Analyzing the NASCAR Cup playoff field: 16 drivers, 16 questions

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In a year unlike any other for Cup teams, which saw their season paused for 10 weeks and then resume with multiple doubleheaders, mid-week races and even a race on the Daytona road course, the race for the championship begins.

The 16-driver NASCAR Cup playoff field is set. They open the playoffs with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN).

Before the Chase Elliott leads the field to the green flag, here is a look at each of the 16 playoff drivers and a key question for each.

 

1. Kevin Harvick (2057 points)

Is this title his to lose?

Moving the championship race to Phoenix couldn’t have come at a better time for Harvick, who seeks a second title.

Harvick’s average finish in his last 13 races at Phoenix is 3.4. That includes six wins, two runner-ups and no finish worse than ninth.

His 57 playoff points entering the postseason are a record. No driver who entered the postseason with at least 35 playoff points failed to reach the championship race.

Harvick’s average finish of 6.6 in the regular season is his best since moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

“We’ve been fortunate to have great momentum throughout the year and have been able to capitalize on the weeks when we’ve had great race cars and the weeks that we haven’t we’ve made decent finishes out of what we’ve had,” Harvick said.

2. Denny Hamlin (2047 points)

Will last year’s title disappointment haunt him?

Had crew chief Chris Gabehart called for a smaller piece of tape on the front grille during a pit stop in last year’s title race, Hamlin might have celebrated his first Cup crown.

Instead, Hamlin’s car began to overheat and he had to pit to remove the tape, ending his championship hopes.

Hamlin said he didn’t talk to Gabehart about that pit call until the beginning of this season.

He’s like, ‘Are you not going to ask me why I put that big piece of tape on your car?’ ” Hamlin said. “I was like, ‘No, I assumed you had a reason for it so I figured it is what it is. There’s nothing I can do about it. All I can do is go out there and drive as fast as I can every single lap and tell you the information that you need to make the car go faster.’

“I did what I felt like all I could do to win the championship and it didn’t work out.”

Now he has another chance. Expected to reach the championship race with 47 playoff points earned in the regular season, Hamlin could celebrate his first Cup crown in November.

3. Brad Keselowski (2029 points)

Can he and his team find another gear?

Keselowski has finished eighth, ninth or 10th in five of the last 10 races. Finishes like that, along with scoring stage points, will get him through the first round and possibly the second round but to advance beyond that may take a win.

He has three wins this season — the fourth consecutive year he’s scored as many victories — so this team can do it. It just needs to be run closer to the front more consistently.

He has his eyes on the second round, which features Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. Pairing the Roval and Talladega has many noting how unpredictable the round could be.

“That second round is hairy,” he said. “Talladega is gonna be hairy. The Roval is gonna be hairy. You’re going to want to go to Vegas and win.”

4. Joey Logano (2022 points)

Will he return to Victory Lane this season?

Logano opened the year winning two of the first four races — including a victory at Phoenix in March. Then the season paused for the coronavirus pandemic. Since the sport’s return, Logano has finished no better than third in a race.

It took longer than we wanted it to, longer than we expected it to, but I feel like we’re getting really close back to where we were at the beginning of the year,” Logano said. “We can get ourselves in position to win again. I feel like we’re right at it, so I do feel pretty good about where we’re at again.”

Logano seeks to continue a streak of reaching the championship race in even-numbered years. He made it in 2014, ’16 and ’18.

He won the title two years ago when he was overshadowed by the Big Three — Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.

Could Logano again emerge with another title?

5. Chase Elliott (2020 points)

Is this the year he reaches the title race?

He’s made it to the third round (Round of 8) each of the past three years  but failed to make it to the title race each time.

Last year, a mechanical failure and two crashes doomed his third round. In 2018, a speeding penalty at Phoenix in the season’s penultimate race  put him at the back. He returned to the top 10 but was collected in a crash off a restart. In 2017, he was in position to win at Martinsville but was spun by Denny Hamlin and finished 27th. Elliott was unable to win the next two races and didn’t have enough points to advance.

