Playoff puzzle: Key questions for all 16 Cup title contenders

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After an unpredictable year that saw 16 different winners in the regular season and the tightest playoff field in five years, there is much to ponder as the Cup playoffs begin.

Before the green flag waves at 6 p.m. Sunday to start the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on USA Network, here’s a look at key questions for each of the 16 playoff drivers.

1. Chase Elliott (2040 points)

Is this his title to lose?

The 2020 Cup champion won the regular season crown, led the most laps and finished in the top five in seven of the last 10 races. Nobody is better going into these playoffs.

Three times in the last five years the regular season champ went on to win the series title. 

In a season where many teams have been inconsistent, Elliott has gone no more than three races without a top 10. He had a five-race stretch where he finished first or second. 

“I’m excited about these next (10) weeks and the opportunity that lies ahead for us as a team,” said Elliott, who seeks to make the championship race for a third year in a row. “I feel like our group is special. … We’ve just got to make sure we’re performing at our best when it matters and the mattering time is approaching.”

2. Joey Logano (2025 points)

Does his unique streak continue?

Since the playoff format began in 2014, Logano has made it to the championship race four times — 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20. 

Notice the pattern? 

He makes it every even-numbered year. So, of course, the 2018 Cup champion will make it to the title race at Phoenix again this year, correct? We’ll see, but it helps that the playoffs open at Darlington.

Logano won the pole there in May, led a race-high 107 laps and won after bumping William Byron out of the way. Win again and it won’t matter what happens at Kansas and Bristol in the first round since he’ll already be set for the second round. 

Another number to keep in mind with Logano: He ranks third in laps run this season. He’s completed 98.02% of the laps run this season, trailing only Michael McDowell (98.40% laps run) and Martin Truex Jr. (98.04%). Consistency is likely to be key in these playoffs. That’s another factor that favors Logano.

3. Ross Chastain (2020 points)

 Which driver will keep him from winning the title?

There’s a long line. Chastain’s first playoff experience could be impacted by how others race him.

Kyle Busch said he had been “Chastained” at Richmond after contact in the August race.

Asked at Daytona the need for give-and-take to win a championship, Busch said: “Absolutely, yes you do. You need give and take to win a championship. 

“Will (Chastain) get benefit of the doubt in situations when it comes … to the end of the playoffs and going to Phoenix? Absolutely not. No way. No chance. I don’t think people are paying him back yet because they are waiting for the right time.”

Said Kyle Larson of Chastain: “He’s done a really good job of even when he does get into moments where he has issues with other drivers in the race, he still recovers from it really well. But I feel like that can only last so long. I don’t know. 

“It will be a cool little storyline to follow in the playoffs. … I can’t imagine that with everybody that seems to be upset with him that it will be an easy playoff for him.”

4. Kyle Larson (2019 points)

No driver has won back-to-back titles in more than a decade. Can he do it?

Since Jimmie Johnson won the last of his five consecutive championships in 2010, no driver has won back-to-back crowns. The 11-year drought is the longest period in NASCAR history without a driver winning consecutive championships. 

Larson, the reigning Cup champion, has failed to finish six races this season. While he has 13 top-10 finishes, 10 of those are top fives. It’s just a matter of being more consistent.

“I think our regular season didn’t go very well, to our standards, but I don’t really know if it did for anybody,” Larson said. “Even for Chase (Elliott). I don’t even know if his regular season was up to their standards. There was just a lot of inconsistency this year throughout the regular season. 

“We had three blown engines now in the regular season, so DNFs with that. But also mistakes on my part or bad pit stops. Yes, we got a couple wins, which was nice, but we also probably gave away a couple, as well.”

Improve the execution and Larson could be on his way to possibly a second consecutive title. 

5. William Byron (2014 points)

Does momentum really matter?

Byron certainly hopes not. He has one top-10 finish in the the 18 races since his Martinsville win in April, and that was a ninth-place result at Sonoma. He has only five top-10 finishes this season.

This is not the resume of a championship team. That the playoffs begin at Darlington — where he led until he was bumped out of the way by Joey Logano with two laps left — provides some hope. But Byron noted that the team was a “top-six car” that executed well there in May.

As for the rest of the first round, which has Kansas and Bristol, Byron said:

“Kansas, I’m pretty nervous about. We got the lead there and then we had a flat tire and damaged the underbody and had a rough day after that. Bristol is exciting because Bristol is kind of like (Martinsville) and we had a good run at Bristol last year.”

Just as concerning for Byron is that he’s only nine points ahead of last place in the playoffs. That’s how tight the field is. So any woes could cost this team the chance to advance past the first round. 

6. Denny Hamlin (2013 points)

How much will he miss playoff points lost?

Quite frankly, in this unpredictable season, there are many teams that could look back at the playoff points they’ve given away.

For Hamlin, though, looking back is more painful. He had the strongest car at Dover but had a wheel fall off, and that cost him the win and five playoff points. He won Pocono but was disqualified after his car failed post-race inspection, costing him five more playoff points. 

