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.
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.”