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.”

Dr. Diandra: How level is the playing field after 50 Next Gen races?


Last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 marks 50 Next Gen races. The 2022 season produced 19 different winners, including a few first-career wins. Let’s see what the data say about how level the playing field is now.

I’m comparing the first 50 Next Gen races (the 2022 season plus the first 14 races of 2023) to the 2020 season and the first 14 races of 2021. I selected those two sets of races to produce roughly the same types of tracks. I focus on top-10 finishes as a metric for performance. Below, I show the top-10 finishes for the 13 drivers who ran for the same team over the periods in question.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars, limited to drivers who ran for the same team the entire time.

Because some drivers missed races, I compare top-10 rates: the number of top-10 finishes divided by the number of races run. The graph below shows changes in top-10 rates for the drivers who fared the worst with the Next Gen car.

A graph showing drivers who have done better in the next-gen car than the Gen-6 car.

Six drivers had double-digit losses in their top-10 rates. Kevin Harvick had the largest drop, with 74% top-10 finishes in the Gen-6 sample but only 46% top-10 finishes in the first 50 Next Gen races.

Kyle Larson didn’t qualify for the graph because he ran only four races in 2020. I thought it notable, however, that despite moving from the now-defunct Chip Ganassi NASCAR team to Hendrick Motorsports, Larson’s top-10 rate fell from 66.7% to 48.0%.

The next graph shows the corresponding data for drivers who improved their finishes in the Next Gen car. This graph again includes only drivers who stayed with the same team.

A graph showing the drivers who have fewer top-10 finishes in the Next Gen car than the Gen-6 car

Alex Bowman had a marginal gain, but he missed six races this year. Therefore, his percent change value is less robust than other drivers’ numbers.

Expanding the field

I added drivers who changed teams to the dataset and highlighted them in gray.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

A couple notes on the new additions:

  • Brad Keselowski had the largest loss in top-10 rate of any driver, but that may be more attributable to his move from Team Penske to RFK Motorsports rather than to the Next Gen car.
  • Christopher Bell moved from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021. His improvement is likely overestimated due to equipment quality differences.
  • Erik Jones stayed even, but that’s after moving from JGR (13 top-10 finishes in 2020) to Richard Petty Motorsports (six top 10s in 2021.) I view that change as a net positive.

At the end of last season, I presented the tentative hypothesis that older drivers had a harder time adapting to the Next Gen car. Less practice time mitigated their experience dialing in a car so that it was to their liking given specific track conditions.

But something else leaps out from this analysis.

Is the playing field tilting again?

Michael McDowell is not Harvick-level old, but he will turn 39 this year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 35. Both have improved with the Next Gen Car. Chase Elliott (27 years old) and William Byron (25) aren’t old, either, but their top-10 rates have gone down.

Drivers running for the best-funded teams earned fewer top-10 finishes while drivers from less-funded teams (mostly) gained those finishes.

Trackhouse Racing and 23XI — two of the newest teams — account for much of the gains in top-10 finishes. Ross Chastain isn’t listed in the table because he didn’t have full-time Cup Series rides in 2020 or 2021. His 9.1% top-10 rate in that period is with lower-level equipment. He earned 27 top-10 finishes in the first 50 races (54%) with the Next Gen car.

This analysis suggests that age isn’t the only relevant variable. One interpretation of the data thus far is that the Next Gen (and its associated rules changes) eliminated the advantage well-funded teams built up over years of racing the Gen-5 and Gen-6 cars.

The question now is whether that leveling effect is wearing off. Even though parts are the same, more money means being able to hire the best people and buying more expensive computers for engineering simulations.

Compare the first 14 races of 2022 to the first 14 of 2023.

  • Last year at this time, 23XI and Trackhouse Racing had each won two races. This year, they combine for one win.
  • It took Byron eight races to win his second race of the year in 2022. This year, he won the third and fourth races of the year. Plus, he’s already won his third race this year.
  • Aside from Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win, this year’s surprise winners — Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney — are both from major teams.

We’re only 14 races into the 2023 season. There’s not enough data to determine the relative importance of age versus building a notebook for predicting success in the Next Gen car.

But this is perhaps the most important question. The Next Gen car leveled the playing field last year.

Will it stay level?

NASCAR weekend schedule at World Wide Technology Raceway, Portland


NASCAR’s top three series are racing this weekend in two different locations. Cup and Craftsman Truck teams will compete at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, and the Xfinity Series will compete at Portland International Raceway.

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Cup and Trucks)

Weekend weather

Friday: Partly cloudy with a high of 87 degrees during Truck qualifying.

Saturday: Sunny. Temperatures will be around 80 degrees for the start of Cup practice and climb to 88 degrees by the end of Cup qualifying. Forecast calls for sunny skies and a high of 93 degrees around the start of the Truck race.

Sunday: Mostly sunny with a high of 92 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 1 – 8 p.m. Craftsman Truck Series
  • 4 – 9 p.m. Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 6:30 p.m. — Truck practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. — Truck qualifying (FS1)

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series

Track activity

  • 10 – 10:45 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 10:45 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 1:30 p.m. — Truck race (160 laps, 200 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, June 4

Garage open

  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (240 laps, 300 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)


Portland International Raceway (Xfinity Series)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly sunny with a high of 77 degrees.

Saturday: Mostly sunny with a high of 73 degrees and no chance of rain around the start of the Xfinity race.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 6-11 p.m. Xfinity Series

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

  • 10 a.m.  — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 11:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Xfinity practice (No TV)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 4:30 p.m. — Xfinity race (75 laps, 147.75 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Cup playoff standings after Coca-Cola 600


The severe penalty to Chase Briscoe and his Stewart-Haas Racing team Wednesday for a counterfeit part dropped Briscoe from 17th to 31st in the season standings. Briscoe now must win a race to have a chance at the playoffs.

The penalty came a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for his retaliation in wrecking Denny Hamlin in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. Elliott is 28th in the points. The 2020 Cup champion also needs to win to have a chance to make the playoffs.

Ten drivers have won races, including Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney. That leaves six playoff spots to be determined by points at this time. With 12 races left in the regular season, including unpredictable superspeedway races at Atlanta (July 9) and Daytona (Aug. 26), the playoff standings will change during the summer.

Among those without a win this season are points leader Ross Chastain and former champions Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Elliott.

Here’s a look at the Cup playoff standings heading into Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois. Drivers in yellow have won a race and are in a playoff position. Those below the red line after 16th place are outside a playoff spot in the graphic below.

NASCAR issues major penalties to Chase Briscoe team for Charlotte infraction


NASCAR fined crew chief John Klausmeier $250,000 and suspended him six races, along with penalizing Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team 120 points and 25 playoff points each for a counterfeit part on the car.

The issue was a counterfeit engine NACA duct, said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition. That is a single-source part.

MORE: Updated Cup playoff standings

The team stated that it accepts the L3 penalty.

“We had a quality control lapse and a part that never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack ended up on the No. 14 car at Charlotte,” said Greg Zipadelli in a statement from the team. “We accept NASCAR’s decision and will not appeal.”

Asked how then piece could have aided performance, Sawyer said Wednesday: “Knowing the race team mentality, they don’t do things that would not be a benefit to them in some way, shape or form from a performance advantage.”

The penalty drops Briscoe from 17th in the season standings to 31st in the standings. Briscoe goes from having 292 points to having 172 points. He’ll have to win to make the playoffs. Briscoe has no playoff points at this time, so the penalty puts him at -25 playoff points should he make it.

Briscoe’s car was one of two taken to the R&D Center after Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 for additional tear down by series officials.

The penalty comes a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.