“I would love to get to be a part of that last race and that last event, and really make a run at it and do that,” Elliott said. “That’s the thing we haven’t been able to accomplish is making that last race. That’s the goal.”

6. Martin Truex Jr. (2014 points)

Can this team go to the next level?

Asked this week what he was more curious to see about the playoffs, Truex had an interesting response.

“I’m curious to see if we can step it up to that next level,” he said. “I feel like we can. I feel like we are right there on the cusp of it. You look at what we’ve done the last 10 races, I feel like we have been a top-three car every single race.

“We’ve had opportunities to win slip away. I look forward to seeing if we can take those seconds, thirds, and fourths and turn them into wins. That’s ultimately what it takes to win the championship. If we can do that, I’ll be happy. That’s what I’m ready to see, and hopefully we will see it soon.”

Truex enters the playoffs with eight consecutive finishes of fourth or better. None of those results, though, are wins. Truex and NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett (in 1961) are the only drivers in series history to have eight consecutive finishes of fourth or better and not have a win in that time.

7. Alex Bowman (2009 points)

Can he recapture the magic from earlier this year?

Remember when Alex Bowman seemed to be threat most weekends? He was early in the season. Bowman won at Auto Club Speedway, finished second in the first Darlington race in May and  led a race-high 164 laps in the Coca-Cola 600.

He ranked second in laps led with 369 going into the Bristol race in late May. He’s led 19 laps in 18 races since. While Bowman has back-to-back top 10s entering the playoffs, he’s scored only three top-10 finishes in his last 11 races.

“The summer was pretty rough on us,” Bowman said. “We started the season really strong. Coming back from the COVID-19 (break), we were still really strong and it fell off really hard for the summer. Trying to identify why that happened, what we did wrong and getting better over the last couple of weeks, especially. I think we’re in a good place going into the playoffs.”

8. William Byron (2007 points)

Does momentum matter?

He enters the playoffs after winning last weekend’s regular-season finale at Daytona for his first career Cup points victory.

Clint Bowyer says momentum matters and that’s why he makes Byron his dark horse for the playoffs.

But …

Momentum only gets a driver so far. Since the playoff format debuted in 2014, only once has the driver who won the regular-season finale advanced to the championship race. Kevin Harvick did that last year, winning at Indianapolis to end the regular season.

On Byron’s side is that the winner of the regular-season finale has always gotten past the first round since 2014. Also on his side is crew chief Chad Knaus, the only driver or crew chief to be in the playoffs every year.

9. Austin Dillon (2005 points)

Can this team make it to the second round?

He’s failed the advance from the first round the last two times in the playoffs. His seven top-10 finishes are already better than his total last season.

The former Xfinity and Truck Series champion looks to add to his title collection.

“There’s another opportunity to become the first to win all three championships that we’ve got,” he said.

“(Sixteen) guys that have this opportunity (to win the title) and we’re one of them, so you want to take advantage of those opportunities and go out there and perform. … Live in the moment and have fun doing it.”

10. Cole Custer (2005 points)

Is this rookie playing with house money?

As the only rookie to make the playoffs, Custer has clinched Rookie of the Year honors.

It’s quite an achievement for a rookie to make the playoffs any year, let alone in a season where practice has been eliminated since May. The lack of practice will make it more difficult on Custer in the playoffs.

I would definitely like some practice,” he said. “It’s one of those things that even though we’ve been to tracks like Darlington before, some of these guys have been there for 10-15 years. 

“There’s stuff as a rookie that we’d just like to try in our car to see if it was better or worse, but we don’t really have that opportunity. So we make our best educated guess on what we brought there last time and what our teammates did and what we’ve compiled through this whole year of what works and what doesn’t work. But it’s just a matter of adapting as fast as you can and try and use your notebook as best you can.”

