ve done this, once you know what to expect, next time you come back you’ll feel more comfortable. You think it’s just going to be, ‘Hey, let’s race and don’t worry.’ But it’s different. It’s fun too. I’m ready to go.”