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.”