11.  Aric Almirola (2005 points)

Can he go on another hot streak?

More playoffs drivers selected Almirola as their dark horse based on what he’s done this season.

He scored five consecutive top-five finishes in June and early July. That was part of a stretch where Almirola scored nine consecutive top 10s. But he didn’t have a win in that run.

In the last six races, though, he’s finished outside the top 10 four times. So, which Almirola and No. 10 team will show up in the playoffs?

“I am excited about the playoffs,” he said. “I do feel like we have a lot of potential. We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender, but I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”

12. Clint Bowyer  (2004 points)

Is this his last chance?

Clint Bowyer’s contract expires after this season with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Asked how confident he is of returning to the team, Bowyer said: “They’re working on that on the future and what that looks like. If it’s a part of this sport in any way shape or form I’m excited about it. … For right now it’s still about the playoffs.  It’s new life.”

With nothing to lose, this team could be one to try some unique strategies at times.

13. Ryan Blaney (2003 points)

Can he escape the first round?

With the success Blaney has had this year, this seems like a silly question. Yet, he doesn’t have a big gap on the last transfer spot and the first-round tracks are not some of his best. 

This issue became a bigger concern after NASCAR penalized the team for an inspection issue before the Southern 500. He was docked 10 points, dropping his total to 2003. He falls to the 13th seed.

He’s never finished better than 13th in seven starts at Darlington. He’s never finished better than 17th in eight starts at Richmond, the middle race in the opening round. He finished last at Bristol in May, ending a streak of three consecutive top 10s.

“You look at Richmond, the second race there, is a place we’ve struggled at over the years,” Blaney said. “It’s nice that it’s in the round of 16, but you still have to put a good race together. You can’t just run in the back all race and have a poor race like we’ve had there the last handful of years.”

14. Kyle Busch (2003 points)

Is he going to go a full year without a win?

Busch enters the playoffs winless this season, the first time he’s gone so deep into a year without a victory. He’s had at least one win in 15 consecutive Cup seasons.

Some of his competitors expect him to make a splash in the playoffs. And so does he.

I look at Darlington as a place we can go to and we can run top-five pretty good there,” Busch said. “Richmond, Bristol – those are great opportunities for us to score a victory. You get two stage wins and a win at Richmond and Bristol both and boom, you’re right back in the playoff picture.”

15. Kurt Busch (2001 points)

Might he be the dark horse?

Only co-favorites Kevin Harvick (7.4) and Denny Hamlin (8.6) have a better average finish in races run this season on playoff tracks than Busch. His average finish at the eight playoff tracks the series has raced this year is 11.4.

“I’m looking at it one race at a time,” Busch said of the playoffs. “We put ourselves in this position to be playoff-eligible and to have a shot at the championship. And so we know this is an opportunity to do something great. So, just one week at a time.

“I love Darlington. It’s one of my favorite race tracks, with Richmond and Bristol, two short tracks in this first round, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves but if we execute as a team, we’ve got a great shot at all this.”

16. Matt DiBenedetto (2000 points)

Can a driver who has never won a Cup race win the title?

DiBenedetto is winless in 202 career Cup starts. Many of those, though, were with teams that didn’t have a chance to win. It’s only this year that he’s been with a team that had a more consistent chance to do so.

He finished second at Las Vegas and third at Kentucky this year but he says it’s the shorter tracks and road courses he feels are where his team is best.

I know we can win, for sure and we will,” DiBenedetto said. “That has been my goal my entire career.

“As far as execution … I feel like you can get too caught up in focusing your race on how to win. It isn’t always the best car that wins. My focus is on how to make the most of our race car and the most of that day and not get too caught up in guys pulling away or how to get to them but focusing on yourself, your car and your team.

“Make the most of it. Maximize your day. Hopefully that puts you in position to have a shot at winning at the end of the race.”

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.

 

 

Friday 5: Will fan access to in-car cameras lead to calls for penalties?

