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

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After 26 races this season, there’s no telling what will happen during the Cup playoffs.

The difference between second and 16th in the points is as close as it has been in recent years. Only 22 points separate second and last among the playoff field. Last year, that gap was 47 points at the start of the playoffs. In 2019, it was 30 points. In 2018, the gap was 50 points.

“If you have one bad race in one playoff round, it’s like six bad races in a row in the regular season,” Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports. “The implications are that high.”

The pressure builds leading into Sunday’s Southern 500 playoff opener at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Before the green flag waves, here’s a look at a key question for each of the 16 playoff drivers:

1. Kyle Larson (2052 points)

Is this title his to lose?

Larson is the motorsports version of a big-game hunter, having won such major races this year as the Coca-Cola 600, the All-Star Race, the Chili Bowl Nationals and the Knoxville Nationals.

But his last championship?

It came in 2012 when he won a title in what was then called the K&N Pro Series East.

“I haven’t really gotten to race for a lot of championships,” Larson told NBC Sports, referring to his racing career before moving to NASCAR. “Once I got to NASCAR, that’s kind of the only championships I’ve chased.”

This is Larson’s fifth Cup playoff appearance. He’s never made it to the championship race.

But he’s never had a season like this, winning five points races, scoring 52 playoff points and claiming the title for the regular season. He finished first or second in 10 of the 26 races in the regular season.

“It would mean a lot to us and our race team and all of us,” Larson said of winning the title this season. “This team was the 48 team before I came, and a lot of them on the team have experienced a lot of championships with Jimmie (Johnson). Those last three years of his career were tough on everybody. … If we’re able to win it, it would kind of reward all those guys for their hard work for the past few seasons. That would be the coolest thing to me.”

2. Ryan Blaney (2024 points)

Can he ride the momentum to a championship?

No one comes into the playoffs hotter than Blaney. He won the last two races of the regular season and finished second in the race before his winning streak began.

Blaney is making his fifth playoff appearance. Twice he reached the Round of 8 but failed to reach the title race. Chase Elliott had never made it to the championship race until last year and he won his first crown. Could Blaney follow his friend and win his first Cup championship this year?

One thing certain about Blaney is his growth as a driver and team leader at Team Penske.

“I feel like young Ryan Blaney is gone,” teammate Joey Logano told NBC Sports. “It’s Ryan Blaney the race car driver now, where he has learned how to finish races. He’s learned how to position himself toward the front and take advantage of an opportunity when he may not have the fastest car. That’s how you win. That’s how those things happen.

“To see him do that, on top of the teammate he’s been to me lately and how assertive he is in our team meetings in guiding us along and doing his fair share and his role there, all those are great things to see in a teammate.”

3. Martin Truex Jr. (2024 points)

Do wins earlier in the year at Darlington, Martinsville and Phoenix still matter?

Truex was viewed as the title favorite when he won three races at tracks that will host key playoff races earlier this season.

But the results lately have one wondering if he’ll be a title contender when the series competes at Martinsville and Phoenix to end the season.

Truex has four top-10 finishes in the last 10 races.

“It’s just been a tough summer,” he said.

Two pit road penalties and a late stop for fuel led to a 22nd-place finish at Nashville in June. He ran less than half the race in the top 15, finishing 18th in the first Pocono race. He finished ninth at Road America but it could have been better. Pit strategy was going to put him in the lead, but he was caught speeding on pit road.

Running second in the early laps at New Hampshire, he hit the wall when NASCAR did not call a caution for rain soon enough. He had to pit early for tire rub after contact at the Indianapolis road course and later was involved in an incident before finishing 15th. At Michigan, he was hit from behind early and the team had to make repairs before he finished 10th.

“We’ve been fast,” Truex said. “We’ve just had a lot of hurdles to overcome, so that’s been tough. We’ve been fast, and I feel good about the team. The pit crew has gelled. They are clicking well, and things are going well there. I feel fine. I’m not worried at all.”

4. Kyle Busch (2022 points)

Is he the favorite to top the Hendrick drivers for the championship?

Hendrick Motorsports is the favorite entering the playoffs. Even with Ryan Blaney’s two-race winning streak, Kyle Busch has been one of the strongest drivers with seven top-five finishes in the last 12 races.

“The Hendrick guys obviously are strong,” Busch said. “We’ve had our years of dominance where you have asked all those drivers ‘Where is Toyota beating you? Why are they better?’ I get it, but it’s just a thing where we’ve got to work hard with what we’ve got.

