By Bob Pockras
FOX Sports Writer NASCAR
The NASCAR Cup Series the playoffs begin this week, and after listening to the defending champ Kyle Larson try to explain favorites, one thing is clear: there are not many favorites.
Chase Elliott is the only driver with more than two wins this year and the only driver to earn more than 25 points in the playoffs – points that are added to a driver’s total when the standings are reset after each round. Elliott is therefore the only driver who can be sure that he can overcome a poor finish while controlling his destiny.
How far can a rider run without advancing in this system? Consider this: Martin Truex Jr., who finished fourth in the regular season standings and had the second-best average this year, didn’t make the playoffs because 15 playoff-eligible drivers won a race, leaving only one spot in the playoffs available to a winless driver.
“This season has been about survival,” said Larson, who won 10 races last year en route to claiming a championship. “If you win the championship, you survived.
“I’m not saying that person wouldn’t deserve it, but our best team, Chase Elliott… could potentially not win. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had a great season.”
Kyle Larson shares thoughts on favorites ahead of playoffs
During a break last week at the Martinsville test, Kyle Larson offered his thoughts on the favorites heading into the Cup Series playoffs.
Drivers theoretically control their destinies. The playoffs begin with a field of 16 drivers, with four drivers eliminated after each round of three races. The four drivers who are winless in the heat and have the fewest points are eliminated from the championship; a win automatically advances a driver to the next lap.
After round three, four drivers enter the season finale in Phoenix with a chance to win the title, and the driver who finishes best among those four is declared the champion.
“The 9 [of Elliott]with the speed he has every week, with the execution he and his team do every week, I’d say they’re the favorites,” Larson said. “Ross [Chastain] is probably fastest most weeks. …Denny [Hamlin] is probably, outside of Chase and Ross, probably the next favorite.
“I didn’t mention myself. I feel like we are capable enough to go and win another championship.”
The opening round consists of two of the most traditional races: the Southern 500 in Darlington and the night race in Bristol, with Kansas between them. NASCAR has already made visits to Darlington and Kansas this year, but will hold its first race on Bristol concrete (the Bristol race earlier this year was on dirt).
Here’s how the 16-driver playoff field breaks down into tiers:
Chase Elliott (#1 seed, +33 cutoff points): Elliott is the only driver with more than two wins this year – he has four – and the only driver who gets a mulligan. He doesn’t need to be nervous about moving forward if he’s just doing what he’s been doing all year. The Hendrick Motorsports driver and 2020 Cup champion finished fifth at Darlington and 29th at Kansas earlier this season.
DO NOT FIGHT
Joey Logan (#2, +18): Logano enters the playoffs with four top-six finishes in the last five races after posting just six top-six finishes in the first 21 events. One of them was Darlington, where the Team Penske driver picked up a controversial victory by launching William Byron in a late pass for the lead. The 2018 Cup champion, Logano was 17th at Kansas.
Ross Chastain (#3, +13): Chastain, making the playoffs for the first time in his career, has 14 top-10 finishes this season but none in the last six races, in which his best result was 18th. His challenge not to fight will be not to be too aggressive at the start of the race and not to frustrate his competitors. The Trackhouse Racing driver finished 30th at Darlington and seventh at Kansas.
Kyle Larson (#4, +12): The defending Cup champion won Race 2 (California) and Race 25 (Watkins Glen) of the 26-race regular season. Between those, he had eight top-5 finishes (and three more sixth to 10th). Larson should be fine in the first round if he keeps doing what he has been doing. The Hendrick driver was 36th at Darlington (where he exited early due to engine trouble) and second at Kansas earlier this year.
William Byron (#5, +7): Byron has won two of the first eight races of the year but has only one top 10 since winning at Martinsville. Still, he ran in the top 10; he has won stage points in 10 of the last 18 races. He just needs to stay there. Byron was leading at Darlington when Logano brushed him aside for the win, and he finished 13th. Driver Hendrick was 16th in Kansas.