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Did NASCAR make the right decision to penalize William Byron 25 points and $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution two days after the incident happened?

It’s a question that will be answered in Hendrick Motorsports’ appeal. 

But this reaches a broader issue. With fans having more access to video elements of the sport, how much influence could or should they have in exposing potential penalties moving forward?

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted after last weekend’s race at Texas that series officials did not see Byron hit Hamlin.

MORE: Alex Bowman to miss Talladega race 

While video from the USA broadcast suggested that Byron spun Hamlin, an official could question if Hamlin brake-checked Byron and initiated the contact as opposed to Byron running into him.

That question was cleared up three minutes after green-flag racing resumed when NASCAR’s Twitter account posted video from Byron’s in-car camera that showed him running into the back of Hamlin’s car. 

After the race, Byron admitted he ran into Hamlin, although Byron said he did not mean to spin Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin had raced him a few laps earlier, causing Byron to hit the wall.

“I didn’t mean to spin him out,” Byron said after the race. “That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did.”

The in-car camera video from Byron’s car was a view that fans can have as part of a program that began with the start of the playoffs. Fans can watch in-car camera views from every car in the race through the NASCAR Mobile App and on NASCAR Drive on NASCAR.com. 

The TV broadcast did not have access to those in-car views. Miller noted that the officials also did not have access. That likely will change.

In this case, it was NASCAR’s social media account that made people aware of what Byron did. Moving forward, what if it is a fan that spots something that officials don’t catch and TV doesn’t show? What if that fan posts a video clip of an incident from a particular in-car camera? Should that lead to a penalty either during the event or days later?

Golf faced a similar issue within the last decade before stating that effective Jan. 1, 2018, the game’s major professional tours would no longer accept calls or emails from fans who think they had spotted a rules violation. Instead, the PGA Tour, LPGA, PGA of America, among others, stated they would assign at least one official to monitor all tournament telecasts and resolve any rules issues.

“It’s a tricky deal,” Ryan Blaney said. “Especially with the rise of social media and all the accessibility that the internet can give with all these live feeds from every single car, which I think is a good idea, but there could be some controversy in certain situations.”

Those watching last weekend’s Cup race posted video of a violation. NASCAR didn’t penalize Ty Gibbs after door-slammed Ty Dillon on pit road during the race. Video clips of the incident quickly showed up on social media shortly after the incident. 

Series officials typically review the races on Tuesday and that’s an opportunity for them to assess penalties on incidents they’ve gathered more information on.

NASCAR docked Gibbs 25 points and fined him $75,000 for the incident Tuesday. It marked his second penalty this year for contact on pit road. Gibbs was fined $15,000 for hitting Sam Mayer’s car on pit road after the Xfinity race at Martinsville.

Another key is issue with officiating in any sport is if it is better to be right, even if it comes a couple of days after an event, or if is something is missed during the event, then so be it?

Section 4.4.C of the Cup Rule Book states that drivers can be docked 25-50 points (driver and team owner points), fined $50,000 – $100,000 and/or suspended a race, indefinitely or terminated for a series of events, including “Intentional wrecking another vehicle, whether or not that vehicle is removed from competition as a result.”

So, even if NASCAR had penalized Byron during the event, officials could have further penalized him on Tuesday. It’s not a situation where there is either a penalty during the race or after. It can be both. 

Ryan Blaney says he would prefer a decision made in the moment and if not, let it go.

“I don’t want to have to wonder if something is going to happen days later,” he said. “I think you’ve got to take a little bit more time and try to get things right in the moment because a lot of these things can be game-changing outcomes.”

Byron’s penalty is an example. He left Texas third in the playoff standings, 17 points above the cutline. With the penalty, he’s eight points below the cutline. 

2. Race for stage points

One of the questions going into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) is what should playoff drivers do. Should they ride at the back to help their chances of making it to the finish to score big points? Or should they run at the front and go for stage points while also being at greater risk of being collected in a crash?