“Unfortunately, we feel as though we have to be perfect in order to compete with them. They don’t have to be perfect and are still going to be fast. But we wouldn’t be close if we weren’t perfect.

“That lends itself to a much tighter box that we have to race in, and it’s just due to the (parts freeze with the Next Gen car debuting next season).

“There’s nothing going on. There’s no development going on. Everything is really, really limited with the stuff that you can do. Everything is all built out with what you’ve got because of the new car coming, so that’s how I see it.”

5. CHASE ELLIOTT (2021 points)

What will it take to repeat?

Elliott has said that winning last year’s championship didn’t change much for him. He goes into these playoffs taking a similar approach to last year.

“To me, the message is really no different than it was last year,” he said. “To me, it’s just about enjoying those big moments. If you don’t enjoy them, you’re never going to thrive in them. A big moment typically means it means something to you and it typically means there’s opportunity for something big at the end of it.  

You have to like it. I mean, that’s to me the biggest piece of the whole puzzle. I don’t think that message will ever change, whether you have zero championships, or you have 15. I feel like that’s the single most important piece of how this playoff format works. It promotes winning, and winning in big situations.”

Elliott enters the playoffs with 12 top-10 finishes in the last 16 races of the regular season.

6. Alex Bowman (2015 points)

Can this team find the consistency to be a title contender?

Bowman has three wins but also has seven finishes of 20th or worse. He has not had more than four top 10s in a row this season.

“We’re just not consistent,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “We’re streaky. Can be really good for a couple of weeks and then struggle.”

Last year, the Hendrick Motorsports driver finished sixth in points after reaching the Round of 8.

“Last year we had a great playoff run,” he said.

It’s just a matter of if this team can build on that and find the consistency that has been lacking this season. If so, Bowman could be one to watch during these final 10 races.

7. DENNY HAMLIN (2015 points)

Can he go from not winning a race in the regular season to winning his first Cup crown?

Hamlin led the points for much of the year until Kyle Larson passed him late in the regular season. The consistency has been there for Hamlin, but he hasn’t won this season.

Hamlin scored more points than any playoff driver at the seven tracks the series raced this season that will host playoff races — this doesn’t include Bristol since it was dirt in the spring. Hamlin had 299 points, avenging 42.7 pints per race.

That will get him only so far. He’ll likely have to win at some point to reach the title race for a third consecutive year.

This is the 15th time Hamlin has been in the playoffs, tied for most in series history. Yet, he still is looking for his first Cup crown.

“I have to make sure I do my job to 100%,” he told NBC Sports. “Hopefully, the car is fast enough, and hopefully the breaks fall my way. They haven’t yet. You keep showing up in the final four and eventually they will.”

8. William Byron (2014 points)

Will lessons learned from last year’s early exit fuel a long playoff run?

Byron is the only drive to score a top-10 finish this season at every track that will host a playoff race (that includes Bristol, which was a dirt race in the spring).

If he can continue that, he could go deep into the playoffs and avoid repeating the disappointment of last year’s playoffs when he was eliminated after the first round. That memory fuels him.

“How much of a bummer it was to be out that early and how much of the season was left that we didn’t really get to compete for,” Byron told NBC Sports about the lingering memories of last year’s playoffs. “It was a lot of time spent thinking. Having an early exit like that is just tough.”

9. JOEY LOGANO (2013 points)

Can he avoid the odd-year hex?

Logano has made the championship race four times, winning the title once. All four championship race appearances came in even-numbered years: 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20.

He reached the Round of 8 in 2015 and ’19 but did not advance to the title race. Logano missed the playoffs in 2017. If you’re into numerology, this isn’t a good sign for Logano this season.

Logano isn’t focused on such numbers, though.

“These next 10 weeks are, in my mind, really fun,” he told NBC Sports. “They’re hard, they’re grueling and they’re sometimes stressful, but you always become better at the end of it. Ether way, win or lose, you become better. I guess that’s what drives me. I want to be better tomorrow than I am today. The playoffs allow you to do that.”

10. Brad Keselowski (2008 points)

Can he win one more title before leaving Team Penske?

Keselowski used the slogan “Why not us” for last year’s playoff run. It almost worked. He finished second to Chase Elliott and would have won the title had the team’s execution been better on pit road at Phoenix.

Keselowski said he doesn’t have a slogan for this year’s playoff. If he so chooses, it could simply be something like “One last ride,” as he completes his tenure at Team Penske this season before moving to Roush Fenway Racing next year.

Of course, a rallying cry doesn’t have to be just a saying. It could just as easily be a song, he noted. Keselowski said that he started listening to a lot of music by U2 this summer

“That was my inspirational band,” he told NBC Sports.