“We’ve left an enormous amount of playoff (points) on the table from DQs to lack of execution (and) given our opponents playoff points that we know are going to be racing for cutoff spots,” said Hamlin, who seeks his fourth consecutive championship race appearance. “It’s been on us. This has been our deal. 

“This has been a frustrating year as a whole. I never actually could have imagined that we probably should have five or six wins with the Next Gen car. I thought it would take me a while to get used to it.”

But Hamlin still feels good about some of the tracks in the playoff schedule. With Darlington (1.366-mile track) and four races on 1.5-mile tracks — tracks where Toyotas have been fast — there’s a path for Hamlin or any Toyota to make it to the championship race even with some struggles at other tracks. 

7. Ryan Blaney (2013 points) 

Can he take advantage of his second chance?

He slipped into the playoffs by finishing 15th, six laps behind the leaders at Daytona last weekend. 

Even though Blaney is the only winless driver in the playoffs, he shouldn’t be overlooked. His 195 stage points ranked third among playoff drivers, trailing only Chase Elliott (235 stage points) and Joey Logano (203).

Blaney’s average finish of 13.692 ranks third among playoff drivers, behind only Elliott (10.538 average finish) and Kevin Harvick (13.308). 

Blaney does have a win. He took the checkered flag at the All-Star Race at Texas in May, and Texas hosts the opening race of the second round. 

Eventually, he’s going to need to win in the playoffs to keep advancing. 

8. Tyler Reddick (2012 points)

Can he and his team block out the distractions?

He’s signed to race for 23XI Racing in 2024. Car owner Richard Childress wasn’t happy with Reddick after the news, and they didn’t talk until after Reddick won on the Indianapolis road course. 

Reddick showed he was a team player by following Austin Dillon across the finish line at Daytona, assuring Dillon the win and putting both Richard Childress Racing cars n the playoffs.

Still, it’s an unusual situation that Reddick and RCR are in, knowing when their time together will cease. Reddick has shown his commitment to the organization. Childress said the team is committed, as well. This could be one team to watch in the playoffs. 

9. Kevin Harvick (2012 points)

Has the team turned things around enough to make a title run?

The back-to-back wins at Michigan and Richmond in August revitalized what some would consider a sleeping giant. 

The team still has work to do, but Harvick was fourth at Darlington in May and nearly won at Bristol in the playoffs last year, so he could be headed for a good start in the opening round.

Last year was the first time Harvick failed to reach at least the third round of the playoffs. He was eliminated after the second round. Harvick has made the title race five times, winning the crown in 2014. But he last made the championship event in 2019.

10. Christopher Bell (2011 points)

Could he be the surprise that goes deep into the playoffs?

He’s one of three Toyota drivers in the playoffs, joining Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. The Toyotas have been strong on the 1.5-mile tracks. 

That provides a pathway for Toyotas to get to the championship. There are four 1.5-mile tracks in the playoffs. Kansas is in the first round. Texas is in the second. Las Vegas and Homestead are in the third round. 

“I think that the race tracks really play into our hands for sure,” Bell said. “I would expect Darlington, Kansas, Homestead, Texas, Vegas – all of those race tracks to be ones that we perform well at. The Roval is definitely one that we have circled – on a place that we need to focus on to get better. That’s no secret. The tracks are there, so hopefully we are able to execute on the tracks that we are good at and have great showings.”

11. Kyle Busch (2010 points)

Will off-track distractions slow him down or will he overcome to be a three-time champion?

The only active driver with two Cup championships has not announced where he’ll race next season. 

He noted in August at Watkins Glen the toll that the process had taken on him off the track. Now he comes into the playoffs with that still unresolved and with a team that has struggled at times. He has 13 top 10s and is on pace for his fewest top 10s in the last six years. 

Busch last made the title race in 2019. Should he advance to the final four drivers racing for a title, it would mark a record sixth time he’s done so. 

12. Chase Briscoe (2009 points)

Can he and his turn reset after a rough regular season?

Like Byron, Briscoe has had only one top-10 finish in the last 18 races. That’s not championship caliber. That might not get Briscoe, who is making his first Cup playoff appearance, out of the first round. 

“I feel like we’ve had speed every week, but … we run anywhere from seven to 12th for a lot of the race and then we finish 18th to 23rd the last 60 laps, where other teams have kind of done the opposite,” Briscoe said. 

“They run 17th to 21st a lot of the day and then at the end they find themselves from seventh to 12th. For us, it’s kind of nice to have a little bit of a reset button. I know we have the speed, it’s just a matter of putting the whole race together.”

13. Daniel Suarez (2007 points)

Can he win a title two years after not having a single top-15 finish?

With the success Daniel Suarez has had in his second year at Trackhouse Racing, it’s easy to forget how far he had fallen in 2020.

He drove for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019 but was replaced after the season by Cole Custer. With few options, Suarez drove for Gaunt Brothers Racing and never finished higher than 18th in a race. He left after that season to join Justin Marks’ venture at Trackhouse Racing, going from a low-budget team to a new organization. 

Two years later, Suarez has the chance to run for a championship. If he wins, he may have some offers wanting to turn his story into one of those inspirational sports movies. But there’s still plenty of work to do to get there.