Kyle Larson, who is 23 points above the cutline in third place, said he doesn’t see playoff drivers riding in the back.

“There’s so many stage points on the line, and if you can get those stage points, then even if you do wreck, you’ll have a decent points day out of it,” he said. “I foresee everybody racing pretty hard.”

Should any driver ride in the back early in a stage, they’ll likely need to be in the top 10 with 10 laps in the stage to have a good chance at stage points. 

In the spring Talladega race, 75% of the drivers in a top 10 spot with 10 laps to go in either of the first two stages finished in the top 10 and scored points.

Larson scored 17 stage points at Talladega. Add that to his fourth-place finish and he left there with 50 points. Only three other drivers scored more than 40 points that race: Martin Truex Jr. (45), Chase Elliott (44) and winner Ross Chastain (42).

All four of those drivers also were in the top 10 with 10 laps to go in the race. Chastain ran no lower than fourth in those final laps before taking the lead on the final lap. 

Chastain won that race after overcoming a pit road speeding penalty in the first stage. He did not score points in the first stage.  He got his lap back at the caution for the stage break and steadily worked his way up in the second stage, finishing ninth. 

As for his plan Sunday?

“We’re still talking through them,” Chastain said. “It’s not race day yet … we don’t have to have our plan yet. It would be bad if we already had our marching orders written down and we knew what we we were doing because it needs to be a more fluid experience. We’ll see how the race starts.”

3. RCR Turnaround

In the 14 races since NBC/USA took over broadcasting the Cup season, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing have each won a series-high four races. 

RCR’s wins have been by Tyler Reddick at Road America, Reddick at the Indianapolis road course, Austin Dillon at Daytona and Reddick last weekend at Texas. 

That’s four wins in a 13-race stretch for RCR. It took the organization 192 races to win its last four races before this recent stretch.

“The new car did level playing field,” said Andy Petree, competition director at RCR. “That was one of the things. What happened over the years is that some of these mega-teams have been able to build an advantage into their equipment.”

It’s more than that. The four wins by Reddick and Dillon double what the organization had the previous fours seasons. They’ve combined for 13 top-three finishes, including a 1-2 run at Daytona in the regular-season finale in August. 

In comparison, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott — the past two Cup champions — have combined for six wins and 12 top-three finishes this season.

Reddick and Dillon also have combined 14 top-five finishes. That equals the number of top fives the organization had the previous four seasons combined. Reddick’s 439 laps led is more than the organization’s combined total (410) the past four seasons. 

“Obviously the drivers are more important now because everything is so close,” Petree said. “The drivers can make a big difference. Our pit crews have stepped it up this year. There are a lot of reasons why we have been as successful as we’ve been.”

4. Number crunching

A few things to ponder:

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the last two races with Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher. That’s more than the organization had led in the previous 105 races combined. RFK Racing’s 417 laps led this season is the organization’s most since 2013.

The driver leading at the white flag finished fifth or worse in each of the last four Talladega races that went the full distance. Erik Jones led at the white flag in the spring race. He finished sixth.

The driver winning the Talladega Cup playoff race has never gone on to win the championship that season.

Kyle Busch is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all three races at Daytona and Talladega this season. He placed sixth in the Daytona 500. He was third at Talladega in the spring. He was 10th at Daytona in August.

A stage winner has not gone on to win the event in the last 11 races.

The 19 different winners this season is tied for the most in a season all-time with 1956, ’58, ’61 and 2001.

5. 600th race

Sunday will mark the 600th career Cup race for Rodney Childers as a Cup crew chief. He becomes the 15th crew chief in series history with at least 600 starts.

He and Kevin Harvick have been together since 2014. Their 313 races together is the longest streak among active driver/crew chief combinations. 

Harvick and Childers have combined to win 37 races, including two this season, and the 2014 championship in that stretch.