“It just came on one of my playlists and it just hit me. Just a feeling. I think it was really part of the emotional experience of leaving Penske and the new opportunities.”

After winning a Cup title in 2012, he continues to search for his second title.

Or as U2 sings: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

Should he win that title this year, he could say, as U2 sings, that it would be a “Beautiful Day.”

11. Kurt Busch (2008 points)

Can a team that will go away this season win the title?

Trackhouse Racing’s purchase of Chip Ganassi Racing this season means that Ganassi will go away from NASCAR after this year.

If Busch won the championship, it would be quite a way to exit the series. The challenge, though, is that team members could be worried about their future and looking for new jobs while in the playoffs.

Busch, who is in his 15th Cup playoffs, told NBC Sports that he spoke to the team after his Atlanta win and urged the team to focus ahead.

“We’ve got these 10 weeks in the playoffs that I need everybody to focus on the hood ornament of their car — just stay focused on what’s right in front of you and then things will unfold for the future where you don’t have to panic,” Busch said he told the team.

“I’m asking everybody, stay committed, stay with us, stay focused right now, but know that we are winners here. We’re in the playoffs. We’ve won races together. Your resumes have been built up even stronger to be more successful later on.”

12. Christopher Bell (2005 points)

Can he deliver Joe Gibbs Racing another title?

Bell makes his first Cup playoff appearance and is confident even though he starts behind much of the field because of limited playoff points.

Asked this week why someone should bet on him to win the title, Bell had plenty to say.

“You should bet on me because the tracks in the playoffs are all really good racetracks for us,” he said. “No. 2, we definitely have been getting better over the course of the season. We haven’t put it all together yet to be a championship-caliber team, but I think we’re headed in that direction.

“Round 1 should be a really good round for us. We’ve been to two tracks this year, and they’ve been two of my best races this year. Bristol is a great racetrack for Joe Gibbs Racing and a great racetrack for me.

“Charlotte Roval, a road course we should be extremely strong at, and I almost won Texas last year. The path is there. Just have to see if we can execute and get better.”

13. Michael McDowell (2005 points)

Is he just happy to be in the playoffs?

He’s happy but that doesn’t mean the Daytona 500 winner is satisfied.

“I feel like we have the speed and the momentum to surprise some people in the playoffs, but we’re also realistic of where we’re at,” the Front Row Motorsports driver said.

“I have to have three incredible races in order to advance in the next round, and I know that. We know that. We’re not naive to it.

“We know where we’re at as a race team and what we need to do, so we’ve got to hit home runs here the next three races. If we don’t, we won’t advance. We all know that and we’re ready to see what happens.”

14. Aric Almirola (2005 points)

After struggles this season, will this team take big gambles in the playoffs? 

Almirola finished the regular season with the fewest points of the playoff drivers. He was 23rd in the points before the reset for playoff drivers. Almirola earned his playoff spot with a win at New Hampshire.

This season has not been easy for the No. 10 team at Stewart-Haas Racing. Almirola has six finishes of 30th or worse. He placed 20th or worse in 12 of the season’s first 16 races.

Since Nashville, this team has shown progress, scoring a win and nine top-20 finishes in the last 10 races.

Still, that likely won’t be enough to advance far in the playoffs. So, is it time for this team to take some big gambles in the playoffs?

“Taking big swings and going off on science experiments rarely works,” Almirola said. “You’re throwing darts hoping that one sticks. You have to go off knowledge you have, a notebook you have. And make smart, educated decisions.

“We’re not in a situation of throwing caution to the wind with Hail Marys or science experiments for setups. It’s about maximizing what we do have. We know our 750 package is good. Let’s be great at that. Let’s run all the races that are short tracks or 750 packages. Let’s be great on those days.

“The 550s, let’s score every point and get the best finish we can. If we find ourselves in a situation to pull something off strategy-wise, we’ll evaluate it. Our mindset is focus on the details. Do all the little things right. Score every point you can.”

15. Tyler Reddick (2003 points)

Will the grind wear down this team in the playoffs?

Six races into the season, Reddick was 28th in the points. He and his Richard Childress Racing team had to claw their way back into playoff contention and hold off teammate Austin Dillon in the final weeks of the regular season.

“We have kind of had to just grind, grind, grind to get out of the hole we were in,” Reddick told NBC Sports. “I think having that mindset going into this of ‘get the finish, get the finish, be consistent, score points if we can,’ is good, especially for this first round.”