14. Austin Cindric  (2006 points)

Will the Daytona 500 champion end the year as a champion?

Only twice since 1998 has the Daytona 500 champion gone on to win the series title that same season. Jimmie Johnson did it both times (2006 and 2013). Austin Cindric seeks to be the next to do so.

Cindric, who joins Briscoe, Suarez and Chastain in making his first Cup playoff appearance, says that the tight field helps him.

“You can look at it from, ‘Oh, I’m three below (the cutoff for the first round) and have some of the fewest playoff points,’ but I can also look at it as eight points puts me fifth,” Cindric said. “Think about how easy it is to gain and lose eight points over three races.”

15. Alex Bowman (2006 points)

Can summer woes lead to playoff gains?

When the series last headed to Darlington in May, Bowman was fifth in points and had seven top 10s, including a win, in the first 11 races.

He’s not won since and had only three top 10s in the last 15 races. 

“The summer has been pretty terrible for us,” Bowman said. “Kind of par for the course, but we’ve shown we can have strong playoff runs, too. 

“Darlington is probably my biggest question mark right off the bat just because we were so bad in the spring. We are fairly certain we know exactly why, but you don’t get to test. You’ve got to go to the race track thinking you have the right thing and hopefully we do when we unload because you can’t change it if you don’t.

“If we can get through some of those race tracks that have been kind of rough on us this year, I think we’ll be really good.”

16. Austin Dillon (2005 points)

Can he throw another Hail Mary?

Running 16th, Dillon took the lead at Daytona when the top 15 cars crashed in rain. Then he waited more than three hours for the race to resume and get back in the lead after he was passed. He did and won to make the playoffs in the last chance to do so.

Should he win the Cup title, he’d become the first driver in NASCAR history to win a championship in the Truck Series (2011), Xfinity Series (2013) and Cup.

“We’re just going to have to go to work and really rely on the sim at Chevrolet and at RCR,” Dillon said of what it will take to get through the first round. “It won’t be from a lack of effort over the next three weeks to progress and try to get another win.”

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.

Sunday Clash at the Coliseum: Start time, TV info, race format

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LOS ANGELES – NASCAR is back and back at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Nearly three months after Joey Logano won the Cup title at Phoenix, Cup drivers return to action this weekend to run the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race on Sunday night.

This marks the second consecutive year the series has raced inside the Coliseum, which has hosted the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympics.

Details for Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum 

(All times Eastern)

HEAT RACES: There will be four 25-lap heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top five from each race advance to the Busch Light Clash. The first heat race is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.

LAST CHANCE QUALIFIERS: There will be two 50-lap qualifiers for drivers who did not advance to the Clash through their heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top three finishers in each of the qualifiers advance to the Clash. The 27-car Clash lineup will be finalized by adding one provisional spot for the driver highest in points last season not yet in the Clash field. The first of these two last chance qualifying races is scheduled to begin at 6:10 p.m.

CLASH STARTING LINEUP: To be set by heat races and the Last Chance Qualifiers. Winner of heat 1 will start on the pole for the Clash. Winner of heat 2 will start second. Winner of heat 3 will start third. Winner of heat 4 will start 4th. Runner-up in heat 1 will start fifth and so on.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 11 a.m. … Driver intros are at 7:50 p.m. … Invocation by Judah Smith, lead pastor of Churchome, at 8:07 p.m. … The USC Trojan Marching Band will perform the national anthem at 8:08 p.m. … Actor Rob Lowe will give the command to fire engines at 8:15 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to be waved by USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams at 8:20 p.m.

DISTANCE: The Clash is 150 laps (37.5 miles) on the 1/4-mile short track.

STAGES: There will be a stage break at Lap 75 (halfway in the Clash). Wiz Khalifa will perform during the break.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the event, beginning at 4 p.m. . … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Partly cloudy with a high of 63 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the start of the heat races. Partly cloudy with a high of 61 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the Clash..

LAST TIME: Joey Logano held off Kyle Busch to win the inaugural Clash at the Coliseum. Austin Dillon placed third. .

Catch up on NBC Sports coverage

New NASCAR season features several changes

Clash at the Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing 

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

Drivers to watch at Clash in Coliseum

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

Looking back on 10 historic moments in the Clash

 

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR drivers are scheduled to hit the track today in competitive mode for the first time in 2023.

Practice is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. on the oval inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Single-car qualifying for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum is scheduled to begin at 8:35 p.m. (ET). The 36 drivers will be divided into three 12-driver groups for practice.

Cup practice groups

Cup qualfying order

Saturday’s qualifying will set the starting lineups for Sunday’s four 25-lap heat races. The top five finishers in each heat race will advance to the main event. Two 50-lap “last chance” races will follow, and the top three finishers in each of those events will join the feature field.

The 150-lap main event is scheduled at 8 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

For the second consecutive year, the Clash is being held on a purpose-built track inside the LA Coliseum, one of sport’s iconic venues. Joey Logano won last year’s race and last year’s series championship and will be among the favorites Sunday.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High 71.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)