Denny Hamlin (#6, +6): The best driver with the worst results, Hamlin has only seven top-10 finishes this year despite 384 laps. Many of his bad days are due to railroad errors. No one would be surprised to see Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who has 48 career Cup victories, make the rounds of the championship, and few would be surprised if he exited early. Hamlin finished 21st at Darlington and fourth at Kansas this year. He and Kevin Harvick are tied for the most playoff appearances, with 17.
ryan blaney (#7, +6): Blaney squealed in the playoffs as the only driver without a win, but now that he’s in, he’ll be seen as a threat. The Fords haven’t always had the speed, but Blaney’s racing artistry is good enough that as long as his team doesn’t make mistakes, he will move on. Still, that might be easier said than done; The Team Penske rider finished 17th at Darlington and 12th at Kansas earlier this year.
Ryan Blaney on the playoffs barely
Ryan Blaney says he’s mentally exhausted after the roller coaster day that ended with him entering the NASCAR playoffs by just a few points.
SEARCH FOR COHERENCE
Tyler Red Dick (#8, +5): Reddick has had no more than two consecutive top-10 finishes this year, and driver Richard Childress Racing has finished worse than he qualified in 15 of 26 races. But when he’s good, he’s really good: of his 11 top 10s, eight have made it into the top 5. One of them came to Darlington, where he was second. He was 30th at Kansas.
Kevin Harvick (#9, +5): Harvick was out of the playoff picture until winning the 23rd race of the season at Michigan. He followed that up with a win at Richmond. The two races before this streak were a 27th and a 33rd, and the next two races were a 12th and a 20th. Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion, and Austin Dillon are the only two playoff drivers who haven’t won a stage this year. The SHR driver finished fourth at Darlington and 15th at Kansas earlier this season.
Christopher Bell (#10, +4): Bell started the year with a top 25 in the first five races. Since then he has been in the top 10 in 13 of 21 races. But driver Joe Gibbs Racing hasn’t led laps in the last three races after having done so in the previous four events. Bell was sixth at Darlington and fifth at Kansas.
Kyle Busch (#11, +3): The two-time Cup champion started the year with 11 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races, but only had two top-10 finishes in the last 11 races. What should keep the JGR rider above the line is that he ranked seventh this year in stage points earned so even on his bad days he still scored points . Busch finished 33rd at Darlington (going out early due to a crash) and third at Kansas earlier this year.
Bob Pockrass: Is Kevin Harvick a title favourite?
Quick thoughts: With his back-to-back wins earlier this season, is Kevin Harvick a championship contender?
Chasing Briscoe (#12, +2): Briscoe won the fourth race of the season at Kansas, but since then has only managed one top-5 finish, a fourth at Charlotte. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has finished 20th or worse in his last five starts. He finished 20th at Darlington and 24th at Kansas. It’s his first time in the playoffs.
Daniel Suarez (#13, -2): Suarez, making his first playoff appearance, limps through the playoffs with finishes of 19th or worse in his last five races. That followed a five-top-10-in-six-race streak, which followed a one-top-10-in-nine-race streak. The Trackhouse rider finished 10th at Darlington and 33rd at Kansas earlier this year.
Austin Cindric (#14, -3): Cindric can already celebrate that he will be the 2022 Rookie of the Year, as he was the only rookie to make the playoffs. The Team Penske rider has a second and a third in the past five races, but those have been at a road course (Indianapolis) and a superspeedway (Daytona), and the first lap does not include those track styles . Cindric finished 18th at Darlington and 11th at Kansas.
Alex Bowman (#15, -3): Bowman won at the start of the year in Las Vegas and was fifth in the standings after 10 races. But he fell as low as 12th at the end of the regular season. Four times in his last 10 starts his day ended early due to a crash and he finished outside the top 30. The Hendrick driver finished 29th at Darlington and ninth at Kansas earlier this year.
Austin Dillon (#16, -4): Jumped into the playoffs by his win in the regular season finale at Daytona, Dillon has led just 18 rounds this year. He scored the fewest stage points (32 total) of any playoff driver, but did a respectable job of finishing better than where he was running during the race. The RCR rider finished ninth at Darlington and 13th at Kansas.
Austin Dillon wins at Daytona in a wild finish
Austin Dillon wins at Daytona to lock himself into the playoffs in a wild finale with Austin Cindric and teammate Tyler Reddick.
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsport, including the last 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrassand register at FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.
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