But could that grind earlier this year prove to be too much and wear this team down in the playoffs?

“I don’t feel like it’s gotten to that point at all,” Reddick said. “If anything, we’re becoming more and more bought into our process and how we go about things because it’s shown to work for us so well this year.”

16. Kevin Harvick (2002 points)

Will he make it out of the first round?

This has been a difficult year for Stewart-Haas Racing, which has one win this season. Harvick, who won nine races last year, remains winless this season.

Even with the struggles this team has had, Harvick scored 16 top-10 finishes this year.

“I’ve been through 10 races in the playoffs a number of times and they’re all different,” Harvick told NBC Sports. “You have to be prepared for anything.

“As you look at the past, it never goes as planned. There are always things that happen are unexpected. Every lap matters and you’ve got to make each one of them count and try to make as few as mistakes as possible and see where it all lands in the end.”

Harvick said he’s not making any changes for the playoffs after the way the regular season has gone.

“You have the same preparation,” he said. “You can’t just go in and start changing things and say ‘I’m going to do this different, that different, this different and that different’ because it just never works.”

Friday 5: Is it time to change how NASCAR champion is determined?

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Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both raise questions about how NASCAR determines its champion with a one-race event after whittling the 16-driver playoff field to four through a trio of three-race rounds.

Since 2014, the driver who finished the highest among the four championship contenders in the season finale won the title. The format creates a Game 7 type of moment for the sport in an event that has become a winner-take-all race. Joey Logano won the season finale at Phoenix to win his second Cup title. Ty Gibbs claimed the Xfinity title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. Zane Smith won the Truck title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. 

Thursday, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series announced a new way of determining its series champion that mirrors the NASCAR format. The late model series will cut its field of playoff drivers through eliminations, leading to one race where the four remaining championship contenders will vie for the title in 2023.

One of the questions with the NASCAR format is if it provides the most fair way to determine a series champion. Of course, the NFL determines its champion by the Super Bowl, a winner-take-all game. The best team hasn’t always reached that game or won that game, but the event has been played for more than 50 years with no change in sight.

Those who question NASCAR’s way of determining a champion note that the Super Bowl is between two teams, while the championship race for Cup, Xfinity and the Truck Series not only includes the four teams racing for a crown but also the rest of the field, which can include 30 more vehicles. What those drivers and teams do can make an impact on the race and play a role in who wins the championship.

“I think Dale Jr. covered it perfectly,” Hamlin said. “Should one season come down to this three-hour window?”

Hamlin, who seeks his first Cup title, says that the previous Cup champions have been worthy and admits that “I’m the last one that should comment on this” because he doesn’t have a title. 

Still, he raises questions.

“From a purist’s standpoint, it needs to have a bigger sample size,” he said.

Hamlin notes how he knew he wouldn’t win the 2020 Cup title even though he was among the four contenders because his team was not as strong at the shorter tracks such as Phoenix. 

“If you had more of a sample size, you have a chance,” he said. 

Earnhardt expressed the questions he had about the format when he spoke with former NASCAR Chairman Brian France on the Dale Jr. Download this fall.

Earnhardt said the playoff format, which features three-race rounds, is “compelling. It can be argued that it’s relatively fair. Everybody’s got the same opportunity. It’s three races. You can kind of dig yourself out of a hole. But I’ve always kind of struggled with the final race being all or nothing.

“The reason why I struggle with that is because the venue may suit a team or a driver. … You wouldn’t ever consider running it at a road course or a superspeedway because that certainly suits some drivers more than other. You try to have it at a neutral facility, if you will, like a Homestead or a Phoenix.

“But I always had a hard time with saying, ‘OK, it all boils down to this one race where you’ve got to get it right and if you don’t you’re not a champion this year.’ Even though you’ve really got this amazing body of work. You can still have that guy that wins one race be the champion and the guy that wins six not even make the final round.

“I wish we could figure out a way to make that championship moment not an all or nothing three-hour affair. … I’ve really warmed up to everything else we’ve done. It took me a long time because I was too much of traditionalist. But I still feel like there’s got to be a better scenario for the final moment.”

France responded to Earnhardt’s query by saying: “The reason you feel that way is because those are fair points that you make. They are.”

France went on to say that such questions are “part of the challenge of a playoff format in general with auto racing. You’re just going to have to accept that is not exactly perfect.”

France then said: “My decision was we’re not going to hold ourselves back from getting those (Game 7) moments because auto racing doesn’t quite fit perfectly into that. We just couldn’t do it.”

NASCAR changed how its champion was crowned ahead of the 2004 season. From 2000-03, three champions were so far ahead in the points that they clinched the title with one race left in the season (Bobby Labonte in 2000, Jeff Gordon in 2001 and Matt Kenseth in 2003). 

The Chase was created to generate interest in the fall, particularly when NASCAR was going against the NFL on Sundays. The Chase morphed into the playoffs and included eliminations and one race to determine the champion. 

Hamlin says a three-race round to determine the champion will keep the interest of fans.

“I think when you spread it out amongst a bigger sample size, such as a three-race (round), I don’t see how that’s not a positive thing for ratings. People will be compelled every week to tune in because this is the championship round. I think there’s something to be gained there.”

Asked about what if one of the title contenders wins the first two races to all but assure them the title ahead of the final race, Hamlin said: “Will not happen. There’ll be no lockup. No one will be locked going into the final race.”

Hamlin acknowledges that his viewpoint will not be shared by all.

“I’m a traditionalist like Dale,” Hamlin said. “This is just my opinion. I think that everyone is going to have a different opinion on it, but I just believe a larger sample size of our champion makes it more legitimate. I think it would be hard for anyone to argue that, especially in the industry. 

“If you ask the drivers, ‘Do you see championships as valuable today as they did 10 years ago?’ I don’t think any one considers them as valuable just because it’s one race. It’s one race.”

2. Plugged in

Tyler Reddick moves to 23XI Racing and will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as his bosses. Reddick says that Jordan is not an absent owner.

“We’ve gotten to spend time (together) a little bit, here and there,” Reddick said of Jordan. “His involvement with the team is, I think, more than most realize.”

Reddick referenced the Martinsville race in October when he pulled out of the event because he wasn’t feeling well after contact on the track. Jordan reached out to Reddick afterward.

“It was really cool that you have a guy like him checking in on you to make sure you’re OK,” Reddick said. “He’s definitely locked in, and he really wants the team to do well. I’m excited to be working with him.”

3. Staying home

Kyle Larson said he will race very little this offseason. He’s staying at home for the birth of his third child with wife Katelyn Sweet.

Larson will compete in the Wild West Shootout, a dirt late model event at Vado (New Mexico) Speedway Park on Jan. 7-8 and Jan. 11-15.

Larson will not compete in the Chili Bowl this year. 

He said his focus will be on family this offseason.

“Help out where I can and just spend as much time with the family,” Larson said. “I normally go race a lot, but this year I’m not. I’m actually excited about it. I’ve only run one race so far this offseason. I’m surprised that it already feels like the offseason is going by really fast because I thought it’d be really slow with me not racing. It’s been good to just not race for once.”

4. Looking to improve

Ryan Blaney said he and crew chief Jonathan Hassler have looked back on the season and compiled a list of things to do for next year.

Blaney won the All-Star Race but did not win any points races. He finished eighth in points. It’s the sixth consecutive year he’s finished in the top 10 in points, but he’s never placed higher than seventh in the standings at the end of a season.

“We were up front so many races and led a lot of laps and won a bunch of stages, just never won (a points race),” Blaney said. “It is kind of a bummer. 

“So what kept us out of victory lane? Was it me? Was it a bad pit stop? It was kind of everything in some certain races. Sometimes they don’t work out for you. Some are self-induced. I felt like we took ourselves out of a handful of races I felt like we had a good shot of winning. … It is a bummer we didn’t win, but I was proud of the consistency and just hope to build on that.” 

Blaney is ready for the new season to begin.

“I’m kind of like two weeks is nice and then I kind of get itching to get back going,” he said. “It is nice to reset, and you kind of go through things you want to be better at. You have your own little list between myself and my team. … It’s a perfect time to work on that stuff.”

5. New partnership 

Among the new driver/crew chief pairings for 2023 is Austin Dillon working with Keith Rodden.

Rodden last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne. Rodden served as crew chief for William Byron in one race in 2020 but returns to full-time duty with Dillon, who finished 11th in points this past season, tying his career best. 

Rodden most recently worked on the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors. He takes over for Justin Alexander.

“Keith and I first got to work together in a wheel-force test for the Next Gen car at Richmond,” Dillon said. “It was a two-day test. We had dinner that night. It was good to talk to him. … Just knowing his passion was still very high to get back to the Cup level and crew chief. Him having the ability the work with Chevy this past year and seeing the different odds and ends of the Next Gen car was really the key to us (for him) to come over and crew chief for.”

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

MORE: Dr. Diandra: The best driver of 2022

MORE: RCR reveals Kyle Busch sponsors 

The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.